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mad as the sea and wind

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Matteo watches rings of smoke drift higher and higher, expanding, vanishing, each one a little galaxy, wispy edges alive and evanescent in a beam of sunlight. He exhales. Smoke plumes from his nose.

He is too high to go to class. Jonas flicks the side of his head.

“Are you gonna go today?” Jonas asks. Matteo looks at him. It was not so long ago that little flick would’ve played over and over again in Matteo’s mind. That little flick would’ve been enough for Matteo to chew on for weeks. But now he and Jonas live in the same dorm room. He has seen enough girls rotate through Jonas’s bed and endured enough mornings of Jonas stripping off his shirt and suffered enough nights of Jonas drunkenly swinging an arm around Matteo’s shoulders to know what he has always known, since he was young, since he first laid eyes on him. He was content to be Jonas’s best friend, his Luigi, the only little bitch in his life. It was never gonna be anything more than that.

And Matteo was fine with that. He was fine with that. He was really, really fine with that. He was.

“Matteo?” Jonas waves his hand in Matteo’s face. He blinks slowly, drowsily. “You in there?”

“Sorry,” Matteo says. “What?”

“I said, are you going today?”

“Going where?”

Jonas shakes his head. “Isn’t your first class this morning?”

Matteo looks at his phone. He meant to put his new class schedule in his calendar, but of course he’d forgotten. “Shit.”

“What’s the class?”

Matteo scrubs a hand over his eyes. “Fuck. I don’t even remember.”

“You should take that class I told you about. It’s in the theater department.”

“Jonas, man, I’m not taking a fucking theatre class.”

“You should. It’s called like—Alexandria Technique. Something like that. Maybe Alexander. It’s literally just breathing exercises. Sometimes yoga. Plus, the professor’s really hot. Last term there was only like, ten of us, just a bunch of girls who want to be actresses. It was a total joke. You should take it.”

Matteo ashes the joint in a soda can next to his bed. Beside it is his grinder and the rest of his bag of weed—just a few crumbs from the last eighth he bought. Next time he should go for the pound, he thinks. He usually gets through his eighths a few days after he buys them.

“What else are you taking?” Jonas asks.

“I don’t remember.” He genuinely doesn’t remember. An Intermediate Spanish class, he’s pretty sure. Some class on Political Economy where they just read Marx’s Capital all term. Some science class Amira bullied him into taking.

“Well, you need an arts elective to graduate anyways,” says Jonas.

“How do I sign up?”

“We’re still in add/drop period,” says Jonas. “Just go to the registrar.”

Jonas swings his backpack onto his shoulder and walks to the door.

“And maybe, uh, lay off the wake and bake, Luigi,” says Jonas, “You’re gonna go broke, man.”

Matteo slumps back into the pillows and listens to the door click shut.

 

 

It’s two PM when Matteo finally leaves his dorm room. He drops into the cafeteria, buys a mini box of cereal and eats it dry, straight from the box, as he walks to the registrar.

He is pouring crumbs into his mouth when someone collides into him, hard. Matteo stumbles back dazedly. The empty cereal box falls to the ground.

Matteo looks up. He sees eyelashes. Sooty, black, perfect eyelashes. Light glints off a silver septum piercing.

A boy is staring at him. Those eyelashes dip down, then drag up, slowly, appraisingly. He meets Matteo’s eyes. Matteo is helpless to stare back. He feels like a fish on a hook.

“I’m sorry,” says Matteo. “I didn’t see you.”

The boy has a beanie pulled low over his ears, and Matteo can just make out thick, dark hair curling under the hem. There are headphones slung around his neck, and he’s wearing a black sweatshirt. His eyes flick down to Matteo’s shirt, and Matteo cringes a little, unthinking. He is wearing his baggiest blue t-shirt, and he hasn’t washed it in a while. He wouldn’t be surprised if there were stains on it.

“You have some, uh,” the boy points at Matteo’s shirt front, “some crumbs, or something.”

Matteo looks down. Fucking Cinnamon Toast Crunch on his shirt collar. He fights the urge to sink down to the floor.

He looks up. The boy puts his headphones on and the corner of his mouth lifts, ever so slightly, before he walks past Matteo out the door.

Matteo stands in the hallway for a full ten seconds before he remembers why he entered this building in the first place.

 

 

“Hey, is this, uh, 290A?” Matteo asks a blonde-haired girl standing near the door. He’s pretty sure he’s seen her before at a few of Carlos and Kiki’s parties last term.  

“290C,” she says, with a kind smile.

Matteo looks around the room. He’s in the basement of the performing arts center, and there are no windows in the classroom. The floor and walls are a dark burgundy, with patchy carpet and a smell like stale cigarettes.

“Your name’s Matteo, right?” she says. “I’m Sara, by the way. Didn’t think I’d ever see you in a theatre class. I thought you studied…what do you study, again?”

Matteo doesn’t study anything. He just takes whatever Jonas or Amira or Carlos tells him he should take.

“Oh, you know, this and that,” says Matteo distractedly. A woman has walked into the room holding a clipboard. He assumes she’s the professor. Matteo looks around: though they are chairs pushed against the walls, everyone has begun to form a circle on the floor.

Sara is still looking at him, expectant. Matteo sits next to her, already itching to leave. He barely recognizes anybody here, but he can read their clothing, their body language, their wild jewelry and pretentious hair cuts well enough to know that this isn’t his scene. He doesn’t belong here.

At least he just has to do breathing exercises. But he should have asked Jonas more questions. Does he have to partner up for these breathing exercises? Does he have to hold someone’s hands? Does he need to make eye contact? Do trust falls?

He can still feel the Sara’s eyes on the side of his face. A few people send curious glances in Matteo’s direction. But it’s too late to leave. Too obvious.

“Hi everyone,” the professor greets. She’s young, this professor. Dark hair cut dramatically to her chin. Clear-framed glasses, dark red lipstick. Jonas described her as “hot.” Matteo sighs and leans back on his elbows. “Welcome to 290C. I understand some of you never took 290B, the Intermediate Acting Workshop—this is fine with me, but if have any questions or concerns, feel free to see me after class today or during my office hours. First off, I want to go over my expectations for the course—”

He’s in the wrong class.

“—one monologue, one dialogue, a dialogue-less scene performed with a scene partner, and of course participation in our end-of-term production—”

"Are you okay?” Sara whispers. Matteo glances at her under his eyelashes. The professor is pacing around the perimeter of the room.

“Yeah, why?”

“Your foot’s been tapping like a mile a minute,” Sara whispers. Matteo looks down. He hadn't even noticed.

“Is everything alright?” The professor's voice rings out across the classroom.

Matteo jumps. Everybody is looking at him.

“Sorry,” Matteo says, too quietly. He clears his throat. He really wishes everybody would look away. “It’s just—I’m in the wrong class.”

“Well, yesterday was the last day of the add/drop period,” says the professor. “So I’m afraid we're at a bit of an impasse.”

“I’ve never taken a theatre class,” Matteo blurts out.

The professor smiles a little. Matteo’s stomach sinks.

“Well then,” she says, “I commend your bravery.”

Color floods Matteo’s cheeks. He can still feel everybody looking at him. He tries to imagine himself actually standing in front of these people, performing a monologue. Panic knifes into his chest. He doesn’t even know what a monologue is.

The door opens, for which Matteo is grateful—finally, everyone has a reason to stop staring at him.

Standing in the doorway is the Boy from two days ago, outside the registrar. The color on Matteo’s deepens, remembering. At least today he’s wearing a semi-clean sweater—if you count a white sweater he’s worn at least five times without washing as clean. Matteo’s just grateful this one doesn’t have any crumbs.

The Boy looks even better today. He isn’t wearing his beanie, so Matteo can see the dark, thick hair hiding beneath. He’s wearing a black t-shirt, and there are headphones slung around his neck.

“Oh, perfect,” says the professor. “Everyone, this is David. David will be directing our end of year production, Hamlet.”

A few classmates nod at him. David lifts his chin in acknowledgement, taking one of the empty seats scattered close to the walls. His eyes find Matteo’s.

Time stretches, elastic, in the second their eyes meet. Matteo should look away. He wishes he could look away. He tries to read the boy’s expression: it is inscrutable, aloof, almost cold. Matteo swallows.

A blur of movement around him. Matteo jolts, looking up. Everyone is getting to their feet. The professor is talking, but Matteo can’t hear anything she says. He can’t find the energy to stand. He feels like one of those dolls that needs to be wound up to move.

“She wants us to do some kind of vulnerability exercise,” say Sara. “Want to partner up?”

“What’s a vulnerability exercise?”

Sara laughs. “Weren’t you listening?”

Matteo shrugs.

“You just…sustain eye contact and tell someone a story. Like a story from your childhood, or something.”

Matteo rocks back on his heels, already inching towards the door.

“So do you wanna be my partner?”

“Yeah,” Matteo says, scratching the back of his head, “I just, uh, I gotta piss real fast.”

He sneaks towards the door and slips out as quietly as he can.

“Fuck,” he whispers, leaning his against the closed door. He closes his eyes. He really wishes he’d remembered to roll a joint before class: the smoke from this morning sticks to his eyelids and the back of his throat, but the calm the weed brings him is fading, and the other thing is taking over. The jittery thing. The bad thing. Matteo doesn’t know what to call it—he just knows that it’s like a rope around his neck, and smoking is the thing that loosens the knot.

He walks down the hallway, aimlessly, dragging his fingers along the wall. His shoelaces are untied. He doesn’t bother to lace them.

There are no windows down here. Below the performing arts building are just more underground classrooms. Most look empty. He passes a few professor’s offices and a supply closet before finally reaching the bathroom.

Matteo sits on the sink ledge and pulls out his phone.

 

Matteo: dude…i fucked up

Jonas: huh?

Matteo: the class you told me about…i don’t know what i did but i ended up in some acting class

 

Jonas sends a gif of a dude shooting himself in the foot. Matteo turns off his phone and throws it carelessly to the counter, scrubbing a hand over his face.

The door opens. Matteo’s hands fall awkwardly back to his side.

It’s the Boy. Of course it’s the Boy. Matteo is destined to be haunted by this Boy.

David. That’s what the professor had called him. David. Matteo wants to say the name out loud. He wants to feel the syllables in his mouth.

“What are you doing?” says David. The door closes behind him.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” says Matteo.

David raises an eyebrow. His eyes flick up and down Matteo’s front in a way that makes Matteo’s throat run dry.

“Avoiding class,” says David.

Matteo laughs a little through his nose. He slides his phone into his back pocket.

“Oh well, yeah, that, uh,” Matteo waves vaguely behind David, “that’s not really my thing.”

“What’s not really your thing?”

“You know,” Matteo says, “Theatre, I guess.”

“Then why are you here?” David asks.

Matteo takes a few steps closer. David still hasn’t moved from the door.

“I registered for the wrong class,” Matteo admits, running a hand through his hair. “Must’ve given the registrar the wrong course number.”

“What did you mean to register for?”

“Uh,” says Matteo. “I don’t know what it’s called. My roommate, he told me about it. Something about breathing exercises.”

“Ah,” said David. “Alexander Technique. Yeah a few of you always manage to end up there.”

Matteo’s brow furrows. “A few of who?”

“Oh, you know,” David waves vaguely in Matteo’s direction, and Matteo feels his stomach twist, a little. Whatever David is reading on his body, Matteo has a distinct feeling it isn’t good. “Guys like you. Guys trying to pick up some easy credits with a joke class.”

Matteo doesn’t say anything. Something cold enters David’s face. Like a door slamming shut.

“Let me guess,” David continues. “You think this is all pretty stupid, huh?”

“I mean, a little,” Matteo shrugs, uncomfortably, staring down at his shoes. “Don’t you?”

David blinks slowly. “I’m literally directing the end-of-quarter show.”

Matteo looks down at his sweater. Tugs at a little thread near the hem. There’s a stain, a little yellow stain, like mustard. When had he even eaten something with mustard? He feels like David can see all of it, every dirty thing, every flaw. Matteo hadn’t even bothered to shower to this morning. He feels naked under David’s stare.

“But that’s different, I mean,” Matteo says. “You don’t, you know, actually think all that—”

“All what?”

“The—the vulnerability exercises, and the eye contact, and the telling a stranger some—some fucking sob story about your childhood—”

“I think Helena’s methods are genius,” David says.

“Helena?”

“The professor.”

“Oh,” says Matteo, shrinking a little. He pokes his finger into a tiny hole in the sleeve of his sweater. “Well, I guess I don’t know a lot about this kind of stuff.”

“Then you should probably just leave the class,” says David.

Matteo blinks, stunned. He doesn’t know what to say. He never knows what to say.

“She said I couldn’t,” Matteo says quietly, “the professor.”

“I’ll talk to her, then,” says David.

“Oh, yeah, okay,” Matteo mumbles to the floor, “Thanks.”

“Sure,” David says, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to direct this show for a long time. I’ve been working on it since last year. I only want people to be in my show who want to be there. People who are prepared to do the work and take it seriously.”

He walks towards Matteo. Matteo stands in place, a little dumbfounded. David’s face is only a few inches from his, and he looks even more frustratingly good-looking up close.

“You’re sort of uh, blocking the sink,” says David.

“Oh, right,” says Matteo, “sorry.”

He moves out of the way and out the door, without looking back.

 

 

Matteo opens the door to his dorm room. It’s dark inside. Jonas’s bed is empty, and the lights are off. He shuffles to his bed in the dark and collapses onto the mattress. His stomach grumbles. Matteo puts a hand under his shirt, feeling his ribcage, the concave dip of his stomach. He already knows there’s no food in he and Jonas’s mini-fridge, only beer, and even those are Jonas’s. He thinks about cracking one open anyways. He knows he should go to the dining hall and get food. He knows he should turn on the lights and start his homework. He knows he should take a shower. He knows he should do a lot of things.

He throws an arm over his face. He’s so hungry. His limbs feel leaden. Heavy, like a bag of flour. Like a bag of flour that’s been punctured. Like he dragged himself home and left a trail, and now he’s nothing. Now he’s empty. He wiggles his fingers, just to confirm that they still work.

His phone vibrates in his pocket. Matteo pulls it out.

 

Jonas: so were you able to leave the class?

 

Matteo pushes his phone off the bed. Outside the window, he can hear two girls talking, their voices shrinking as they walk farther and farther away. He can hear music playing somewhere upstairs. Voices pass by in the hallway, footsteps pass over his head. Matteo closes his eyes, feeling like something swallowed. Like he’s floating through the cavernous guts of some monster that ate him a long time ago, and outside are all the living things. All the walking, talking things. People feeding themselves, people sleeping and waking up, people walking in a direction they choose.

But Matteo can’t move. He can only go where the monster goes.

 

 

He falls asleep. It’s about 11 PM when the door opens, and Matteo blinks himself awake. Jonas’s silhouette stands in the doorway. He turns on the light.

“Hey,” Matteo mumbles, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. He sits up.

“Hey,” says Jonas. “You never answered my text.”

Matteo looks down. His phone is still on the floor. He reaches it for, lazily, but it’s too far down. Jonas takes pity on him and picks it up, tossing it in Matteo’s lap. He sits at the foot of his bed.

“You good, man?” says Jonas.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Matteo. He looks at his phone. No new messages.

“Did you eat anything?”

Matteo pushes the covers off of himself, feeling overheated all of a sudden. He should take a shower. Drink a glass of water. Eat a real meal.

“Yeah,” Matteo lies.

“Okay,” says Jonas, “well I uh, I didn’t finish my dinner so I brought home leftovers if you’re still hungry.”

Matteo nods, unable to meet Jonas’s eyes. He feels Jonas stand up and walk to his side of the room. Matteo slumps back into the pillows.

“So how was that class?” Jonas asks. He takes off his shirt and throws it in his laundry hamper.

“It was shit,” says Matteo. “Man, I’m totally fucked.”

“You really can’t get out of it?”

David’s face swims in Matteo’s mind.

“I don’t know,” he says, “there’s a guy in there who seems to think he might be able to get me out.”

“What will you take instead?” says Jonas.

Matteo shrugs. “I don’t know. The other one, I guess, the one I meant to sign up for. If they let me.”

“And if they don’t?”

“I don’t know,” says Matteo. Jonas puts on another t-shirt for sleep, and Matteo tries to avoid staring at the way the muscles in his back move and stretch. “What are you taking?”

“Matteo, I love you man but you can’t just take the same stuff I’m taking,” says Jonas.

Matteo bites his thumbnail. He doesn’t say anything. He can feel Jonas looking at him.

“What’ve you liked so far? Your classes, I mean,” says Jonas.

Matteo bites into his thumb so hard it hurts. He shrugs.

“Well,” says Jonas. “There’s something you’ve liked, at least a little. I know you don’t really know what you wanna do, but if you keep taking stuff you’re at least kind of into, you’ll figure it out.”

Matteo rolls his eyes. He and Jonas have had this conversation a million times, and it hurts a little more every time they have it. It’s not that he hates his classes. It’s not that he likes them either. It’s that he doesn’t feel anything at all. Going through the motions of showing up, studying, sitting in class, raising his hand—it’s all just that. Going through the motions.

He stands up, a little abruptly. He doesn’t want to think about it anymore. He takes out the food Jonas put in the fridge—a half-eaten burger, some cold fries. He scarfs them down quickly.

“Hey man, can I have this beer?” Matteo nods at the bottle at the back of the fridge.

“Uh, yeah,” says Jonas, after a few seconds. “Sure.”

Matteo uncaps it and drinks it all, fast. When it’s finished he wants another, but there aren’t anymore left. He goes to his bedside drawer. His weed jar is empty, too. He picks through his ashtray, but the roaches have been smoked down too far to still use.

“Fuck,” Matteo moans. Jonas is already in bed, headphones in, laptop out.

He takes out a headphone. “Yeah?”

“No more weed. You got any?”

“Nah,” says Jonas.

“Shit.”

Matteo texts Abdi and Carlos, but they don’t have any either. He texts every dealer he knows on campus, but no one responds.

“Dude, it’s like midnight,” says Jonas. “Just get some more tomorrow.”

Matteo looks down. His hands are shaking, just a little. He swallows.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Matteo. “I’m just gonna uh, go. Take a shower.”

Matteo pockets his keys and his phone. He doesn’t go to the showers. He goes outside. He doesn’t even know why, or where he’s walking. Maybe he’ll stumble into someone and bum a cigarette. Maybe he’ll wander into a party and share someone’s joint.

It’s cold outside. Matteo stands under the streetlight. He stares up at the sky. A blanket of darkness, no stars.

There’s movement in his periphery.

David is walking towards him, with a girl. The closer they get, Matteo can see it’s Jonas’s ex. Leonie. They’re not holding hands, but their heads are bent close. David laughs. The sound echoes around Matteo’s skull like a pinball. Matteo feels like he’s made of glass, and the laugh is the thing that finally shatters him.

They walk right past him without looking at him. Matteo stares after them, feeling as immaterial as a ghost.

Silence swallows him. He can hear cars, faraway. He looks up at the dorm building. Most of the windows are dark. Matteo looks down at his hands, bringing them closer to his face. They look papery, too pale. Almost translucent.

 

 

The next night is a party. Matteo ends up in a bathtub with Carlos, Jonas, and Abdi. His head falls onto Jonas’s shoulder. Jonas sticks a joint into Matteo’s mouth and lights the wick. Matteo grins around the filter.

“Yo, why the fuck did you come in here?” Abdi shoves Matteo’s shoulder. Matteo slaps his hands away, then pulls the joint out of his mouth, exhaling. He passes it to Jonas. “I saw Sara in there. She was all over you.”

Matteo’s eyes flutter shut. He can still smell Sara’s perfume on his sweatshirt. Her lip gloss is sticky on his cheek and his neck. It leaves a trail down his shirt collar. He doesn’t remember her approaching him. He doesn’t remember how they even started kissing. He doesn’t remember uncapping the first beer, or the second, or the sixth.

His stomach gives a nauseous twist.

“She’s too keen,” Matteo says.

“Too keen?” Abdi repeats. “Too keen? When has ‘too keen’ ever been—”

“Man, I’m with Matteo—that shit can be a turn-off,” says Carlos.

“You don’t get to speak on this,” says Abdi, “you have a Kiki.”

“Just ‘cause I have a Kiki means I don’t get to speak?” says Carlos, passing the joint back to Matteo.

Matteo turns his face into Jonas’s shoulder and tunes them out. After a few more minutes, he stands up and stumbles to the door. The boys stare at him.

“Where are you going, man?” says Jonas.

“Home,” says Matteo, shutting the door behind him. He leans against it. Bass pounds from the living area—he doesn’t even know whose apartment they’re in. He shoves past crowds of people, couples making out, and runs right into Sara.

“Where did you go?” she says, her lips too close to his ear.

“Just went for a smoke,” says Matteo, trying to pull away.

“Stay,” she says.

Matteo forces himself to look into her eyes. She’s a sweet girl, and she’s pretty. He should like her. He wants to like her.

“I’m not feeling great,” says Matteo, “I’m gonna just go home.”

“You want me to come with you?” Sara asks, concerned.

“Nah, it’s all good,” says Matteo, “I’m probably just gonna pass out.”

She gives Matteo a kiss on the cheek. Matteo accepts it and gives her what he hopes is a convincing half-smile before he leaves.

Matteo strips down to his boxers when he gets home and pulls out his laptop. He wants to roll a joint and eat the leftover sandwich Jonas left him and watch something stupid and light until he falls asleep.

Instead he finds himself on Instagram. He looks up Leonie Richter.

Sure enough there he is, three posts back. David. In Leonie’s photo of him, he’s wearing his beanie. It looks like David’s walking away from her. He’s winking as he looks back.

It feels like somebody poked Matteo with something sharp. His entire body deflates. He slumps, limp, into his sheets. He stares at the photo again.

David’s tagged. Matteo clicks on his profile. David only has about eight posts, and his face isn’t in any of them. Only art. The most recent is a brick wall, covered in graffiti. The graffiti is a run-down cityscape, looming over what looks like a river. Floating in the river is a woman with long, blonde hair, threaded through with little flowers, a bright lipstick-red crimson. The color of poppies.

Matteo reads the caption.

 

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.”

Last set finally finished. Can’t wait for you all to meet Ophelia in Detroit.

(Hamlet, coming to the Performing Arts Center, Spring 2019. Stay posted for more details.)”

 

Matteo reads the lines again. He searches online for Hamlet quotes and finds the full play online.

It’s two AM when the door finally opens, and Jonas stumbles inside.

“Hey, man, didn’t think you’d still be up,” he slurs. “What’re you doing?”

Matteo looks up from his laptop screen. He’s already reached Act V.

“Nothing, man,” says Matteo, shutting his laptop. “Just watching Netflix.”

 

 

Matteo enters the classroom. Nobody is sitting down yet, just standing in circles and talking. A few send him glances. Matteo pulls his sleeves over his knuckles and ducks his head, moving towards the corner of the room.

The professor, Helena, approaches him almost instantly.

“Hello, Matteo. I just wanted to let you know that David spoke to me and unfortunately I can’t let you leave the course. It isn’t up to me.”

Matteo opens his mouth to respond, but she raises her hand.

“I think the workshop might surprise you. If you let it. I know acting can seem daunting, but anyone can do it.”

He fights the urge to roll his eyes. He raises his head and immediately locks eyes with David, who is staring at him from across the classroom, his expression dark and inscrutable. Matteo swallows, hard, and looks back at Helena.

“Okay,” he says.

“Okay?”

Matteo doesn’t know what she wants him to say.

“Now I do expect you to do the work. And that includes participation in our end-of-term production. Hamlet’s a difficult play—have you read it?”

“Yes,” says Matteo.

“Oh,” says Helena, surprised. She smiles. Today she’s wearing dark red lipstick, and her glasses are pushed onto her head. “Well, that’s great. Have you given any thought to who you might audition for?”

“There’s auditions?” Matteo says.

“Yes, this Friday. David will explain more.” And with that she strides into the center of the room, bidding everyone to sit in a circle around her.

Matteo accidentally makes eye contact with Sara, who waves him over. He has no choice but to sit beside her.

“David, if you wouldn’t mind—since auditions are this Friday, just give everyone a better idea of your approach for the play and what you’d like them to prepare for the audition.”

David stands beside her, holding a clipboard. His eyes find Matteo’s again, striking him like a bolt of lightning. He moves across the room to the other workshop participants and announces that the play won’t run the full four hours—they’ve trimmed it to about two and a half. It’s a modern reinvention of the play, set in Detroit in an abandoned factory.

“And,” David adds, looking straight at Matteo, “there will be gender blind casting. You can audition for any part, though the part we assign might not necessarily be the one you audition for.”

Sara raises her hand. “When you say gender blind casting, do you mean like…crossdressing?”

A few of the students laugh. David doesn’t laugh. His lip curls upwards, just a little.

“No,” he says, “I mean that if, say, a woman were cast as Hamlet, then she can still dress however she likes. We don’t have a big costume budget, so for many of you, depending on what direction we decide to go with the character, you’ll probably just wear your own clothes. I want you all to participate as much as possible in how you create the character. I want you to make them your own.”

“Since this is an acting workshop,” Helena adds, “the point is to give you all a lot of agency in what direction you decide to take the character. David is the director, yes, and he has a certain vision, but he and I both believe that it is the actor’s responsibility to shape who the character is onstage. Also, he has final say in the casting. As he mentioned earlier, the part we ultimately assign might not be the one you prepare.”

“And as far as prep,” David says, “bring in a monologue for any character you wish to audition for. You can also audition as a pair, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for example.”

“Want to do them with me?” Sara whispers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?”

Matteo glances at her sidelong. He shrugs. “Sure.”

“You should all already have a copy of the play,” Helena announces. “I’d like you to use the remaining time in class to flip through it and choose what scene you’d like to prepare for your audition. If you want to practice with a scene partner, you can also practice in the hallway.”

Sara opens up her copy of the play. Matteo digs his out of his backpack. In the corner of his eye, he sees David talking with another student in the class, a girl with shoulder-length brown hair.

“That’s Laura,” says Sara. “Apparently she’s probably going to be Hamlet.”

“Huh,” says Matteo. He wonders if she’s David’s girlfriend. Or is that Leonie? Matteo watches as David puts his arm around Laura. She hugs him back. He says something that makes her laugh and push him away.

“You’re doing that thing again,” Sara says.

“What thing?”

“You keep tapping your foot,” she says. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” says Matteo, standing up, quickly. He wants to leave. “Let’s uh, go in the hallway, yeah? Pick out a scene?”

“Okay,” Sara smiles.

Guildenstern has fewer lines than lines than Rosencrantz, so Matteo chooses Guildenstern. He and Sara select Scene 3, Act III and practice the lines until they’re allowed to leave.

“Want to come to mine later and keep practicing?”

“Sure,” says Matteo. A pit grows in his stomach.

Just as they’re about to leave, the door opens. David walks out with Laura.

“Oh,” says David, his eyes falling on Matteo. “Still here, then?”

“You sound disappointed,” says Matteo.

David laughs a little through his nose. Matteo’s eyes fall to his mouth. Laura’s eyes flick between them, her brow furrowed. David turns to her and says, “Matteo uh…well let’s just say, Matteo didn’t actually plan on being here. He thought he was signing up for Alexander Technique.”

“Ah,” says Laura. “So you thought you were getting a joke class, huh?”

Matteo looks down at his feet, embarrassed, and also a little angry. He doesn’t know why it’s such a big deal that he doesn’t want to be there, and it seems unfair that they’re so quick to judge him for it. So what that Matteo doesn’t give a shit about theatre? What kind of pretentious asshole does? David and Laura can have their bullshit play, with their bullshit graffitied sets and their bullshit Detroit “reinvention.” It’s stupid. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.

A muscle jumps in Matteo’s jaw.

David is still looking at him. It’s a stare like a blade. It cuts right through him. Matteo feels stripped-down. Like David is seeing all of him, and he’s hating what he sees.

“So who are you going to audition for?” David asks.

“Guildenstern,” Matteo mutters.

“Nice,” says Laura. Matteo can’t tell if it’s genuine or if she’s being cruel. “Well. Best of luck.”

Matteo gives a sarcastic salute and leaves. He walks back to his dorm room with purpose, shoving past happy couples on the quad and groups of girls walking to class and boys fucking around on the lawn. He throws open his door so hard it smacks against the wall.

Jonas looks up from his desk, a little surprised.

“Let’s get shitfaced,” says Matteo.

Jonas shuts his laptop with a grin.

 

 

Matteo stumbles onto the balcony. The sky careens over his head. He feels like a bug trapped under a bowl. The sky looks like a mouth, an open maw, dark and screaming. He hangs onto the balcony railing, swaying a little. The iron under his fingers feels like teeth.

He is drunk, and it is late. Almost morning. He thinks he’s in someone’s bedroom. He doesn’t remember how he got onto the balcony, or why he climbed out here. He inhales deeply, closing his eyes. Bass thumps from inside the apartment. He doesn’t know whose apartment it is, but he can hear Carlos’s voice, screaming “Luigi!” Someone laughs. The song changes, and someone screams with delight. The lights are red and blue, flashing. They make patterns that shift along the balcony railing, dancing.

“What are you doing out here?” says a voice.

Matteo jumps a little, almost falling backwards.

It’s David. How is it always David?

“Are you following me, or something?” says David.

“You’re not real,” Matteo slurs.

“What?” David’s brow furrows.

Matteo climbs down from the railing and sits down, right there on the floor. The walls crawl up behind him and around him. He feels like he’s on a boat, and he’s about to be capsized. His stomach seizes. He swallows it back. He doesn’t feel like vomiting now. Not while he’s hallucinating the Boy. The Boy who has been haunting him.

The Boy who hates him.

“You’re not really here,” says Matteo. He is too drunk. Too cross-faded. He feels sick.

David-Not-David drops to a crouch in front of him. Matteo’s eyes flutter, but don’t close.

“Am I in a dream?”

“No,” says David. His face is so close to Matteo’s. Dangerously close. A face like David’s shouldn’t be this close. It should be in a painting, in a frame on a museum wall. You should have to pay money to look at a face like David’s in such microscopic detail.

Matteo’s head falls back against the wall.

“I’m in a dream,” he says.

David’s thumb brushes against Matteo’s cheek. Matteo’s eyes widen.

“Sorry,” says David. “It’s just. You had an eyelash. See?”

He holds the eyelash between his fingers, close to Matteo’s face.

“Can I make a wish?” Matteo asks.

“I don’t believe in wishes,” says David.

“Okay.” Matteo’s head falls a little. He looks up at David, under his eyelashes. David is still so close to him. Why hasn’t he moved away?

“Can I make one anyways?” Matteo whispers.

David nods.

“I wish you didn’t hate me,” Matteo says.

David’s throat works. Something moves across his eyes. Something Matteo is too drunk to understand. None of this is real, anyways. None of this matters. He is in another dream, another David-dream, and soon he will wake up, and the nightmare—the waking part—will all start again.

“Luigi!” someone vaults themselves through the window and lands with a thud onto the balcony. David jumps away. It’s Carlos. Abdi is struggling through the window after him. Jonas is inside behind them, still dancing.

“Who are you?” Carlos asks.

“I’m David,” he says, standing up. He and Carlos clink their bottles together.

“That’s not true,” Matteo slurs, his vision darkening, “That’s somebody else.”

 

 

Matteo’s head feels like a watermelon someone threw off a roof. He is nothing but seeds and fruit and juice. He sits up. His throat feels dry and sour, like a crypt. There’s a glass of water next to his bed that Jonas must have left. Matteo gulps it down, gratefully. He scrubs a hand over his eyes.

The room is empty. Sunlight spills onto the floor. Matteo searches for his phone on his bedside and under his pillow. Somehow it fell under his bed.

Flipping upside-down to retrieve it is a terrible idea. Matteo scrambles onto the floor and makes it to the trash can just in time, emptying the contents of his stomach into the bin until he has nothing left to give.

He wipes his eyes. He hates throwing up. He drags his sleeve across his chin and stands up, shakily, hugging his own shoulders.

Slowly, he refills the water glass and drinks, making himself take small, careful sips. He manages to drag himself to the shower and wash his hair, fighting the urge to just sink down to the floor and let the water run over him. Afterwards, he changes into something reasonably clean and heads to the coffee shop.

He’s just received his coffee and a breakfast sandwich—the only thing that ever makes him feel better when he’s this hungover—when his phone vibrates.

 

Sara: where are you?

Matteo: what do you mean?

Sara: the auditions started 30 minutes ago. Our slot is up soon

 

“Fuck,” Matteo mutters, almost spilling coffee onto himself, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He types a quick reply.

 

Matteo: on my way

 

He hurries over to the Performing Arts Center, still scarfing down his sandwich. The auditions are in the actual theater. He opens the door as quietly as he can and makes his way down the aisle, spotting Sara’s blonde head in the second row.

“Where’ve you been?” she hisses.

“I’m really sorry,” says Matteo, “I uh, I wasn’t feeling good this morning.”

“Sara and Matteo, you’re up next,” Helena calls out. Matteo turns around. David and Helena are sitting in the middle section, a few rows back, holding clipboards. Most of the front row has emptied out, and there’s only a few students left in the theatre besides Sara and Matteo.

Matteo and Sara walk up to the stage. He’s still holding his coffee.

“Where’s your copy of the play?” Sara asks.

Matteo runs a hand through his hair. “I uh. I forgot it.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Is everything alright?” Helena asks, her voice ringing across the seats. Matteo rocks back on his heels. The stage feels much smaller than he thought it would. He can see into the wings on either side of the stage. To the left is a giant brick wall, painted. David’s Ophelia graffiti set.

He looks out into the seats. David isn’t wearing his beanie today. He has a white t-shirt on that Matteo’s never seen before, and he looks even better than he did in Matteo’s dream.

David locks eyes with his. Matteo sways a little. Nausea crashes through his insides.

“I said, is everything alright?” Helena repeats.

“I forgot my copy,” Matteo says, shocked at the way the acoustics of the stage make his voice carry. Normally he can barely hear himself speak.

“You forgot your copy,” she repeats.

“It’s okay,” says David, “I have an extra one.”

He watches as David pulls out a slim book from his backpack and walks it down the aisle. Matteo has to kneel at the end of the stage to retrieve it from him.

David’s dark eyes are almost honey-colored in the bright lights at the foot of the stage. Their fingers brush as he hands over the book.

“How are you feeling this morning?” he asks, his voice low enough so only Matteo can hear.

Matteo blinks, surprised.

“What do you mean?”

“You were pretty drunk last night,” says David.

“You—you saw me?”

David takes a step backward. He cocks his head coolly, his expression inscrutable. “Good luck, Matteo.”

Matteo stands there, dumbfounded, as David returns to his seat. Sara takes Matteo by the elbow.

“What was that about?” she asks.

Matteo doesn’t answer. Helena gives them the cue to begin. Somehow, Matteo performs the scene. He has to refer to the play more often than he’d like—Helena said they didn’t have to memorize it, since they were given such short notice, but she’d like them to try. He’s distracted by all the notes David has in the margins. Black pen. Beautiful, looping handwriting. Little doodles on every page.

The scene ends. Matteo barely remembers speaking the lines. He isn’t sure he spoke them at all. But Helena is telling them they can leave, and Sara is pulling him offstage, and David is still watching him. Saying nothing.

 

 

The next morning, he wakes up to a text from Sara.

 

Sara: come to the PAC

Matteo: ??

Sara: the list is up

 

Matteo sighs loudly. He throws on some semi-clean jeans and a black pullover. Jonas has left him a thermos of coffee on his desk. He texts him a quick thanks and heads out the door with just his keys and his phone and his headphones.

It’s a slightly chillier morning than Matteo expected, and quiet for a Saturday. He wishes he’d remembered his wallet, so he could buy himself breakfast.

He opens the door to the PAC. Nobody’s around. He walks down stairs, underground, towards their classroom. Only Sara is standing outside the door, staring at a white piece of paper taped to the door.

“Is that it?” Matteo asks.

Sara turns to face him. She watches him approach, her expression unreadable.

“Go on, look,” she says.

Matteo searches for his name on the list. He finds “Laura” next to Hamlet and “Sara” next to Rosencrantz. But besides Guildenstern is someone else’s name. Julian.

“I’m not on here,” he says. “Guess my audition was just that shitty.”

“You’re on there,” says Sara. “Look again.”

Matteo scans the names again. Finally he finds his name, close to the top of the list.

Right next to the name “Ophelia.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

David is folding his laundry when he sees it. Something small and light on his sweater. A piece of lint, maybe. He picks it up.

It’s an eyelash. Blonde. Like a filament of gold.

 

 

David has always suffered vivid dreams. Wild, technicolor dreams, phantasmagoric dreams, dreams he tries to sketch onto paper the moment he wakes up so he won’t forget them. Dreams he tries to capture on canvas, on film, on stage. Dreams that are like visions. Dreams that are sometimes hard for him to separate from real life.

The first time he sees Matteo, he is sure he is a dream. But then he sees him again, and again, and again, and so many times that the coincidence begins to feel like fate. And fate is a scary thing. David doesn’t like to think about fate. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a puppet on someone else’s strings. He likes to think of the world as a map he’s drawing: every day a new street post that never existed before, every year a new island to discover. He is not a coordinate on someone else’s atlas; he is the cartographer himself.

But these days he feels like he’s stumbled into something he didn’t plan for. The Boy is the shore on the horizon that he never expected to discover. These days, all of his dreams go like this: a boy with dirty-blonde hair sits by a river. There are flowers tangled in the short strands, dandelions, yellow and pale. It is hard to tell what’s a flower and what’s a lock of hair. The river is dirty: floating inside are abandoned car-parts and trash. The river streams under a graffitied bridge.

There is a painting David loves, of Ophelia by the river. John Everett Millais’s is the most famous, a nineteenth century classic, to be sure, but there are dozens more. David has loved these paintings since he was young: he loves how it travels outside the play, how it follows Ophelia where she disappears offstage. The drowned girl in the river. The tragic girl—perhaps the most tragic of all of Shakespeare’s women, because she is also the least understood, the one most disparaged for her passivity. Her melancholy. She is sadder and lonelier than all of them.

He has dreamed of the figure by the river before; he has painted her before.

And then David met the Boy. There is before the Boy and after the Boy. Before the Boy, the figure by the river never had a face. Any face that did appear was mercurial, amorphous, a face that could belong to anyone.

But after the Boy, it is always, always Him.

 

 

“You made a mistake,” says Laura.

She is sitting on the foot of David’s bed. It is late afternoon, David’s favorite time of day. He loves the shaft of golden light that spreads like a fan onto the hardwood floors. He loves the swirl of dust motes. He feels like getting out his paintbrush.

He knows exactly who he would like to paint.

“No I didn’t,” says David, not looking at her. They have already had this conversation, but she won’t stop bringing it up. “And you should trust me.”

“Did you cast him as Ophelia just to fuck with him?”

A muscle leaps in David’s jaw. He thinks of how irritated how he’d been with Matteo in the bathroom. How Matteo had so carelessly dismissed everything David held dear.

But then he thinks of the boy on the balcony.

“No,” says David.

“Then why?”

Because the boy David saw on the balcony that night was Ophelia. He is Ophelia. There is nobody else; there never was nor will be. The look in Matteo’s eyes that night—David has tried to paint that precise look a hundred times. The look of someone lost. The look of someone floating between here and elsewhere. A passageway between here and Heaven, here and the Underworld. The look of someone haunted.

“David, I remember this kid. Don’t you? Psych class last quarter, remember? He never showed up, and when he did he was always high or falling asleep. We caught him cheating that one time, remember?”

David remembers. David remembers everything about Matteo.

“He’s gonna fuck everything up,” says Laura. “I thought you hated guys like him.”

David doesn’t know what kind of guy Matteo is in anymore.

“I’ve seen him blacked out at like, seven different parties this month.”

David thinks of the shape of Matteo’s mouth. The shape it made when he said, Can I make a wish?

“Plus, we don’t even know if he can act,” says Laura.

David thinks of the shape it made when he said, I wish you didn’t hate me.

“Ophelia is a huge part,” says Laura. “I just think it’s too big a risk to put that on someone who we already know is just a deadbeat.”

David closes his eyes. He thinks of Matteo kneeling at the foot of the stage. The brush of their fingers when Matteo said, You saw me?

 

 

David wakes up at six AM every morning and runs. He runs when it rains. He runs when it snows. He runs when he wakes up sad, or happy, or furious. The first mile is hard, every time—he usually doesn’t eat first, which he knows is bad, but it’s best if he just rolls out of bed, pulls on his running clothes and his headphones and gets out the door, quick.

Mile Three is always his favorite. That’s when he hits his stride. That’s when the best shit in his playlist kicks in. That’s when people start leaving their apartments with suitcases and backpacks, holding their children’s hands, walking their dogs, boarding the bus, getting to work. David doesn’t know why he likes to see all this, but he does. He loves it. Most mornings he runs the same route, but some days he likes to get lost. He’ll turn left where he normally turns right and see what he can discover. That’s how he’s found all his favorite little hideaways in the city. Sometimes he stops to take photos and jot down coordinates. He keeps a list in a notepad of all these places. Places he might like to bring somebody one day.

David’s never shown anybody his list.

After his run, he goes back to his dorm room, showers, changes, and knocks on Laura’s door down the hallway.

“You know, being an insufferable morning person really fucks with the whole dark mysterious thing you’re going for,” she says, still scrubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Get dressed,” says David. Laura’s girlfriend is still buried under the covers of their bed, blanket pulled over her head.

“Why?”

“I want breakfast.”

“So go by yourself,” says Laura. “Or ask Leonie.”

“I told you—I don’t like Leonie,” says David. “We’re just friends.”

Laura rolls her eyes, tugging a sweatshirt over her head. They walk to the dining hall.

David’s in line for coffee when he sees him. Hoodie up, hands stuffed deep in his pockets, staring zombie-like at a fruit display. Matteo. He looks like he hasn’t showered. His eyes are bloodshot, a little bruised, like he hasn’t slept. He fishes in his pockets, then pulls out a few coins. He sighs loudly and starts walking away, towards the doors.

He doesn’t know why he follows Matteo, but he does. Matteo walks towards the cereal section and pockets one of those little single-serving boxes like he was eating that day they collided in the registrar.

David’s fingers close around his elbow.

Matteo startles wildly, spinning around. His hoodie falls off his head, and David can see now he’s wearing headphones.

He blinks at David. Slowly, he pulls his headphones around his neck.

“Hey,” says David, after a long moment. Matteo just stares at him, dead-eyed.

“Was that a joke?” Matteo says finally, after a few agonizing seconds.

His voice is so soft, like David remembers. A little raspier than usual. David loves the sound of his voice.

“Was what a joke?”

Matteo pokes his tongue in his cheek. “You cast me as Ophelia.”

David searches Matteo’s face. “Why would it be a joke?”

“To fuck with me?” says Matteo. “I don’t know.”

“Why do you think I’m fucking with you?”

Matteo shakes his head. David is less sure with every passing second that Matteo’s eyes are bloodshot from weed. “Whatever, man,” Matteo mutters, pushing past David, towards the doors.

David watches him leave. He is rooted to the spot.

“Did he just steal that cereal?” says Laura, nudging her elbow against his. She pushes a coffee cup into his hands.

David takes a long sip, ignoring the way it scalds his mouth. He shakes his head.

“Let’s go,” he says.

 

 

David finishes the footnotes on an essay for his composition course. He clears out his inbox. Around midnight, he finally gets to his math homework. He is so tired that he falls asleep at his desk.

He wakes up around 4 AM with pen marks on his face. He pushes himself away from his desk. Laura, who was doing her homework in his bed, is curled up on his sheets, asleep. He can’t bring himself to move her.

David goes to the sink—he was lucky enough to score a single, with his own bathroom—and washes the pen off his cheeks. He splashes water on his face and stares into the bathroom mirror.

He thought burying himself in homework would distract him. He thought ignoring him would distract him. He thought he could shove the guilt underground, bury it, smother it in dirt.

It doesn’t work. He can’t stop thinking about Matteo. Matteo, who thinks David hates him.

He thinks about what Laura had said. It’s true—they had caught Matteo cheating in their Psych class last quarter. David couldn’t forget the boy with the dirty-blonde hair, who always stumbled in at least ten minutes late, who sat half-asleep with his head cradled in his arms the entire class, who never took notes or listened to a damn word the professor said. The boy in the oversized sweaters, the baggy jeans and the hoodies that swamped him. David felt like he could see the fragile shape of Matteo underneath those too-big clothes, an x-ray transparency visible only to David.

David remembers Laura muttering under her breath, glaring at Matteo sleeping in class. “It just pisses me off. Because you work so fucking hard and some of these assholes just think they can come in and not do the work. I mean you—you—you sleep like four hours a night to keep your grades up, you work all those jobs, on top of that you still manage everything else—”

He remembers a thousand conversations like this. Laura means well, he knows she does. Laura is the kindest, most protective person David knows. She would do anything for him. She is one of the only people in the world who knows what David has been through.

David looks into the mirror again. He knows he won’t be able to fall back asleep, and though he wants his bed back so he can at least try to get a few hours rest, he doesn’t have the heart to wake up Laura. But he has a eight-hour shift at the bookstore in the morning, and acting workshop in the evening, and another essay due the morning after that.

“Fuck,” David mutters. He changes into sweatpants and a hoodie, and runs until the sun breaks over the city, hoping that if he can just run hard enough, he can erase the boy from his mind.

 

 

It’s a busy day at the bookstore. David offers to shelve and tag their new book shipments—he doesn’t have the energy to socialize with customers at the register on so little sleep, plus his boss and his coworkers aren’t strong enough to haul those heavy cardboard boxes.

He sometimes likes menial work like this. It gives his brain a break from the endless routines of math equations and essays and emails and logistics about the play. He likes when his muscles are so sore afterwards that he can just fall right asleep.

“David, have you taken your lunch yet?” His boss sticks her head into the office in the back, where David is organizing their extra stock on the shelves.

He wipes sweat from his forehead. “Not yet.”

“You work too hard,” she says. “Take an hour off. Relax. Eat a decent meal. I insist.”

David smiles, a little sheepishly. His boss knows he isn’t exactly good at giving himself breaks.

He goes to a little cafe down the street. It’s warmer today, warm enough that he can walk outside without his jacket. He slips his headphones around his neck and orders a sandwich and a coffee.

Bells jingle behind him. David turns around.

It’s Matteo. Of course it’s Matteo. Three other boys tag along behind him, laughing at something on one of their phones. David recognizes Jonas from his math class. Matteo’s best friend.

He and Matteo lock eyes. They stare at each other long enough that Matteo’s friends fall silent, staring between David and Matteo, confused.

David forces himself to look away. He pays the cashier and takes his food, without looking back.

 

 

David was not always the boy who gets up early every morning and goes for a run. He was not always the boy who could walk into any room like he belonged there. He was not always the boy who believed the world was his map to make.

When David was spiraling down, and down, and down, at his very worst, at the lowest nadir of his life, when he was so close to falling that it seemed like the swamp of the underworld was just under his nose, that he could be pulled beneath the river at any moment, it was that moment, that very moment, that Laura persuaded him to try out her theatre class.

“Why?” David had asked, with all the doubtful anger of someone lashing out at everyone, even those he knew had only his best interests.

“What are you scared of?” Laura said. A challenge.

Laura was smart. Laura knew how competitive David was. She knew exactly what buttons to push to get him to do what she wanted.

He went to her theatre class. And then another. And another. That’s where David met Helena. Helena saw something in David and encouraged him to try directing some scenes in class. From there, he fell in love with directing. He grew stronger and stronger every day.

But progress is not linear. Sometimes he has to crawl back upwards, painfully. Sometimes there are no footholds to hold on to. Sometimes he has to carve out every step himself.

Helena can always tell when David is slipping back down. He remembers what she told him after the Hamlet auditions were over. When David was putting together his list, his pen hovering over Ophelia’s name, so desperate to write that first, curving, beautiful M.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked. “You’re afraid of something. I know you are.”

“It feels like a risk.”

“It’s good to take risks,” said Helena. “All the best artists take risks.”

David was silent.

“I see you, David. It’s like you’re constantly toggling between two poles. You’re gonna get whiplash. You’re gonna get sick if you keep pulling yourself away from your better, baser instincts.”

David looked around the empty, beautiful theatre. The loneliest place in the world.

“I’m afraid,” he admitted, finally, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

“You’re not afraid,” she said, “you might be the least afraid person I’ve ever met.”

“Then why do I feel so scared all the time?” He could barely force the words out. He gripped his pen so hard he thought it might break.

Helena put a hand on David’s shoulder. He forced himself to look at her.

“That’s a trauma instinct,” she said. “That’s how trauma works. You’ve been pushed away. You internalize this, and now you want to push away others. That’s textbook trauma. And yet, look at you. You have made such a beautiful life for yourself, David. I want to say that you are a different person than the one I met in that first class, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like I’m meeting you for the first time, every day. And I’m in awe of you, every time. Every time I see you, you are more and more yourself.”

David took a deep, shuddering breath. One day, when he felt less raw, he would tell Helena just how much those words meant.

“There’s no rules,” said Helena. “None but the stupid ones we make for ourselves. So often we make rules for ourselves that we think are for our own protection. But all they’re really doing is hurting us.”

“So what do I do?” he said.

Helena smiled. “Break them.”

 

 

Laura performs the “to be or not to be” scene like she wrote the damn words herself. David is so proud afterwards that he picks her right up off the ground and spins her around. The class crowds around them, buzzing and excited.

Only Matteo leans against the wall, sullen, insouciant. His mouth looks red, redder than any mouth has a right to be. A red that would put forbidden fruit to shame. His mouth has a curve so petulant David isn’t sure if he wants to draw it or kiss it or bite it.

Amira, who David hired to stage-manage the show, looks as though she’s giving Matteo a stern talking-down. David watches from the corner of his eye, only half-hearing the compliments still being flung at Laura.

Matteo pushes himself off the wall, shoving past Amira. She stands there for a moment, furious, then takes a deep breath and walks over to David.

“I’m done,” she says. “He’s impossible.”

David blinks at her, a little dazedly. He is still thinking about Matteo’s mouth.

“I need him for the next scene,” says David. “He’s up.”

“Can’t we just…” Amira sighs. “I don’t know. I just don’t see this working.”

“He has to be here,” says David. “Helena says he’s not allowed to leave the workshop.”

Amira bites her lip.

“He might listen to you,” she says finally.

David laughs through his nose. “I doubt it. I don’t think he’s all that fond of me at the moment.”

Amira pulls David aside, lowering her voice. “Look, I know Matteo. He’s…he puts on this laid-back stoner front, like he doesn’t give a shit about anything, but he’s—he’s more fragile than he looks. He’s never gonna do this thing if he feels like everyone’s waiting for him to fuck it up. He’ll never say it, but I know that’s what he feels like.”

David swallows, hard. He looks around the room. Matteo’s backpack and jacket is still shoved in the corner with everyone else’s, though he’s nowhere to be seen.

“To be honest, David,” says Amira, “if you cast him as Ophelia just to…I don’t know, make him look stupid, then—I don’t know what to say. I just didn’t think you were that kind of guy.”

“That’s not why I cast him,” says David quietly.

“Then why?”

David shrugs. He can’t bullshit Amira. She’s too smart. 

“He just has this…I don’t know. Look, I don’t get my own brain most days. I just—he’s right for the part. I don’t know how to explain it. I just know it has to be him.”

Amira searches his face, as if confirming he’s not being an asshole. “Okay,” she says finally, “then you should go tell him that.”

“He definitely thinks I’m an asshole,” says David.

Amira scrunches up her face and pats David on the arm, as if to say, Yes. He definitely does.

David pulls his beanie over his head, steeling himself.

He goes outside. Matteo isn’t in the hallway. David walks down the empty corridor, peaking into empty classrooms. He opens the door to the bathroom and calls out Matteo’s name.

Nothing. He looks under the stalls. Nothing.

He goes back into the hallway and notices a small sliver of light spilling beneath the crack of a storage closet door.

David knocks.

“Fuck off,” says Matteo.

David leans his forehead against the door. After a long silence David asks, “Can I at least try a password?”

Silence. He can just barely make out the sounds of Matteo’s fidgeting.

“Okay,” says Matteo quietly.

“I’m an asshole,” says David. He hears Matteo snort. David bites back a grin.

“No,” says Matteo. “But good guess.”

“Ok, take two,” says David. He feels like Matteo’s ear is pressed right against the door. He wishes the door were made of glass, so he could at least see him.

“I don’t hate you,” says David, even quieter. He hears Matteo’s sharp intake of breath.

David waits. It is so silent on the other side of the door. Finally, he hears footsteps. The door clicks, as if unlocking, but doesn’t open.

David opens the door. Matteo is sitting on the bottom shelf of the storage closet. He reluctantly pulls his headphones off his head, around his neck. He looks terribly small. Something in David’s chest jerks, painfully.

“Kind of a long password,” David says.

A ghost of a smile crosses Matteo’s face, before it’s tucked away, as quickly as it came. He ducks his head.

David closes the door behind him and sits opposite Matteo, his arms loosely hugging his knees.

“The fair Ophelia,” says David.

Matteo’s throat bobs, like a marble in a glass.

“Nymph, in thy orisons,” David continues, “Be all my sins remember’d.”

Matteo studies him, under his eyelashes. Neither of them speak.

Finally, he asks, “What does that mean?”

David runs his fingers through his hair. “‘Be all my sins remember’d’ is like…pray for me. So my sins may be forgiven.”

Matteo raises an eyebrow. “Your sins?”

“My sins.”

“What sins are those?” Matteo whispers.

“Well. I could give you the full list. But to start?” David’s mouth twists. “I’m a terrible communicator.”

Matteo pulls his sleeves down all the way over his fists. He chews on his thumbnail.

“But…you’re like—” Matteo’s eyelashes dip. “—you know, an artist. I thought artists were good communicators.”

David laughs through his nose, leaning his head back against the door. He stares up at the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling.

“I wish. I think maybe it’s the opposite,” says David. “I think I use it as…I don’t know. Like a crutch or something. It’s seems like when it matters most, I can never just make myself say what I wanna say. It’s easier to…I don’t know, draw circles around it. But then, see, I can be…misinterpreted. And that’s bad. People can get hurt that way. But it’s hard, sometimes, you know. To just say what you mean.”

Matteo hugs his knees even higher to his chest. “What do you want to say?”

“I want to say that I didn’t cast you to fuck with you. I cast you because I think you’re right for the part.”

Matteo rolls his eyes. David can see him shutting down again, retreating into himself.

“I do,” says David quietly, sincerely. He fights the urge to hook his fingers under Matteo’s chin. Lift his face to the light. “I mean it.”

Matteo stares at the ground. His mouth opens, like he wants to say something, then shuts again, tightly.

David stands up. Matteo’s eyes follow him. He looks both vulnerable and cagey at once. It makes David’s chest twist.

He extends his hand. Matteo stares at it for a long time before finally taking it, allowing David to haul him to his feet.

For a second, their faces are just inches apart. Matteo’s eyes flicker, terrified, to David’s mouth.

David reaches behind him and opens the door, his eyes still locked on Matteo’s.

“After you, fair Ophelia,” he says. Matteo snorts and shoves David out the door.

 

 

“Soft you now! The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons. Be all my sins remember’d,” says Laura.

David watches silently as Laura approaches Matteo, who remains leaning against the wall. At first David wasn’t sure if he wanted to have the entire class present for Matteo’s first real scene—he thought Matteo might get too spooked. Amira persuaded him to just try it out; after all, eventually Matteo would have to perform in the actual auditorium, to a full audience. He might as well get practice.

The nerves wafted off Matteo, visible, like a fine mist. David chewed on his thumbnail, his stomach writhing with secondhand anxiety. The class was hushed, waiting for Matteo to speak his first lines.

“Good, my lord,” says Matteo, “How does your honour for this many a day?”

David straightens, transfixed. Hamlet humbly thanks Ophelia, who is drawn out of her corner, still nervous, but it’s less clear with every second that these are Matteo’s nerves, and not Ophelia’s. It feels like an acting choice Matteo’s making, and one that works beautifully. Matteo delivers Ophelia’s next lines with a kind of stumbling, half-smothered fear, and Laura plays Hamlet with all the barely-stifled rage and suspicion she’s brought to the scene so far.

“Are you honest?” says Laura. Though Matteo has nearly a foot on her, she seems to tower over him.

“My lord?” Matteo says, trying to back away, though Laura circles him, predatory.

“Are you fair?” says Laura, with such cruelty and disdain that for a moment, it isn’t clear if the fearful look that flickers through Matteo’s eyes is his or Ophelia’s.

“What means your lordship?” Matteo says, shrinking on himself.

David feels Amira’s fingers close around his wrist. They lock eyes.

Matteo is good.

David looks around. The entire class stands statue-still, completely enraptured. Laura delivers the next lines thunderously, building gloriously to the moment when she condemns Ophelia to a nunnery. Matteo plays Ophelia’s confusion and loneliness so perfectly that it makes David’s chest hurt. It’s almost unbearable to watch.

It’s brilliant. The class stumbles into stunned, breathless applause when the scene is over.

Only Matteo looks a bit lost, as if he is still wandering inside Ophelia’s mind, and there is such genuine heat coming off Laura that David can’t help but wonder how much Matteo’s wounded expression is performance and how much is real.

Helena congratulates both of them on their scene work, and for the first time a real smile breaks across Matteo’s face, small as it is. He looks at David.

“That was amazing,” David says, his eyes fixed on Matteo’s. He wishes there wasn’t a class full of onlookers. He wants to tell Matteo, in private, just how good he really is.

“Let’s give it one more go,” says David, “and Laura, could we try it less…heated? Maybe more intimate, less angry?”

Laura seems to read whatever complicated expression is playing on David’s face. She nods.

They perform the scene again. When it’s over, David searches the crowd for Matteo, wanting to pull him aside, but he slips out the door too quickly for David to catch him.

 

 

The bass is so heavy that David’s afraid the floor might crack open. The room is dark, the strobe lights are pink and yellow and blue. The song swims through David like something alive. He feels good tonight. He feels really good. He feels like he got ten hours of sleep and ate three square meals and drank enough water and checked off every line on his to-do list, though none of those things are true.

He feels like he wants to kiss someone.

Leonie has been trying to talk to him all night. David keeps dodging her. In the corner, he can see Matteo doing the same thing to Sara. He has seen Matteo go into the kitchen six times now for a drink. He has seen Matteo disappear outside at least twice for a smoke.

It’s the first real party of the rehearsal season. Matteo talks to almost no one. He doesn’t dance either. Once, he lets Sara kiss him. It lasts for all of a second before Matteo ducks away, retreating to the bathroom and shutting the door behind him.

He appears again, ten minutes later, for another drink. David watches all of Matteo’s movements, the way he retreats and returns, like sea-foam receding on a beach. David is unable to look away.

Sometimes he and Matteo’s eyes catch each other, then slide off again, hazy, slippery, unable to grip long enough to hold on. David moves between bodies in the living room, letting hands pull him this way and that, dancing just long enough to still have eyes on Matteo, then wriggling away again, closer and closer to the boy who keeps drifting farther and farther away.

He sees Matteo slip into somebody’s bedroom. David darts between bodies until he reaches the bedroom door. He presses his ear against it. Silence.

David turns the latch. The room is empty. He steps inside, slowly, not wanting to spook Matteo. He shuts the door behind him.

The window is open. David can just make out a balcony outside. Cool night air streams inside, lifting the curtains, and David is beckoned towards them, as if under a spell.

Matteo is leaning against the balcony railing. A chill shivers through David. It is so eerily like that first night that David feels almost afraid. Afraid the way he feels whenever he thinks about fate.

David doesn’t want to scare him. He jumps down from the window, landing as gracefully as he can.

Matteo turns around. His eyes are impossibly blue. His cheeks are a little pink, from the wind, and his hair lifts on a breeze, and he is so pretty that the breath catches in David’s throat.

Something catches the light. An ember, red and flickering, floats from the end of Matteo’s joint. Smoke spills from his mouth—that beautiful, perfectly shaped mouth.

Matteo holds the joint out to David like an offering.

David joins him at the balcony railing. Neither boy can look at the other.

He takes the joint and inhales, deeply. He thinks about the fact that it was Matteo’s lips that had closed around this same filter, just seconds ago. He exhales.

“I take it you don’t like parties much, huh,” says David.

Matteo shrugs. He taps on the joint, and David watches, mesmerized, as the embers flicker from the tip.

“I guess not.”

“Then why did you come?”

Matteo shrugs again. He folds his arms on the railing, resting his chin. David leans against the railing to face him.

“Better than being alone, I guess,” says Matteo.

David doesn’t know what to say to that. Matteo takes another long drag, then passes the joint back to David, still not looking at him.

“You were really good, you know,” says David quietly. “In rehearsal.”

Matteo’s eyes drift to his, shyly, then dart away again. He runs a hand through his hair.

“I don’t think Laura likes me very much,” he says.

David takes a long pull from the joint. He says nothing.

“I get it,” says Matteo, “it’s okay, I mean. It’s okay if she doesn’t like me. I wouldn’t like me.”

Matteo rests his cheek on his folded arms, finally looking up at David. David realizes it’s been at least a minute since he’s taken a full breath.

“You’re being so nice to me now,” Matteo whispers. “But I don’t know why.”

It’s only then that David realizes how much Matteo is slurring his words. His eyes are saltwater-blue, and pink around the rims. Matteo hiccups.

He’s very, very drunk.

Slowly, Matteo raises his head, then straightens, swaying a little. David can smell him: alcohol and weed and something else, something sweet, like cherry candy. Some teen-boy body spray. Their faces are dangerously close. It would take just two inches. Maybe one. One inch and David might finally know what that beautiful mouth tastes like, might finally feel its perfect shape under his own.

A crash. Matteo flinches, violently, stumbling backwards.

Someone has slammed the bedroom door open. David makes sure Matteo’s okay—he looks stricken and wide-eyed—before going to the window.

Sara and Leonie are standing in the doorway. Leonie has an arm slung around Sara’s shoulders—which is difficult, considering how much taller Sara is. Sara looks like she’s about to be violently ill.

“She’s totally wasted,” says Leonie, panicked. David can hear the music and noise from the hallway.

“Oh, shit,” says David. “Hang on.”

He turns around. Matteo is sitting on the ground, with his head leaning back against the railing.

“Are you leaving?” Matteo says, slurring, a little. He also looks like he might be sick.

“Just for a second,” says David, crouching beside him. “Stay here, okay? Stay here.”

Matteo nods. David reaches out, unthinking, and takes Matteo’s hand. He squeezes it. Matteo squeezes his back.

Only then does David leave. He helps take care of Sara, forcing her to take sips of water, while Leonie calls a cab to take her home. David walks both girls out the door and tells Leonie to text him when they get home.

He goes back upstairs. The party is beginning to fade. David dodges scattered beer bottles on the ground and couples making out against the furniture, desperate to get back to Matteo.

Matteo is exactly where he left him. His head is resting on his folded arms, wrapped around his knees.

He’s asleep.

Wind blows over them, lifting Matteo’s hair. David is frozen. An ache opens inside him, the most unbearable feeling David’s experienced in a very long time. What would have happened if David wasn’t here? What would Matteo have done when he woke up? How many times had Matteo done something like this—fallen asleep in random places, just so he wouldn’t feel alone?

David jostles Matteo awake. He cards his fingers through his hair, as gently as possible, until David finally sees a glimpse of saltwater-blue. Matteo’s eyes flutter open.

“I’m gonna take you home,” David whispers.

Matteo nods, drowsily, allowing David to pull him to his feet. David puts an arm around Matteo and helps him through the window, through the hallway full of drunken partygoers, down the stairs, and out the door.

“Where do you live?” David asks.

Matteo mumbles the name of his dorm, still half-asleep, and David puts an arm around his waist. Matteo leans against him until they reach his door.

“Keys?” David whispers.

Matteo fumbles drunkenly in his pockets before producing a single house key, no keychain, and jabs it unsuccessfully through the lock. David takes it from him, gently, and unlocks it.

David ushers him inside. The room is empty. It’s obvious which bed is Matteo’s—the messy, unmade one in the corner, piled with blankets. At the foot of it is a strange pillow, like a yoga block, which David places on the ground.

He puts Matteo to bed, fighting the urge to card his fingers through his hair again. It was so soft. Before he can leave, he feels Matteo’s fingers lock around his wrist.

David sits on the bed. Matteo sits up, leaning closer. There is a vacant, glassy look in his eye.

Matteo’s face inches closer and closer to his, until it is painfully obvious what he wants to do.

“Whoa,” says David, “hey.”

Matteo’s face falls. David picks up his chin.

“You’re not gonna remember any of this tomorrow,” David whispers. “When this finally happens,” he continues, brushing his thumb along Matteo’s bottom lip, “I want you to remember it.”

He lays Matteo back against the pillow. Matteo is so drunkenly pliable that he goes down easy. David pulls the sheet over him. He sits with Matteo until his eyes finally close, his breath evening out into sleep.

Then David goes to Matteo’s desk. It’s impossibly messy. David straightens Matteo’s things as best he can: throws away his trash, organizes his pens, stacks his scattered papers. Then he rips a page out of a legal pad and sketches their rough silhouettes on a balcony, against a moonlit backdrop.

At the top of the page he writes, “In case you don’t remember.” He sticks the folded-up paper under a glass of water beside Matteo’s bed.

He runs into Laura on his way home. She and her girlfriend live two doors down from him, and they stumble into the hallway at the same time.

“You,” says Laura, locking eyes with him, “Where did you disappear?”

Laura’s girlfriend looks almost as drunk as Matteo, and slips inside their apartment without Laura. Laura corners David outside his door.

“David,” says Laura, raising an eyebrow.

“I didn’t disappear anywhere.”

“Yes you did,” she says.

David enters a stare-off he knows he won’t win. A slow smile spreads on Laura’s face.

“It’s him,” she says. “You were with him.”

Something must cross David’s face—something he can’t control—because Laura grabs his arms, her face lighting up.

“That’s it,” she says. “I’m right, aren’t I? I know I am. You were with him.”

David pulls himself out of her grip. He leans against the door. A headache begins to pound in his temples. He says nothing.

In a much quieter voice, Laura says, “You like him, don’t you?”

David’s throat works. He takes a deep breath.

“Holy shit,” says Laura. “You really, really like him.”

David finally makes himself look at her. Her eyes soften.

“Hey,” says Laura. “I think it’s—”

“You think it’s terrible,” David finishes.

“No,” says Laura. “I think it’s—I think it’s really cool. Does he know about—”

“No,” says David, shortly. “He doesn’t.”

“Are you gonna tell him?”

David shrugs. The headache deepens. It drifts down his entire body. He is suddenly and unbearably exhausted.

“I don’t know,” he says finally.

“It’s gonna be okay,” says Laura, taking his hands. This time he doesn’t pull himself away. “No matter what happens. It’s gonna be okay.”

But what if isn’t okay. What if he lets himself fall for somebody and isn’t okay. What if he has built this entire world for himself for nothing? What if it was that easy to puncture? What if it all collapsed around him, as slowly and fatally as a deflating balloon? What if he doesn’t have the strength to build it all again?

Helena’s words swim up from some dark part of his brain, breaking through the surface. David closes his eyes.

You have built so many rules for yourself. But do your rules make you happy? Helena asked him this once.

Yes, said David.

Okay, said Helena. But when you say happy, do you really mean safe?

I don’t know, said David.

They are not the same thing, you know.

He did know. Deep down, he did.

Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive, she said.

David opens his eyes, still lost inside his own mind. Laura is still holding his hands.

“Can I sleep in your bed tonight?” she asks. “Anna snores too loud when she’s drunk anyways.”

David is seized with sudden, unbearable affection for Laura, who knows he is too proud to ever ask this of her, who always frames these things as though they are for her, when they both know it’s for him.

“Of course,” he says.

They fall asleep wrapped up together, brother and sister. David dreams of the boy by the river. The boy pulls David down to the surface, as temping as a siren. This time, David does not resist his kiss.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The bookstore has a smell that Matteo both loves and hates. A dust smell. A smell like leather and pine cleaner and moth balls. A smell like church, and sitting on his mother’s knee, and counting the seconds until he could return home to his video games. A smell like wearing a stiff button-down shirt, hiding his face in his mother’s neck, wanting to draw her attention away from the pulpit and back to him.

The bell tinkles as Matteo closes the door to the bookshop behind him. It’s early on Saturday—Matteo had woken up at 7 AM feeling like shit. He vomited twice, drank as much water as he could stomach, and finally tried to eat some of Jonas’s leftovers but was too sick to keep it down. He couldn’t fall back asleep.

He had been fumbling for his laptop when something yellow fluttered to the ground. A piece of paper.

Matteo picked it up. It was a drawing, a strangely familiar drawing, like a dream he’d had, or a movie he’d seen. Two silhouettes stood on a balcony, staring at the moon. At the top of the page were the words “In case you don’t remember.”

Matteo read the words again, as if they were written in a language foreign to his own. He scraped the barrel of his memory. There was nothing but drops. Darkness and a sour beer smell. He’d done it again, then. He’d drunk until he blacked out.

It took Matteo only a fraction of a section to recognize where he’d seen that looping handwriting before, crowding the margins of the Hamlet copy still stuffed in Matteo’s backpack.

Matteo’s heartbeat stuttered. David had been in his room. David had left him this.

He picked up the drawing again, marveling. He ran his finger along the outlines of the silhouettes. He knew there was no chance he could fall back asleep now.

For perhaps the first Saturday morning of his entire life, Matteo got out of bed, showered, put on clean clothes, bought himself a coffee, and went to the bookstore, hoping to find some Shakespeare criticism that might help him with his part.

Matteo takes another sip of coffee—it’s lukewarm now—and wanders further into the bookstore, scanning the shelves for the Shakespeare section. He walks past Comic Books and Mystery and Romance into Classic Literature. Finally, he finds the Literary Criticism section.

The titles all look like nonsense to him, Theory and Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Matteo drops his backpack to the floor and kneels down, scanning the bottom row of titles.

A shadow falls over him.

“Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” says a voice.

Matteo has the sudden, strange feeling that he is in the middle of a dream. Perhaps he did manage to fall back asleep. Why else would he hear his voice? His, of all the voices that might find Matteo here?

David leans against the shelf, the corner of his mouth twisting in a way that makes Matteo’s throat run dry. Matteo is still kneeling on the ground. He is not sure that he will be able to stand up.

“I swear I didn’t know you work here,” says Matteo, a little weakly, glancing up at David beneath his fringe.

David raises an eyebrow, still standing over him. Matteo swallows. He really, really should try to stand up.

“So how are you feeling this morning?” asks David. Matteo finally gets a good look at him. He’s wearing a black sweater with a white t-shirt underneath. There’s a name tag clipped to his collar.

“Let me guess,” says Matteo, finally climbing to his feet. “I embarrassed myself again.”

Now that they are eye-level, Matteo can see that there are dark shadows under David’s eyes. The sight of him still manages to make Matteo’s chest leap, almost painfully.

“Well. You were pretty drunk,” says David. “But I, um—”

Matteo waits. David’s eyes dip down, quickly. He has the longest eyelashes Matteo has ever seen.

If Matteo isn’t mistaken, David looks almost nervous.

“I saw your note,” says Matteo, softly.

David’s eyes bore into his. Matteo picks up a random book and flips through it, unable to keep holding his stare.

“Did I…” Matteo drifts off, “did I embarrass myself?”

“What do you mean?”

Matteo shrugs. He puts the book back on the shelf. He knows what he wants to ask: did I do something stupid when I was drunk? Did I say something stupid? Did I manage to fuck up whatever this is—fragile and elusive as it may be? But he can’t access the words, like he can’t access the memory. His mind keeps trying to revisit the night. He remembers walking upstairs. He remembers Sara kissing him. He remembers seeing David, rinsed in pink and blue strobe lights, dancing, laughing, surrounded by his friends. He remembers drinking as fast as he could. He remembers needing to escape, but he doesn’t remember why. He remembers watching smoke rings disappearing into the night sky.

He remembers fingers carding, ever so gently, through his hair. He doesn’t remember whose fingers they were.

And then he woke up.

“I brought you home,” says David quietly.

Matteo closes his eyes. His stomach sinks. He can feel color beginning to flood his cheeks. A parade of horrible images begins to invade his brain.

David had to take him home. It’s so embarrassing that Matteo almost laughs. Almost.

“Fuck,” Matteo mutters, finally opening his eyes.

David rocks back on his heels, his eyelashes dark against his cheeks.

“I didn’t mind,” says David. “I mean. Someone had to.”

Matteo picks up his backpack. He can’t look at David anymore. He’s not sure that he’ll ever be able to look him in the eye again. “Right. Well, um. Thanks. I’m, uh. I’m sorry. That you had to deal with me like that. You shouldn’t have had to do that. I’ll uh…yeah. I’ll make sure Jonas knows where I am next time.”

“Is there gonna be a next time?” says David.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” says David. “Do you always drink that much?”

Matteo freezes. He doesn’t know how to answer that. He doesn’t know how to explain what comes over him when he’s at parties—how it’s not him that keeps coming back for more, but some hungry thing inside of him that he needs to feed. A parasite. Like if he doesn’t feed it, it’ll start feeding from him.

But Matteo isn’t an artist, or a writer. He’s barely even a student. Hell, most days he barely even feels like a person. He doesn’t know how to put words around the fog he seems to carry with him. He doesn’t know how to articulate anything he feels. It’s like a sleepwalker trying to explain how they spent their night. He has the bumps and bruises—he just never remembers how he gets them, or what compels him to get out of bed in the first place.

“Sorry,” says David, quickly, “I didn’t mean it like—”

“Nah, it’s good,” says Matteo, ignoring the painful ache in his chest. He holds his coffee cup so tightly it crushes a little under his grip. “I—I gotta go. Sorry, again. I’m really sorry. I, uh—I owe you one—”

“Wait,” says David. For a second, Matteo thinks he might reach out and grab him. David’s hand floats there, then drops back to his side.

Matteo blinks at him, waiting, feeling the beginning of a headache setting in. He needs to smoke. He needs to forget that he was ever stupid enough to actually come here, to think he could find some book that would make him magically perform his part better, that might make David look at him like—

Matteo can’t finish the thought. Everything inside of him clenches like a fist.

“You never told me what you’re looking for,” says David. “I can help you. It’s—it’s kind of my job.” He gives his name tag a little flick, and it’s so cute that Matteo can’t help but feel the ache inside him deepen. He wants to be back in his bedroom. He wants to roll a joint, a perfect joint, and climb back into his bed and fall asleep. He wants to stay asleep for the rest of the weekend. He wants the ache to disappear.

“It’s okay,” says Matteo. A lump is forming in his throat. “It was a stupid idea, anyways.”

And before David can say anything else, Matteo leaves the bookstore. The wind chimes jingle behind him.

 

 

“Hey, you cleaned your desk,” says Jonas. “Nice.”

Matteo pulls a headphone out of his ear. He is laying on his stomach, half-asleep, half-watching some stupid show he found on Netflix.

He looks at the desk. He hadn’t even noticed all of his pens were lined up, all of the messy piles of papers organized neatly into stacks, all of his books pushed against the wall, instead of scattered on the floor.

Matteo blinks. Arranged neatly in the center of the desk is a yellow legal pad. The same yellow legal pad David had taken his note from.

David had organized his desk.

Matteo’s eyes flutter shut. He wonders if it’s possible to feel more humiliated than he does in this moment. He doesn’t think that it is. It isn’t just that David has seen Matteo blacked out and sloppy-drunk and probably making a damn fool of himself. It isn’t that he had to drag Matteo back to his dorm room. It’s that he can now confirm all the things Matteo’s sure David already thought about him: that he is messy and useless and barely has his shit together.

He can’t imagine what David must think of him now. He probably thinks exactly what he thought of Matteo the moment he laid eyes on him. Sure, their first rehearsal had gone okay. Matteo had practiced his lines all night. He had flipped through David’s copy of the play, over and over again. He had done the work, and his performance had actually seemed to turn out half-decent in the end.

But what if that was just a one-off, and Matteo was still the fuck-up they all thought he was? David had promised him, in that storage closet, that he hadn’t cast Matteo as some cruel joke. Matteo had wanted so badly to believe him. But belief is a funny thing. His mom believes things that aren’t true. She believes God gives a fuck about their stupid little lives. She believes that when she speaks to God, he hears her. She believes that she can hear him speaking back.

Matteo had believed, for almost a full twenty-four hours, that he could pull this whole Ophelia thing off. But belief is nothing but a hard, bright light we shine in our eyes. It doesn’t mean the truth goes away. It’s still there, waiting, in the dark.

He glances out the window. The sun is a dusky red-violet. It strikes him, suddenly, that he hasn’t eaten anything all day. He hadn’t even noticed.

“I’m uh, gonna head to the dining hall. Carlos and Abdi will there,” says Jonas. “You coming?”

Matteo tries to envision himself getting out of bed. Putting on real clothes. He’s pretty sure he smells terrible. He doesn’t want to bring down their mood.

“Nah,” says Matteo. “Already ate.”

Jonas sighs loudly. Matteo rests his cheek on his folded arms. He can still hear the tinny, faint sound of the show playing through the earphones, abandoned next to his pillow.

“Matteo, I know you didn’t,” says Jonas.

“Yeah, I did,” Matteo lies, almost instinctively. “I ate like an hour ago.”

“What did you eat?”

“Pizza.”

“What kind?”

“Cheese.”

“Who'd you eat with?”

Matteo rolls his eyes. He runs a hand over the back of his hair. He feels all the momentum drain from him. The silence bears down on him, like a boot on his neck.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” says Jonas. “I’m gonna stand here and wait until you get out of your bed. You’ve been in here all weekend. Dude, you haven’t even changed out of the clothes you were wearing yesterday morning.”

“So what?” Matteo mumbles into his pillow.

“What’s that now?”

“So what?” Matteo says louder, still not removing his face from his pillow.

Jonas clucks his tongue. “Dude. I don’t know what’s going on with you. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t feel like it. But you do have to like, eat and leave your bed every once in a while.”

There is an ugly voice inside of Matteo that wants to spit hateful things at Jonas, to say that he’s not his mom and he’s not a fucking child and he doesn’t need to be told what to do. Some days that voice is louder than all the other voices in his head. It’s not a devil on his shoulder, it’s not separate from him—it is him. And other days he’s so tired that even that voice can’t find the energy to speak. He has no reason to be this tired. He hasn’t done anything.

“Luigi,” says Jonas, in a voice so gentle it reminds Matteo of the years he spent sharing a bed with him when they were younger, barely fighting the desire to run his fingers through Jonas’s hair or thread their fingers together.

Matteo sighs loudly, then rolls off the bed onto his feet. “Happy?”

Jonas gives a slow clap. Matteo gives a sarcastic bow, breaking off into a laugh when Jonas puts him into a headlock.

He goes to the dining hall. He drinks a glass of water. He buys a burger and actually manages to eat half of it, even though his appetite is totally fucked. He talks and he listens and he laughs at the right times and when it’s over and he’s finally allowed to return to his bed, he’s so tired that he falls right to sleep.

 

 

“Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” says Matteo.

The class is silent, crowded against the walls of the rehearsal space, watching. Leonie, as Queen Gertrude, sits in a chair in the center of the room.

“How now, Ophelia!” says Queen Gertrude.

He is supposed to sing the next lines. He stares at Leonie, who stares back at him, waiting. His heart rate quickens. Matteo tries to picture the words on the page. But they aren’t coming.

Amira, in the corner of the room, is mouthing them at him, her eyes wide and urgent. Matteo can’t read her lips.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, running a hand over the back of his hair. “I can’t remember the next line.”

David pushes himself off the wall. He and Helena share a quick glance that makes Matteo feel nauseous.

“That’s okay,” says David. “It’s a really difficult scene. Why don’t we jump back to Scene 4?”

Laura, Sara, and the others step forward. Leonie gives a loud, frustrated sigh, and she and Sara share a look that makes Matteo feel even worse.

“Amira, could you help Matteo run lines?” David asks.

Matteo can’t look at him. Amira approaches him, nudging Matteo’s arm, and he follows her into the hallway.

The silence is too much for him. He feels like saying something nasty, anything to wipe that too-concerned look off her face. But he can’t bring himself to do that. Even he knows that Amira deserves better than that.

“Everything good?” she asks, finally.

Matteo sinks down the wall. His head falls back. Eventually, Amira joins him on the floor, waiting for him to speak.

“This is pointless,” he mumbles. “I’m shit. It’s not gonna work.”

“What’s pointless is you sitting here feeling sorry for yourself like that’s actually gonna help,” says Amira.

Matteo rolls his eyes.

“Stop acting like a little bitch,” says Amira.

Matteo laughs through his nose, a little surprised. He looks at her. She punches him in the arm, and Matteo laughs again.

“Come on,” she says. “We’re running lines.”

They run lines for the next hour. Amira isn’t a very good actress, and Matteo makes fun of her until she punches him for real. He’s laughing, still rubbing his arm, when the door opens. David’s face peers out.

Matteo’s arms fall awkwardly to his sides. David closes the door quietly behind him. He’s wearing his beanie again today. Matteo studies his face, unable to help himself. There is a tiny streak of blue paint on David’s jaw. Matteo wants to run his thumb along it.

He can hear voices rising and falling behind the door. Scattered applause.

“Everything good?” David asks. He looks right at Matteo.

Matteo shrugs.

“He’s being a little shit,” Amira answers for him, “but he knows his lines now.”

David’s eyes travel down Matteo’s body in a slow, searching way that makes all the blood rush to his cheeks.

“Good,” says David, locking eyes with Matteo. “You ready to do the scene?”

Matteo nods, jerkily. He doesn’t trust himself to speak.

Amira and Matteo follow David back into the rehearsal space. Leonie takes the seat in the center of the room again, and the rest of the actors return to the wall.

“Let’s do the scene from the top,” says David.

Leonie nods.

“I will not speak with her,” Queen Gertrude announces, imperiously.

“She is importune, indeed distract: Her mood will needs be pitied,” says a Gentleman, pleading with her.

“What would she have?” Queen Gertrude asks.

The Gentleman explains Ophelia’s behavior: how much she speaks of her murdered father, how her speech is senseless, how it is “nothing” and yet how the “unshaped use of it doth move the hearers to collection.” Ophelia winks and nods and gestures as though she’s a thinking creature, yet how can she be? the Gentleman implies. She’s perfectly mad. Horatio encourages Gertrude to speak with Ophelia, lest she “strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.”

“Let her come in,” says Gertrude, surrendering, exasperated.

Matteo shuffles forward. Leonie plays Gertrude with a kind of wan exasperation, as though ready for the exchange to be done with. She watches Matteo as he paces the room, as if lost in his own world. As if he doesn’t even know where he is.

“How should I your true love know from another one?” Matteo is meant to sing the lines, but instead he sort of whispers them, as if speaking to himself. “By his cockle hat and staff, and his sandal shoon.”

“Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?”

Matteo does not look at her. He looks at the floor, pacing with slow, dragging, dreamy steps. A book has fallen out of someone’s backpack on the floor. Matteo picks it up, flipping through it mindlessly.

“Say you?” Matteo says, looking at Gertrude suddenly. Leonie sits back in her chair, as if genuinely surprised to be acknowledged. “Nay, pray you, mark.”

Then Matteo approaches her. He reaches out, as if to touch her face, and Leonie recoils, as if she is afraid. Matteo sings, “He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone.”

He is still holding the book he’d picked up. He drops it, laughing at the way Gertrude flinches at the sound.

“Nay, but, Ophelia—” Gertrude whispers.

King Claudius enters. He and Gertrude watch as Ophelia continues to descend, and Matteo slips deeper and deeper into the madness of her grief. It is almost scary to lose himself in it—at times he is barely aware of the choices he’s making, but the lines surge up from him, from some deep place beside his memory, and he can hear himself saying them, moving dreamlike through the room, at turns playful and singsong and then deeply, perilously anguished.

He hears their applause when it’s over. It takes Matteo a moment to remember where he is. Bodies brush past him, picking up backpacks and headphones and jackets, chatting mindlessly as they shuffle from the room.

Matteo looks up. He sways a little, unmoored.

Only he and David are left in the room. Matteo doesn’t recall moving: suddenly David is right in front of him, just a foot away.

“Matteo,” says David. Matteo loves the way David says his name.  “You are—that was…” David drifts off, as if searching for the right words, and Matteo is seized with fear. He doesn’t want David to finish the thought, especially if it’s bad. He wants to remain suspended here, forever.

“That was amazing,” David says, finally.

Matteo swallows. He looks down.

“I—um,” says David. “I think what you’re doing with her is genius.”

“Is that a joke?” says Matteo.

David laughs a little through his nose. Matteo isn’t sure why that’s funny. David takes a step closer to him. Matteo stays rooted to the spot, hooked on David’s gaze.

“I’ve seen probably…four, maybe five different Hamlet productions. Matteo, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone play her like you do. That sort of playful thing you do, the kind of strange dreamy sort of mischievous thing, picking up the book, it’s so much—I don’t know. Sadder. Especially when she sort of really unravels by the end of the scene and becomes so visibly mournful. You play Ophelia like…it’s hard to explain. Like she’s still trying to play some game she doesn’t know she’s already lost.”

Matteo doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t think he can. All he can do is stare into David’s eyes, which are a shade of brown that Matteo is certain never existed before him. Dark and rich, almost liquid.

“Why don't you ever believe me?” says David.

“Huh?” says Matteo.

“When I say you’re good,” says David. “You never believe me.”

Matteo lowers his eyes. He wants to believe him. He wants to, he does, more than anything. He just doesn’t know how.

“Okay, let’s do this,” says David. “Tomorrow, let’s meet, one on one. We’ll talk about the scenes together and map out a game plan. Just you and me.”

“When?”

“Let’s say eight,” says David. “No one will be in the theater. Let’s meet on the stage. I want to see you interact with the actual sets.”

Matteo manages a nod. “Okay. Eight.”

“It’s a date,” says David.

Matteo’s stomach flips. The corner of his mouth lifts, almost helplessly. “A date?”

David’s eyes flick, ever so slightly, to Matteo’s mouth. Softly, he confirms, “A date.”

 

 

Matteo picks up a cape and drapes it around his shoulders. He examines a little prop skull and spins it on his finger, throwing it into the air and catching it. The dressing area isn’t a real dressing area so much as a chaotic free-for-all backstage, just behind the curtain: vanity stools and chests full of wigs and shoes and junk, filthy makeup palettes scattered across benches and smudged mirrors, masks and hats hanging off chair legs, well-worn velvet ottomans patched-up with duct tape. Matteo spins in a rolling chair, almost crashing into one of David’s precious graffiti sets, balanced on huge cinder blocks.

Matteo almost falls off the chair. He hears a laugh.

His head snaps around. David is leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the stage, watching him. He looks terribly amused.

“Enjoying yourself?” says David.

Matteo shrugs, fighting back a grin. He grabs what he thinks is a wig—it turns out to be a long, grey wizard’s beard, and hooks it around his ears.

“I’ve decided on my Ophelia look,” Matteo announces seriously.

David laughs. It’s a beautiful sound: completely un-self-conscious and free. Matteo bites back a smile, privately pleased.

His eyes land on a pair of masks, hanging by thin, transparent straps from the mirror on one of the vanities. Matteo throws the beard off carelessly behind him, not bothering to see where it lands, and picks up the mask. There are in fact two masks, cheap plastic kind stacked on top of each other: comedy and tragedy.

Matteo holds the tragedy mask over his face. He lowers it slowly, revealing a manic smile. David laughs, shaking his head. Matteo swaps it for the comedy mask, and repeats this until David finally rips the masks from his hands and throws them to the ground.

Matteo spins in his chair again, undeterred. He picks up the object nearest him: a crown. He makes a sweeping gesture, miming for David to sit.

David obliges, with the same look of amusement, as if he almost can’t help but play along. Matteo puts the crown very delicately on his head.

David’s expression melts, almost imperceptibly, into something else. Something almost shy. Matteo’s fingers linger just a moment too long in the softness of David’s hair. Their gazes meet in the same instant, and it is as though they both experience the same voltage shock. They look away.

Matteo takes a step back. David stands up from the chair, still wearing the crown. He searches the vanity table, then, as if conjured from nowhere, he produces a tiara from behind his back.

A knot works in Matteo’s throat. He watches, transfixed, as David comes closer and closer. He puts the tiara on Matteo’s head.

“So now that we’re in costume,” says David, finally, and Matteo can’t help but notice that his cheeks look pinker than they did a moment before, “shall we begin?”

Matteo throws his arms out. “Direct me.”

Those words seem to have a particular effect on David. His eyes drag up and down Matteo’s body so thoroughly that Matteo feels stripped-down, almost bare before him. He looks as hungry as Matteo feels.

“You want to be directed?”

Matteo nods, almost unthinking.

“Okay,” says David. “Let’s move to the stage.”

Matteo does as David says. He moves past the tall, velvet curtains onto the stage. The auditorium is completely empty, and the lights are low. There are floodlights at the foot of the stage, and the aisles are dimly lit, but otherwise it feels dark and intimate.

On stage is David’s first set: a cityscape, dirty and crumbling, looms over a dusky red skyline, limned in smog. It’s designed to look as though the stage itself is beneath a bridge, like an underpass overlooking the river. As David has explained in workshop, over the course of the play, the underpass walls will change to accommodate different graffiti scenes. Only the Ophelia graffiti scene—the blonde-haired figure by the river, with flowers in her hair—will remain until the curtain call.

It is this set that Matteo pauses in front of. He can feel David’s presence behind him. The heat of his body.

Matteo leans back and back and back. Until he’s falling.

He hears David’s laugh right before strong arms catch him, under his arms. Matteo laughs as David tips him back onto his feet.

Matteo turns around, grinning. “Trust fall,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing you and Helena like, right?”

David raises an eyebrow. His cheeks look pinker than ever. Matteo wonders what other tricks he might pull to get David’s hands on him again.

“So are you saying you trust me now?” says David. His eyes glitter in the strange, intimate darkness of the stage.

Matteo lifts his shoulder. “Maybe.”

“I did catch you, after all.”

Something sparkly catches Matteo’s eye. His tiara. He hadn’t even noticed it fell. David scoops it up and places it back on Matteo’s head. Both of them avoid each other’s eyes.

“So do you believe in all that now?”

“In what?” says Matteo.

“Trust falls and vulnerability exercises.”

Matteo walks backward across the stage. David follows him.

“Maybe,” he admits finally.

“Maybe we should try one out.”

“Another trust fall?” says Matteo.

“No,” says David. He sits at the foot of the stage, his feet dangling down. He gestures to the spot beside him. Slowly, Matteo lowers himself to the floor. “A vulnerability exercise. It’ll be like a warm-up.”

Matteo leans back on his elbows. “Okay.”

David brings up one knee and rests his elbow on it. He faces Matteo. For a long moment, he just studies him quietly, his cheek propped on his knuckles.

“Tell me something about yourself,” David says quietly, “something you’ve never told anyone before.”

Matteo swallows roughly. His eyes drift upwards, higher and higher, to the domed ceiling of the proscenium.

“No,” David directs, “you have to look at me when you say it.”

Matteo can’t. He can’t look at him. All the playfulness he felt before, the looseness, the easiness, it all drifts away from him, too high for Matteo to reach. He can’t get it back. All he’s left with is himself, and that is too difficult to bear.

“You said you wanted me to direct you,” David says, gently.

Matteo bites his bottom lip, then releases it. He can still feel the heat of David’s gaze, watching him steadily, patiently. Waiting.

It’s like Matteo is climbing a ladder. The longer he waits to say it, the farther he has to fall. He gets more and more winded with every step. The air is too thin up here, too thin for him to breathe.

“I um,” he starts, his voice barely louder than a whisper. He forces himself to meet David’s eyes, and his shocked by the softness he finds there. “I like—fuck.”

“It’s okay,” says David. Matteo can’t believe he’s still able to look into eyes. “You can—”

“I like boys,” Matteo says, finally. It’s more of an exhalation than a sentence, a release of a breath dressed up like sounds and syllables.

It’s David that looks away first. A hundred different micro-expressions trip across his face, one after the other, as if he can’t keep hold of them all. A grin lingers. He bites it back.

“You like boys,” David repeats, almost as if he’s saying it to himself. He holds back another small, private smile. “Have you—you’ve never told anyone—”

“Well, kind of. My old roommate knows, though I never actually could say the words out loud. I moved out of my house when I was like sixteen and lived in this flatshare. My roommate, this guy Hans, he was gay. My best friend kind of knows, Jonas, though I’ve never actually said it. But I know he kinda knows.”

“Thank you,” David says softly, “for telling me.”

Matteo feels a little bit high. He lays back all the way onto the floor, his legs dangling off the edge. A laugh floats up from him, a giddy, stupid laugh.

“How now,” says David, “what noise is that?”

Matteo looks up at him, his brow furrowed. He knows that line. That’s Laertes’ line, in Act IV, Scene 5. As Ophelia goes mad.

David nods at him, as if recognizing the exact moment Matteo catches on.

Matteo sits up, then rolls onto his knees.

“Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny,” says Matteo, sort of sing-song. It’s one of Ophelia’s more absurd lines from that scene, a nonsensical song she most likely made up.  David begins to grin. “And in his grave rain’d many a tear: Fare you well my dove!”

Matteo half-shouts the last line. David jumps, startled, then laughs. Matteo grins, climbing to his feet. David watches him.

“Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge, it could not move thus,” says David.

Matteo spins. “You must sing a-down a-down, And you call him a-down-.”

“This nothing’s more than matter,” says David, reciting Laertes’s line.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” says Matteo. He jumps off the stage. “Pray, love, remember.”

Matteo walks farther into the aisles, his voice echoing. “And there is pansies. That’s for thoughts.”

He runs his fingers along the seats. “There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s for you, and here’s some for me.” Matteo picks up a bottle cap he finds on the floor, then tosses it over his head.

David is watching him, transfixed.

Matteo takes the tiara off his head, as if speaking to it. “There’s a daisy,” he says matter-of-factly, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end.”

He throws the tiara on the ground. “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.”

David’s voice, soft as it is, carries over the seats. “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself. She turns to favor and to prettiness.”

Matteo scoops up the tiara and places it back on his head. He walks down the aisle, singing Ophelia’s final song as a kind of horribly bastardized dirge, stopping and starting as if making up the words as he goes, drifting between the seats.

When it’s over, David starts a slow-clap. Matteo slumps into one of the seats in the front row and gives a mocking bow.

“Could you do that in the show?” David asks.

“Do what?

“That,” he said. “Everything. Everything you just did.”

“I was just fucking around,” says Matteo, suddenly embarrassed.

“No,” says David. “Do you know what most actors fail to realize about Shakespeare—something you seem to realize almost without even having to think about it?”

Matteo shakes his head. David has climbed to his feet, almost restlessly. He stands over Matteo, still wearing his crown, looking so striking and princely that Matteo feels the urge to simply lie at his feet.

“It’s play,” says David. “Literally. It’s play. And I don't just mean wordplay. Most actors—they just memorize the lines and recite them. But you—you’re playing. You’re inventing. Matteo, you didn’t miss a beat of her speech. You nailed every piece of it, every conjunction and preposition was right where it’s meant to be. But you made it sound like yours. You disappeared.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying follow your instincts,” said David. He jumps off the stage, coming closer and closer to Matteo. “You asked me to direct you. But you don’t need half as much direction as you think.”

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” Matteo whispers.

“That’s the genius of it,” says David. His gaze sears into Matteo, deep and penetrating. “You don’t overthink it. You just follow her whims. It’s brilliant.”

“So you’re saying all that stupid shit I just did was good? You won’t hate me if I go off the rails like that in your show?”

“Your stupid shit isn’t just good, it’s better than good,” says David. “See, the thing that happens in this scene—it should feel devastating. I want the audience to feel that devastation. I want it to feel like an interruption. Ophelia is literally going mad. And yet, most actors still try to play it with such control. But you, what you did, the thing you seem to just get, instinctively, is that it’s literally about going off the rails. No map, no roads, nothing—Ophelia is left here with nothing. The man she loves has left her. He’s made her feel totally worthless. Now her father is dead. She’s totally lost. And what does she do in the scene? She sings, she talks to herself, she speaks of—of flowers, and of—”

“And then she kills herself,” says Matteo quietly.

David falls silent. Matteo runs his fingers along the velvet seat. He stares up at David’s set on stage. The girl by the river, with the flowers in her hair.

“She’s found drowned,” David says, after a long moment. “Do you think she does it herself?”

A sudden, unspeakable sadness sinks down Matteo’s stomach. He nods.

David takes the chair beside Matteo, so they are now both facing the stage. The proscenium looks so much more majestic from below, in the front row. It towers over their heads. And though Matteo now knows how small the stage feels when you’re standing on it, from here it looks enormous. As vast as a real riverbed.

“Why does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a nunnery?” asks Matteo quietly, after a long silence.

David leans back in the chair, thoughtfully. He balances his chin on the steeple of his fingers.

“He’s so cruel in that Act 3 scene,” says David quietly, looking at his lap. “He mocks her, asks Ophelia if she is honest and fair. He blames her for her beauty, as if it is some kind of trick.”

“He says, ‘I did love you once,’” says Matteo.

“That’s right,” says David. “And what does she say?”

“‘Indeed, my lord,’” Matteo recites, “‘you made me believe so.’”

“You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it,” says David. “I loved you not.”

“I was the more deceived,” Matteo whispers.

Get thee to a nunnery,” says David.

David takes the crown off his head and stares at it for a long moment. “A nunnery, as you’ve probably guessed, doesn’t really mean nunnery.”

“He means a brothel,” says Matteo. “I looked it up.”

David’s eyes flick to his, quickly. He looks almost surprised.

“You’re right,” he says. “He’s mocking her. But of course, the sad thing is that Ophelia has completely devoted herself to him. And Hamlet is so…so lost in his own misery that he can’t see that.” David’s voice lowers, almost as though he’s talking to himself. “Hamlet pushes everyone away. He trusts no one. He doesn’t let himself.”

“And meanwhile,” says Matteo, “Ophelia doesn’t have any clue what she’s done wrong.”

David nods. Matteo takes the tiara off his head. It is a cheap, plastic thing. The gold is flaking off, revealing rusted nickel underneath. Rhinestones are missing.

“You know,” David says, after a long silence, “It seems only fair, doesn’t it, that I do the vulnerability exercise, too.”

Matteo looks at him, sidelong, under his eyelashes. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

David’s eyes meet his. In their depths is a strange, mercurial look, tentative and brave and fragile all at once.

“I’m trans,” he says finally, almost simply. There is the slightest tremble in his voice, and it makes Matteo’s heart feel like it might shatter against his ribcage.

“Okay,” says Matteo.

David looks away. Matteo can hear how shallow his breath has become. Without thinking, he stands up, moving in front of David. He picks up the crown and puts it back on his head.

David doesn’t move. A muscle is leaping, over and over, in his jaw. He still isn’t looking at Matteo. His knuckles are white on the seat-rests, like he is seconds from breaking them.

“Hey,” says Matteo.

David still doesn’t move. Matteo drops to one knee, right in front of him. Tentatively, he runs his thumb over David’s hand. David lets out a short, sharp, painful-sounding breath.

“Hey,” Matteo says again, even softer. Slowly, slowly, slowly, David’s eyelashes lift—those gorgeous, sinfully long eyelashes—and their eyes meet again.

Their faces are so close to each other. Matteo’s lip darts out, instinctively. David’s eyes flicker down to Matteo’s mouth.

Doors crash open. Matteo flinches and jumps backward, surprised. David turns.

A couple making out stumbles through the open doors, then pauses, their eyes landing on David and Matteo. The girl bursts out laughing.

“Sorry,” she says, “Didn’t know this was occupied.”

Color floods Matteo’s cheeks. The couple stumbles back outside, the doors slamming shut loudly behind them.

David laughs, shyly. His eyes, if Matteo isn’t mistaken, look a little wet.

“I should go,” he says.

Matteo nods. He offers a hand. David gives another shy laugh and takes it, allowing Matteo to pull him to his feet.

“There’s uh, another rehearsal party tomorrow,” says David. “At Laura’s place.”

“Does she still hate me?” says Matteo.

David shoots Matteo a look over his shoulder as he hops back onstage. “She never hated you.”

“Yeah that’s a fuckin’ lie,” says Matteo. “A liar knows a lie when he sees one.”

“So you’re a liar then?”

“I’m an actor,” Matteo corrects, walking backwards and nearly toppling into one of David’s sets.

David grabs him by the arm before he can fall.

“And to think,” he says, their faces once again much too close, “just a few weeks ago, you thought this was all stupid.”

“Who says I don’t still think it’s stupid?” says Matteo, raising an eyebrow.

They are backstage again. Out of nowhere, David dips his hand into one of the trunks full of junk and produces a play-sword, jabbing it in Matteo’s direction. Matteo jumps back and picks up a makeshift shield, blocking David’s blows and eventually throwing a pink wig at him to distract him. David spits out a bunch of hair, throws down the sword, and tackles Matteo to the ground.

“Admit that it’s not stupid,” says David.

“No,” says Matteo, half-screaming, half-laughing when David gets the sword back in his hands and pokes the tip into his chin.

“Say it,” says David.

“Never,” says Matteo, grabbing the hilt of the sword and tearing it from David’s grip.

By the time they are finished wrestling, the backstage area is completely wrecked, Matteo is somehow wearing a cape, and David has broken Matteo’s plastic tiara. They are both bright red from laughing.

“Okay,” Matteo says, finally. They are both sprawled on the ground on their backs, red-cheeked and giddy. “You win.”

“You have to say it,” David insists.

Matteo rolls his eyes, but he knows he will say the words. He thinks he would say anything to make David keep smiling like that. “It isn’t stupid.”

“Say you like it.”

“We didn’t agree to that,” Matteo protests.

“Say it.”

Matteo closes his eyes with a sigh. “I like it.”

“You’re too easy,” says David, gazing down at Matteo so fondly that it makes him feel lightheaded. Matteo can’t even protest. He is too easy. He knows he is. David won the moment they locked eyes that first day in the registrar, and Matteo decides in that moment that if this is what losing is, he hopes he never wins.

 

 

Matteo limits himself to two beers and one joint. He still feels drunk. Only he’s drunk on something else.

The party is winding down. Matteo leans against the wall, next to Sara—she seems to have caught on that he isn’t interested in her, not like that—and Matteo, Sara, and Amira spent most of the rehearsal party playing Fuck Marry Kill using their cast members. As the party finally begins to break up, he feels Amira’s elbow brush against his.

“You seem good,” says Amira. “You seem better.”

Matteo shrugs. He is staring at David. He has been staring at David all night—and sometimes, he finds David already staring at him.

“You were really good in rehearsal the other day,” she says.

“Thanks,” says Matteo.

“Have you seriously never acted before?” she asks.

Matteo fiddles with a string dangling from the hem of his sweater. “Well. I guess I did when I was young. My mom put me in church choir, and they used to do all these shows too, like around Christmas and stuff. Then she put me in community theater.”

“And you liked it?”

Matteo shrugs. “I guess. It was better than being home after school, anyways.”

David locks eyes with him across the room. There’s only a handful of people left in the party: Laura and her girlfriend are making out sloppily on the couch, Leonie and Sara are still hovering over a laptop, adding songs to a playlist, and most of the other cast members have either left or gone outside for a smoke.

Matteo watches as David disappears into the kitchen.

“I’ll be right back,” says Matteo. Amira nods.

He follows David into the kitchen. There’s a fire escape outside the door, and Matteo can see David’s silhouette.

Matteo knocks once before opening the door. David doesn’t look at Matteo as he steps onto the fire escape beside him.

They both stare into the city below. It’s a foggy night, and the sky is an apocalyptic cloudy-red, stained by storm clouds and light pollution. They are quite high off the ground, and it’s late enough that there are few cars out. They can hear the distant shouting of people on the street: drunk city dwellers just leaving the bar, or returning home, or shuffling into one last late-night spot for a final night cap.

Matteo glances at David. His face is drawn and serious, as though lost in thought. His arms are crossed on the railing, his chin resting. Matteo copies his stance.

“Everything okay?” Matteo asks finally.

David straightens. He grips the railing, and Matteo can see how tightly he’s holding on. David still doesn’t look at him.

“Remember when we first met?” David says finally. “I was kind of…I dunno. I guess I don’t really know what you thought of me.”

“I thought you hated me,” says Matteo, though he says it lightly, joking.

But David doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t smile either.

“I didn’t hate you,” says David. “I just, um—” He breaks off. Matteo wants to reach out and take his hand. He doesn’t.

David is silent again, for a very long time. Finally, his voice a little raspy, he says, “We had a class together once. Did you know that? A Psych class.”

Matteo remembers a Psych class. He remembers showing up thirty minutes late most days, if he showed up at all. He remembers falling asleep during every lecture: back then, Jonas was going through his breakup too, and the two of them would go to every class high. They never did the homework, or took the tests seriously. Matteo of course had received a failing grade in the end. Jonas had managed to just barely pass, by the skin of his teeth.

But he doesn’t remember David. Which means he must’ve been truly fucked out of his mind, because he would’ve noticed David anywhere.

“I failed that class,” says Matteo. “I barely ever went. I’m surprised you even noticed me.”

“I saw you cheating, once,” says David. His voice is clear against the night, and the silence that follows it makes Matteo’s blood run cold. “You—you pulled out this crumpled piece of paper. I sat a few rows behind you in the lecture hall. You just copied down all the answers from it during our final exam.”

Matteo doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what to say. He barely even remembers doing that, though he’s sure David is right. It sounds like something he’s done.

Shame coils in his gut. He can’t look at David anymore.

“I used to live in my car, you know," says David.

Matteo can barely breathe. He listens to the shaky exhale David gives before he continues, “My parents, they kicked me out of the house when I was fifteen. After I told them—" His eyes flick quickly to Matteo's, as if he's still afraid of how Matteo might react. And though Matteo knows he might not understand everything completely yet, he wants to reassure David anyways, wants him to know that David has nothing to be afraid of. If anything, it's Matteo who still can't quite believe David is here, that he's still speaking to him. That he hasn't pushed him away.

"I was homeless for a while," David says, the faintest tremor still audible in his voice, "I heard about this place, an abandoned building, where there were other people. Other people like me. That’s where I met Laura, actually. After a while though, it got too dangerous to stay there. I was still in school, then. I got a job at the bookstore, and another at my old gym, and another at a coffeeshop. I started living in my car so I could save up money. Then I got into uni, and that changed everything. I just work at the bookstore now, and I pick up shifts at the coffeeshop sometimes, if I need more money. But—” he takes another shaky breath, “It’s not easy. I feel like I can’t ever let my grades drop. Some weeks I work so much, with school, and my jobs, that even when I lay down to sleep I can’t turn off my brain. I had to start seeing someone—a counselor, I mean. Laura made me go. It helped, kind of. But weirdly, it was this—” David gestures vaguely behind them, at the apartment, the cast members still lingering at the party, “this, doing theatre stuff, that’s helped me the most. It makes me feel like I have control over something. Something good.”

Matteo’s arm brushes against David’s. David doesn’t move. He finally looks at Matteo, and the look in his eyes breaks Matteo’s heart all over again.

“I misjudged you,” David says quietly. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for that. I thought you were something you weren’t. I made a whole bunch of assumptions about you without trying to get to know you. I didn’t want to get to know you. I didn’t want my assumptions proven wrong. I thought it was better that way—safer, or something.”

“It’s okay,” Matteo whispers. There’s a lump in his throat, and he doesn’t entirely know why. He wishes he was better at this. He wishes he was the kind of person who knew the right thing to say.

Matteo’s fingers close around David’s, and before he can think he brushes their lips together.

David inhales, sharply. He jerks backwards.

Matteo stares at him. His heart is beating so fast he thinks it might shatter his ribcage. Blood roars in his ears. He can’t think. He can’t speak. David is staring at him, wide-eyed, and Matteo is seized with sudden, unbearable terror. Did he make a mistake, did he misread everything, will David hate him now, after this, after everything, is it over? Is it already over? What if David never speaks to him again, what if, what if, what if—

And then Matteo’s back is being pushed against the brick wall and there is a hand on his hip and another on the hinge of his jaw and he is being kissed within an inch of his life. He feels everything inside him unspool. David pulls himself away, his eyes staring into Matteo’s, seeing everything, everything he is, and Matteo offers up his mouth again and David’s lips crush against his. Matteo would slide down the wall if David weren’t holding him. He would liquefy completely. He feels dizzy, he feels high, he feels like he’s left his body entirely. David’s thumb drags along Matteo’s cheeks. He kisses the curve of Matteo’s bottom lip, then the top, then the tip of his nose, then his cheeks. He kisses Matteo’s forehead.

“It’s late," David breathes, his forehead pressed into Matteo's. “I need to go home.”

David leans back and runs his fingers through Matteo’s hair. Matteo can barely take a full breath.

“Where is home?” he manages to whisper.

David smiles fondly. He pulls Matteo impossibly closer, running his thumbs along Matteo's hipbones. Matteo’s arms wind around David’s shoulders, playing with the hair at the nape of his neck.

“I don’t live in my car anymore, don’t worry,” says David. “I live in a dorm. A single, actually.”

Matteo raises an eyebrow. He laughs, shyly. “Oh?”

David’s face is serious again. Matteo could lose himself in his eyes. They are the most soulful eyes Matteo’s ever seen. David’s eyes look like outer space. They are a galaxy all their own. Matteo could live a thousand years staring into them and still not see every inch of their depths. He wants to try anyways.

“Come with me,” David says softly.

Matteo’s eyes flutter shut. He presses his face into David’s neck, and David holds him even tighter.

There are so few times in Matteo’s life that he knows what he wants. A sleepwalker goes where the night bids them: they don’t have a say in it. They don’t remember their steps.

Tonight Matteo lifts his face to the sky. He feels the night-breeze and hears the birds and the faint sounds of traffic and the shouts of living creatures hundreds of feet below and for the first time in his life, he’s one of them. He’s alive. He's awake. And with a perfect clarity, a clarity that so often eludes him, he knows that his life belongs to him. He will have a say in where he goes.

He goes with David.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

There’s one place from David’s childhood he still likes to go sometimes. One place that the memory of his parents hasn’t bruised for good. One place that’s immune to those wounds. He has to climb up twenty flights of stairs and scale a skinny ledge on the side of a building, but the view at the top is worth it. His parents said they discovered this place when they were in college. When David left home, he told them they could have everything except that rooftop view. He would still go. It was his. They could take everything else from him. But not this.

On early mornings, the sky is pearly-grey and the sun washes up like high tide on a beach, rinsing everything in pale gold and blue and ballet slipper-pink. Sometimes sunlight pours in through the clouds, a ray of molten gold, and David imagines a choir of angels. The city below is like a row of perfect doll houses, and it makes David feel like a god. He is certain that this view, this place, is the most beautiful sight he would ever see.

But that was before David knew what this boy looks like when he wakes up in the morning, this boy of his, with his chapped mouth the color of a ripe grapefruit, his lunar-pale cheeks flushed pink and hair like silk between his fingers, his head on David’s chest tipping up to look at him, those saltwater-blue eyes revealing themselves slowly, slowly as sun begins to spill through the window. His mouth finds David’s. It lingers there sweetly, barely moving: the most delicate kiss David’s ever received.

“You,” Matteo whispers, still blinking sleepily.

David exhales, deeply. He runs the pad of his thumb against Matteo’s bottom lip, and Matteo kisses it. David can feel the corner of his mouth lifting. Matteo begins to smile back, and David runs his fingers through Matteo’s hair, twisting a lock around his finger.

“You,” David whispers.

And Matteo ducks his head, his smile turning shy, and that. That is the most beautiful sight David’s ever seen.

 

 

David watches fondly as Matteo picks up various objects in his room and examines them: a water faucet he stole from an abandoned community center, a beetle trapped in amber, a wine goblet David stole once from an antiques store after the shopkeeper gave him a dirty look. A shelf full of old sketchbooks that Matteo rifles through, his touch so delicate, marveling, as though he’s examining a prayer book, or a sacred text.

Matteo runs his fingers over David’s sweaters in his closet. He pulls a thick white one off its hanger, breathes it in and pulls it over his head. David takes a sip of coffee, hiding his smile behind the rim. Matteo flops back onto the bed, belly first. David reaches over and combs Matteo’s hair back from his forehead.

“Your drawings are good,” says Matteo. “I like the ones of the girl beside the river. Like your Ophelia one. With the flowers.”

Matteo crawls forward on the bed until his head is in David’s lap, like a kitten. David reaches over the sketchpad next to his bed and tears out a few pages, and after a few minutes, manages to fold the paper into a flower. A rose. He twists the end until it makes a long stem, like a wick, and tucks it behind Matteo’s ear.

Matteo presses his face into David’s knee. David draws his finger along Matteo’s cheek. The paper flower looks perfect on him. He’s surprised he still knows how to fold it correctly; his mother had been obsessed with origami when David was a child, and they had spent dozens of evenings in front of the television, folding paper into strange and beautiful shapes. He hasn’t attempted it since he left home.

“I’m going to draw you,” David whispers.

Matteo rolls over onto his knees. His hair is a mess from David’s fingers, but the flower stays put. He reclines into a ridiculous pose.

“How do you want me?” Matteo asks, and David laughs, shoving Matteo backwards, until he nearly falls of the bed.

“Sit by the window,” David says. “On the ledge.”

Matteo shrugs and does as David says. David arranges Matteo’s limbs where he wants them, tilting his face until the late afternoon sunlight pools around his face like a halo.

“Don’t move,” says David. He sits at the foot of his bed with his sketchpad and begins to draw, his tongue poking between his teeth, brow furrowed in concentration.

Matteo lasts for about ten whole minutes before he starts pulling a goofy face. David shakes his head, his pen between his teeth.

“Matteo,” he warns.

Matteo grins. He closes his eyes and resumes his pose again, almost comically serious.

David fights back a smile. The light is hitting Matteo’s hair just so: it looks like a sunbeam trapped in a cloud, wispy and iridescent.

Then Matteo starts to slump down the wall again.

“I’ll give you one more chance,” David warns.

“My back hurts,” says Matteo.

“You’re the laziest boy in the entire world, do you know that?”

Matteo throws a balled-up piece of paper at him. David catches it in the air and throws it back. It hits Matteo in the face, and David bursts out laughing.

Matteo curls up in the window, his arms covering his head.

“Okay, okay, okay,” David says, throwing his sketchbook on the bed and walking to the window. He coaxes Matteo back into a sitting position.

“Are you gonna be good?” says David.

Matteo opens one eye. He thinks it over. “Maybe,” he says, finally.

“If you let me finish,” says David, “you’re gonna look so good in your sketch.”

It’s the right thing to say. Matteo looks briefly stunned, the way he always does when David pays him a compliment. It makes something in David’s chest twist, painfully. 

“You can’t just say things like that,” says Matteo.

“I can do whatever I want,” says David. He runs his fingers through Matteo’s hair, and Matteo lets himself be pulled upright again, his back against the window ledge.

David returns to the foot of the bed. He is sketching out the bow of Matteo’s upper lip: the long, graceful curve of it, when Matteo starts fidgeting again.

David throws his sketchbook down and marches to the window. Matteo laughs, ducking when David reaches for him. He twists away until David catches him by the wrist and tugs him close.

Matteo struggles only a little. He goes limp in David’s arms, still grinning, his eyes flicking to David’s mouth.

“You’re doing this on purpose,” David says.

Matteo’s eyes are half-hooded. He gives a slow, filthy grin, until David backs him into the wall.

David’s arms fold around Matteo’s waist. Matteo’s head tips back against the wall, his eyes slipping shut.

“Is this what you wanted?” David says, his mouth a breath away from Matteo’s.

Matteo’s lips just barely brush against his, as if begging for a kiss. David leans back, drinking in every inch of Matteo’s face, as if committing it to memory. A knot works in Matteo’s throat. He’s so hungry for it.

David kisses him. He kisses him like Matteo’s mouth belongs to him. He kisses him roughly, and then he kisses him sweetly. Matteo clings to him, like he might slip down the wall if David let go, and he looks so tempting that David can’t help but kiss him again.

Then Matteo walks him backwards until the back of David’s knees hit the back, and David rolls on top of him as soon as they reach the bed, pinning Matteo’s wrists to the mattress.

Matteo leans up as far as he can, still pinned to the bed. Against David’s mouth, Matteo whispers, “I win.”

 

 

It’s almost nine PM when David finally disentangles himself from Matteo, after nearly four hours of video games.

“Okay, I need to actually get some work done,” says David, sitting up in bed. Matteo groans and wraps himself around David’s back.

“Matteo,” David warns.

Matteo,” Matteo parrots back, mockingly.

David removes Matteo’s arms half-heartedly, laughing as Matteo immediately wraps his arms around his shoulders.

“Are you gonna let me get any work done?” David asks.

Matteo shakes his head, his hair tickling the back of David’s neck.

“I’ll order you a pizza,” David says.

Matteo shakes his head again.

“What do you want?” David asks.

Matteo kisses the side of David’s neck. David fights back a shiver. Matteo’s mouth leaves a trail of kisses, sweet, feather-light little kisses, up David’s neck, to his jaw.

David turns his cheek, capturing Matteo’s mouth in a real kiss. He feels Matteo exhale against his mouth, falling limp again.

David takes the opportunity to shove Matteo back to the bed and roll onto his feet.

Matteo scrubs his hands over his face. His t-shirt rides up a little, revealing the pale, smooth inch of skin above the waistband of his sweatpants. His arms fall back to the bed.

“You’re gonna be the death of me, Florenzi,” says David, shaking his head. Matteo rolls onto his stomach, propping his chin on his hand.

David walks to his desk and opens up his laptop.

“Are you actually gonna do work right now?” Matteo complains.

“Matteo, I haven’t even checked my email in like two days,” says David.

“So?” says Matteo. “I haven’t checked my email since this dumb school made me get one.”

David shakes his head. “You’re ridiculous.”

Matteo groans into the sheets. “You’re boring.”

David throws a pen at him. Matteo ducks just in time.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen: I’m gonna read these two chapters for class tomorrow and write my post for the class discussion board. And you can either lay there and behave—” Matteo rolls his eyes at this. “Or you can go to your dorm to get your homework and bring it back here and do it with me.”

Matteo takes one of David’s pillows and brings it to the foot of the bed, folding his arms around it. He looks like a brat. David can’t believe how much he’d like to kiss him right now.

“I don’t have any homework,” says Matteo, his voice half-muffled in David’s pillow.

“Liar,” says David.

“I don’t,” says Matteo. “My classes are really easy this term. That’s why I picked them.”

“Then you can start studying for your mid-terms.”

Matteo snorts. “What kinda fucking nerd starts studying now?”

“This nerd,” says David, throwing another balled-up piece of paper at Matteo’s head. It hits him in the forehead and rolls off the bed onto the floor.

Matteo curls up into a ball. He plays games on his phone, still curled at the end of David’s bed, for a full thirty minutes before he finally rolls off the bed and drapes his arms around David’s shoulders.

“Matteo, you were doing so good—”

“Shh,” Matteo hushes him and plucks the book out of David’s hands. He straddles his lap.

“You’re a distracting little shit, you know that?”

“You like it,” Matteo whispers, kissing David’s jaw.

David can’t help himself. His willpower isn’t strong enough to withstand a lapful of Matteo. His hands find the back of Matteo’s t-shirt and slip underneath. He drags his fingertips along Matteo’s spine, accepting all of Matteo’s sweet, sinful kisses. Matteo’s arms are draped over the back of his chair, and David takes Matteo by the hips, pulling him impossibly closer.

“You’re a piece of work,” David whispers.

Matteo’s cheeks flush. David takes Matteo’s bottom lip between his teeth, and Matteo fists the back of David’s t-shirt, inhaling sharply. David kisses the bite mark.

“I’m ordering you a pizza,” says David. “And then I’m gonna work for another hour. Good?”

Matteo nods. David gives him one last kiss: a deep, bone-melting kiss that makes Matteo’s fists clench in his hair.

“Enough,” says David, pushing his chair away from the desk. He forces Matteo to climb off of him, and Matteo trudges reluctantly back to the bed, hugging the pillow to his chest again.

David orders a pizza. Matteo, bored, starts going through all of David’s things again, and after twenty minutes pass, he’s in David’s lap again until David’s phone rings, announcing the pizza’s arrival.

Matteo throws on a jacket and his shoes to retrieve it. David watches him leave. He leans back in his chair and scrubs his hands over his face, laughing helplessly into his fingers.

David has smoked weed only a handful of times in his life. He’s never liked it much. He prefers to feel in control. But this, this easy looseness in his chest, the giddy fog of his brain—this must be what it’s like to be high. It’s better than being high.

Matteo crashes through the door again, pizza held aloft, saying something about how he probably left too big a tip for delivery, he’s always bad about calculating that on the spot, and David gets up from his chair and takes Matteo by the jaw and kisses him.

“What was that for?” says Matteo.

“Nothing,” says David, running a thumb over Matteo’s hipbone. “Now get me a slice of pizza.”

 

 

“Doesn’t it feel like,” Matteo whispers, his head on David’s shoulder, his breath hot against his neck, “like, I don’t know. We’ve known each other a long time?”

David has an arm around Matteo’s shoulders. It’s dark outside. Moonlight lances through the window, pooling dreamily at the foot of the bed. A puddle of blue. He can hear music playing faraway in another dorm room. Someone is playing a guitar. Over their heads, footsteps patter in circles. He wonders if the people that live above him are dancing. David closes his eyes. Matteo’s breathing is so deep and rhythmic that he feels he’s being lulled underwater.

He can feel Matteo trace swirling patterns on David’s arm. Goosebumps rise under his touch. He buries his lips in Matteo’s hair, squeezing him closer. Matteo stops tracing and curls his arms between them, his fingers resting on David’s chest.

Three days now, they’ve spent in each other’s arms. He feels like they are in the belly of a ship. Like they’re underwater. He imagines schools of fish darting through the window. Streams of air bubbles swirling past. The sway of seaweed, the translucent undulations of jellyfish. It doesn’t just feel like he and Matteo have known each other for a long time. It feels like David’s never known anything else. Or, like everything he’s known before was just one dimension adjacent to the world he was meant to live in: all the colors muted, all the sounds muffled, every touch strange and foreign. Like all his life he was forcing himself to breathe on land, wondering why he felt so wrong. When all this time, he was meant to be here, floating on this dreamy blue current. With him.

 

 

David finally walks Matteo home the next morning, on his way to class.

“Let’s have lunch between classes?” David asks. Students mill around nearby, chugging coffee, headphones buried in their ears, digging books out of backpacks. Matteo stands close beside him, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.

He’d been quiet all morning, smiling only after David wrestled him into the bed after they woke up. David finally asked him what’s wrong, but Matteo had just shrugged, playing games on his phone until David threw a sweatshirt at him and forced him to get dressed.

“I don’t have any classes today,” says Matteo, shuffling even closer to David. David wonders how Matteo will react if he puts a hand on his hip, right here in the quad.

Tentatively, he reaches a hand out, taking Matteo by the waist. Matteo, to his surprise, curls into him.

David presses a quick kiss to Matteo’s lips. The corner of Matteo’s mouth lifts.

“Okay,” David says, a little more shyly than before. Matteo is ducking his head, the tiniest smile still playing on his face, his cheeks a little pinker than before, and not just from the morning chill. David’s never kissed a boy in public before, and he’s certain that Matteo never has either. “Meet me for lunch anyways?”

“Okay,” says Matteo, threading their fingers together, and David pulls him in for one last, quick kiss.

He barely manages to concentrate during class. Matteo sends him four different stupid memes throughout the course of it, and David can’t help but grin privately to himself every time. He can feel Laura’s stare boring into him.

“You didn’t take any notes,” she hisses to him as they join the flood of students walking out the door. David slides his phone into his back pocket. “Not one.”

“Well good thing you did,” says David, “I’ll just copy yours.”

“Lovesick you is already unbearable, I can tell,” says Laura, hooking her elbow into his.

David rolls his eyes.

“You can’t even deny it,” says Laura. “Oh my god. You’re literally such a fucking dork for him already. For him, of all people—I mean, he’s talented as shit, I’ll give you that, and look I was as shocked as anybody but he’s still him—”

Laura cuts herself off. They’re standing in front of the dining hall. David is staring at the last text Matteo has sent him: a very dumb selfie, but he’s wearing David’s sweatshirt and his hair’s a mess and if David had the boy in front of him, he would—

“Holy fuck you’re legitimately head over heels for this kid,” says Laura.

David pockets his phone quickly. “No I’m not.”

Laura laughs out loud, and at that moment a hand comes up behind him and tugs the hood of David’s sweatshirt over his eyes.

“Hey,” says Matteo, a little breathlessly. He gives David a shy smile, his eyes flitting quickly to Laura.

“Hey,” says David, just as breathless.

Laura rolls her eyes. “I’m gonna go get lunch. Come find me when you’re finished being a dork.”

“How was class?” Matteo asks, still a little shy, as if he and David haven’t spent the past three days entangled in David’s bed.

“Couldn’t concentrate,” says David, his voice lowering an octave.

“Oh yeah?” says Matteo. “Why’s that?”

“You know why,” says David, his lips close to Matteo’s ear.

Matteo takes a shaky breath, and David grins.

“Come on,” David says. “Let’s get in line.”

They bring their trays over to Laura and Anna and sit opposite them. Anna is talking animatedly about a boy in her Bio class that she despises, and Laura is half-listening, half studying Matteo and David, who are about one french fry away from starting a two-man food fight. To retaliate from Matteo wiping his salt-covered fingers all over David’s sweatshirt, David went a little too far with the ketchup, some of which made it into Matteo’s eyelashes.

“It looks like I beat the shit out of you,” David laughs. Matteo tips his head back as David tenderly wipes under his eye.

“It stings,” says Matteo.

“No it doesn’t,” says David.

“How could you possibly know that it’s my eye—”

“Shh,” David shushes him. “You shouldn’t dish it out if you can’t take it.”

Matteo pushes David’s hands away. His face is clean again, and David wants to kiss every inch of it.

“I can take it,” says Matteo, quiet enough for only David to hear. He is not talking about food-fights. David swallows, hard.

“Are you quite finished?” Laura says loudly, glaring at them as she takes a furious bite of her apple.

Matteo hides a laugh into his sweatshirt.

“I want to go to a bar tonight,” Anna announces. This is why David likes Anna. She always manages to diffuse the tension.

“What bar?” David asks.

“That lesbian bar, the kind of divey one with the pool tables,” says Anna, running a hand through her short blonde hair. She throws an arm over Laura’s shoulders. “What do you say?”

Matteo shrugs. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

Laura raises an eyebrow and turns to Matteo. “Clearly you’ve never seen him play pool.”

“I’m amazing at pool,” says David.

“Yeah that’s not the problem,” says Laura. “The problem is you become completely insane.”

“No, I don’t,” says David quickly.

Matteo turns to him. “What is she talking about?”

“I have no clue,” says David, glaring at Laura, who begins to grin.

“David is the most competitive asshole on the planet, I swear to god,” says Laura. “He becomes completely nuts.”

Matteo laughs. “Is that true?”

“No,” says David through gritted teeth. “But we’re gonna beat them anyways.”

“I’m terrible at pool,” says Matteo.

“I’m good enough for the both of us,” says David, downing the rest of his water. He stands up, and Matteo follows him.

“Eight o’ clock?” says Anna.

David nods, picking up both of their trays. Matteo follows David out of the dining hall and into the courtyard. Matteo sits on one of the table benches, and David steps into the vee between his spread knees.

“I want to see Competitive David,” Matteo says.

“Well that’s basically inevitable at this point,” says David, taking the strings of Matteo’s hoodie and tugging Matteo’s mouth to his.

“I’ll pick you up later,” says David.

Matteo puts his hands in the front pocket of David’s sweatshirt.

“What are you doing now?” Matteo asks.

“I’ve got to stop by the PAC and meet up with Mia—she’s agreed to do lighting for the show. We have to go over some stuff.”

“Okay,” says Matteo. He looks a little sad again. “I could help, if you want.”

“Help?” David raises an eyebrow. “You’re too much of a distraction to be any help.”

Matteo bites his lip. He looks like he wants another kiss. David presses their forehead together, brushing his lips against Matteo’s.

He pulls away. Matteo still looks strangely miserable. He plays with the strings of David’s hoodie, barely able to look him in the eye.

“Hey,” says David softly. “What’s wrong?”

Matteo shakes his head. Finally, his eyes meet David’s.

“Are we…” says Matteo. His voice is barely louder than a whisper.  “You know. Is this like—”

Matteo’s hair falls into his face, and David strokes it back, waiting.

“Are we together?” Matteo finally manages to ask.

David presses their foreheads together. He can hear how fast Matteo’s heart is beating. He takes Matteo’s hands in his and locks their fingers together.

“Matteo, are you asking me to go steady with you?” says David. Matteo rolls his eyes, trying to push David away, but David’s hold on him is too strong. “Are we asking if we’re boyfriend and boyfriend?”

“You’re the worst person I’ve ever met, I hate you—” Matteo mutters. David pulls Matteo close until his arms are draped over David’s shoulders.

“I could write a note if you want. Will you be my boyfriend Matteo Florenzi? Check yes or no—”

Matteo groans loudly, twisting out of David’s grip, but David boxes him in again.

Love goes toward love as school-boys from their books, but love from love, toward school with heavy looks—”

“Are you quoting fucking Romeo and Juliet at me right now?” Matteo demands.

“How’d you know that’s Romeo and Juliet?” says David.

Matteo ducks his head. “I don’t know—”

“Have you been studying Shakespeare?”

“No—” Matteo protests, still struggling weakly in David’s grip.

David pulls Matteo in by the back of his neck and kisses him more thoroughly than before.

“Yes,” David whispers against Matteo’s mouth. “We’re together.”

“You don’t think it’s too fast?” says Matteo.

“Do you?”

Matteo shakes his head. He runs his hands down David’s chest, loosely holding the front of David’s sweatshirt.

“I just don’t want—” says Matteo, drifting off, and for a moment his mind seems to spin in front of David, in a transparent orb, all of Matteo’s darkest thoughts plainly visible. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Matteo,” David whispers. “I want to be with you.”

Matteo’s throat bobs. He ducks his head.

“Why don’t you ever believe me?”

Matteo’s face falls, almost imperceptibly, before smoothing into aloofness again. David runs his thumb along the back of Matteo’s neck.

“Believe me,” David says.

David wishes he really could see into Matteo’s mind. He wishes he could clean it like he cleaned Matteo’s desk. He wishes he could carve out all the bad that’s collected inside, like a malignant growth. He wishes he could replace it with only beautiful things.

After a long silence, Matteo finally looks at him. “Okay,” he whispers.

David kisses his forehead. “What are you gonna do now?”

Matteo shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess go back to my room. But I don’t really feel like being by myself right now.”

“Do you want to come with me?”

“I promise I won’t distract you,” says Matteo, already grinning, like he knew David would cave.

David laughs. He pulls Matteo off the table, onto his feet, and puts an arm around his waist.

“You definitely will,” says David, pressing a kiss to Matteo’s cheek. “But you’re coming anyways.”

 

 

“Show me again,” says Matteo, his mouth a breath away from David’s. “I don’t think I get it.”

The bar is smoky and too-hot. Sweat beads at David’s forehead, and he’s probably had one beer too many. Laura and Anna are pouting on the other side of the pool table—they’re losing badly, as David predicted, and Laura is being a very sore loser.

“Oh my god,” Laura shouts across the bar. It’s crowded tonight, and it seems like there are about three different birthday parties happening at once. On the pool table next to them, a girl in a pink wig and a leopard-print onesie is dancing on the table, screaming along to the music while the bartender unsuccessfully tries to pull her down. “Just take the shot already!”

David and Matteo are playing solids, and they have just a purple and a red ball left. Laura’s scratched her past two turns, and she’s pissed about it. Anna is cradling a bright blue cocktail with both hands, sucking on a cherry stem.

“You need to hit it low,” David explains, his mouth brushing Matteo’s ear. “See?” he points with his stick, “the only way you can get it in the pocket is if you try to hit the cue ball so it hits the wall, and then knocks into the purple at an angle.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I get it,” says Matteo, “I think you need to show me.”

Matteo scrunches up his face in a way that says he very much gets it. But he’s gonna make David demonstrate for him anyways.

“Oh yeah?” David raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah.” Matteo’s eyes fall to David’s mouth, a slow, crooked shadow of a grin playing on his mouth.

David wishes his beer were still cold. He wants something cool to press to his cheeks. His clothes—his skin, even—feel too tight. Overheated. Matteo has been playing this game with him all night: playing dumb and making David coach him, which inevitably means David’s chin on his shoulder, his mouth close to his ear, guiding Matteo through the motions. Matteo’s wearing a loose t-shirt, and there is something about him in it, so lissome and loose-limbed, that seems intentionally designed to make David short-circuit completely.

“Like this?” says Matteo, his eyes glittering knowingly, looking at David over his shoulder.

David has shown him the correct stance five times now. Of course Matteo still fucks it up.

He coaxes Matteo’s elbow into the right position and leans over his back, his fingers folding over Matteo’s, guiding his cue stick into the correct line.

“Basic physics,” David says lowly. Matteo bites his lip. “I told you.”

“Yeah, I was never any good at physics,” says Matteo, giving David another dirty, too-knowing smirk. “I think you’re gonna have to keep teaching me.”

David shakes his head and stands up. Matteo laughs to himself, knowing exactly the kind of effect he’s having on David, and David hates that it’s making him even more turned-on.

Matteo makes his shot. The ball shoots into the pocket, right on target.

David can’t help but shout “Fuck yeah!” and Laura makes a face like she wants to throw her drink on him.

He shrugs, a sorry-not-sorry gesture which makes Laura actually start to stomp over to them, until Anna yanks her back by the hood of her sweatshirt.

“I think I deserve a kiss,” says Matteo, sidling up to him.

“I think you deserve to be called a little shit, which is what you are,” says David.

Matteo’s arms close around David’s waist, his fingers crawling up the back of his shirt. “I think you like it,” he says softly.

David and Matteo stare at each other for a solid ten seconds before David mutters, “Come on.”

He takes Matteo by the arm and drags him outside, to the alleyway with the smokers, and pushes him against the wall.

“But the game isn’t—” Matteo starts, and David’s mouth crushes against his, shutting him up.

Matteo’s arms curl around his neck, pulling David even closer.

“So what I’m learning is I should definitely bring out Competitive David more often—” Matteo teases.

David can feel his cheeks flushing even darker than they already are.

“Have I told you’re a fucking menace already?”

“Like ten times,” says Matteo.

David kisses him again.

“You like it,” Matteo whispers.

David presses their foreheads together. He slides his hands into the back pockets of Matteo’s absurdly baggy jeans. Matteo inhales, sharply, his head falling back against the brick wall. David’s mouth latches onto his bared throat, sucking a line of kisses up to Matteo’s ear.

“We’re going back to my place,” says David.

Matteo nods frantically, his eyes half-hooded, looking even drunker than before. David texts Laura that they’re leaving, which he’s sure she’ll be glad of. He and Matteo slip an arm around each other’s waists and manage to actually walk fast—normally Matteo either walks at a glacially slow pace or slows David down by trying to trip him. By the time David manages to unlock his door, he’s so keyed-up that he immediately pushes Matteo against it, their mouths drawn to one another instinctively.

“Fuck,” David breathes, pressing his forehead against Matteo’s. Matteo pants, hard.

David takes Matteo’s hands in his, stroking his knuckles with his thumbs. He pulls Matteo further into the room.

“I need water,” says David, suddenly. “Do you want water?”

Matteo nods. His eyes are a little glazed-over. He looks kiss-drunk. David is sure he doesn’t look much different.

He goes to his mini-fridge and opens up a water bottle, chugging as much as he can. He passes it to Matteo, who drinks just as quickly. Some water slips from the corner of his mouth—David watches, transfixed, as the drops trickle down Matteo’s neck, disappearing down the collar of his t-shirt.

“I gotta piss,” says David, a little raspy. Matteo nods, dazedly.

David closes the bathroom door behind him, collapsing against it. He can hear how hard his heart is thumping. He feels like if he takes off his shirt, he’ll be able to see the muscle pulsing right under his chest.

He doesn’t have to piss. He leans over the sink and splashes cold water onto his face. He opens his eyes, staring into the mirror.

He has never been this turned-on in his entire life.

David holds his towel over his face, inhaling. He touches the towel rod, almost afraid it’ll electrocute him. He feels like there are voltage shocks skating up and down his arms, lightning drifting from the tips of his fingers.

Finally, he opens the door.

Matteo is standing at the foot of David’s bed, with his back to him. He’s taken off his shirt, and his bare back is pale and smooth. His jeans sit low on his hips, exposing the twin dimples at the small of his back. David’s eyes rake over him: the delicate wings of Matteo’s shoulder blades, the supple dip of his lower back. David’s footsteps thud, slowly, as he approaches. He puts a hand on the back of Matteo’s neck, which bends for him, pliantly. He runs his fingers down Matteo’s spine. He presses his lips against the vulnerable vertebrae at the base of Matteo’s neck, burying his nose in Matteo’s hair. He hears Matteo’s breath hitch, sharply. He pressed the front of his body against Matteo’s back, sliding one hand from his throat to his abdomen, and then further down. And further still.

Matteo gasps, in a ragged, breathy way that makes David’s entire body seize with arousal. Matteo is quiet—quieter than David imagined he would be, in the many private nights when David imagined this moment. The noises Matteo is making ruin David worse than almost anything else: sweet, bitten-off sounds, as if so stunned by pleasure, so stupefied by its novelty, that he can’t help but react. Matteo’s head lolls back against David’s shoulder, his body jerking against him. David’s mouth moves to his neck, crowding against Matteo’s back, losing himself in the sensation of the sublime, almost dizzying friction of their bodies moving together.

Fuck, Matteo.” David’s voice is a low, deep rumble in Matteo’s ear. Matteo takes another shivering breath, and David can tell he’s close. David feels almost unbearably sensitive, and he keeps grinding against Matteo, almost unthinking, chasing the sweet, throbbing, almost painful sensation at the sharp point where their bodies meet. Matteo reaches back, as if needing something to hold onto, as if wanting David even impossibly closer than he already is.

When the moment comes, they both hold each other, swaying, panting heavily, still miraculously on their feet. After a minute of this, David begins to laugh.

“What?” Matteo says, turning around. David gathers Matteo in his arms—he feels so limp in David’s arms, like a doll with his strings cut.

“We just came in our pants like fucking teenagers,” David laughs. “I didn’t even know I could get off like that.”

“Ah, shit,” Matteo mutters, grinning. He hides his face in David’s neck. “That’s fucking embarrassing.”

Matteo’s lips find his. David cradles Matteo’s face in his hands.

There is more he wants to say. There are pages he wants to write, and art he wants to make, about the moment his body met Matteo’s. How they met like two strangers who were never strange at all, who in fact knew each other from the start. As David and Matteo hold each other in the center of his room, like two dancers after curtain-call, clutching each other in relief after the show, there is a part of him that wants to say some version of this to Matteo out loud. And there is another part of him that wants to make use of another language, the language of a body that knows another, a body that does not have to speak to explain itself. A body that is its own language, or perhaps outside of language entirely. Whatever language his body speaks, Matteo speaks it too. That is what David wants to say. He thought he spoke a tongue foreign to everyone but him. But Matteo, somehow, knew it already. Without David ever breathing a word.

 

 

The next morning, Matteo clings to him, not wanting David to leave. When David sits up, Matteo wraps himself around his back like a koala. At first it’s playful. But there is a moment when when the playfulness rotates into something else, as slowly and imperceptibly as a planet spinning on its axis. David is starting to sense that mornings aren’t very kind to Matteo. Like if Matteo had his way, the day would never actually begin. It would just be him and David in bed, suspended, as if outside of time entirely.

“Can I just stay here?” Matteo asks.

David turns to him, holding a bottle of cologne. He’s finally managed to escape the bed—which wasn’t very difficult, in the end. Matteo is a wily, determined thing, and he plays dirty, but he has almost zero actual muscle to speak of.

Now David’s dressed and showered, his teeth brushed. Matteo meanwhile is still in bed, wrapped in David’s duvet like a burrito, his hair rumpled, looking sad and sulky and far too kissable.

“Don’t you have class?” says David.

“Uh….normally, yeah,” says Matteo. “But our professor rescheduled this week. My next class isn’t until Thursday.”

“You mean workshop?”

Matteo nods.

“Don’t you wanna go back to your dorm at least?”

Matteo draws a circle with his finger in David’s sheets. His face falls. “Not really,” he mutters. “But I can, if you want me to go.”

David throws his backpack onto his shoulder and walks to the side of the bed. He takes Matteo by the chin and kisses him.

“Of course I don’t want you to go,” David says.

Matteo smiles. It is his first real smile of the morning.

“Can I use your shower?” says Matteo.

“Of course,” says David. “You should eat something, too. There’s not that much food in the fridge right now—I really need to go grocery shopping. Maybe we can do that tonight when I get home.”

Matteo nods, fiddling with the strings of David’s hoodie.

“But the stove in that little kitchenette over there works if you wanna make something, and there’s a microwave and coffee maker, too. Actually there should still be some coffee left in there—I kept the machine on in case you want some,” says David.

“Okay,” says Matteo, still holding onto David’s hoodie.

“Are you gonna let go of me so I can actually go to class?”

Matteo makes a face like he’s thinking it over. David shakes his head, pulling Matteo in to kiss the top of his head, then shoves him back to the bed.

“Be good,” he warns, unlocking the door, “Don’t go through any of my shit.”

Matteo smiles, exaggeratedly angelic, and David rolls his eyes, shutting the door behind him.

The rest of the day passes with little event: David manages to actually focus during his classes, he meets with Mia to finish planning the lighting for the show, and he and Leonie block a scene she’s been struggling with. Matteo doesn’t text him much, though David figures this is a good thing—hopefully it means Matteo is actually getting some work done now. He’s not sure how worried he needs to be about how little work Matteo seems to have, or if he needs to be worried at all. Either way, there isn’t much David can do about it. They’re Matteo’s classes after all, and it’s up to him, not David, how much work he wants to put into them.

It’s a little after seven when he finally manages to drag himself home, exhausted and starving. He had a granola bar he found smushed at the bottom of his backpack for breakfast, and a banana Laura forced on him during class, but otherwise he’s been so busy he didn’t have time to stop into the dining hall.

David unlocks the door.

He stands in the doorway, stunned. At first he’s not sure he’s walked into the right apartment. It smells amazing, like garlic and caramelized onion and something else David can’t quite put his finger on.

“….Matteo?” David calls out.

He hears a click from the bathroom, and the door swings open.

Matteo is wiping his hands on his jeans, staring wide-eyed at David.

“Fuck. I wanted to be in here when you walked in,” says Matteo. He looks shy, but a little excited, too.

David steps further into the room. “Uh, what’s going on?”

“I, uh,” says Matteo, biting his lip, “I made you dinner.”

That’s when David sees the pot on the little stove: the stove he almost never touches himself, except to make ramen and sometimes eggs, if he has the energy. The only appliance in the tiny kitchenette he makes any real use of is the microwave, since he’s normally so busy that he just grabs food on campus when he has the time.

“Sorry,” says David, “you what?”

Matteo looks even more nervous now. “Is that bad? It’s just you said I could use it, you know earlier, and you’ve been really stressed so I dunno, I thought—”

David goes over to the pot on the stove and removes the lid. Inside is a very fancy-looking pasta, with mushrooms and tomatoes and some kind of cream and other aromatics David isn’t savvy enough to identify.

“Hopefully it’s good,” says Matteo. He’s still standing in the same spot, hugging his own shoulders, “I went out and bought some stuff, it wasn’t that much—”

David pulls Matteo close and kisses him. Matteo smiles against his mouth. David combs his fingers through Matteo’s hair, studying his face with a fond smile.

“What?” Matteo gives another shy laugh.

“You continue to surprise me,” says David.

Matteo shoves him away, embarrassed now. “I can do some things, you know,” he says.

“Of course you can,” says David. “You can do lots of things. I just, um—” It’s David’s turn to be shy. He swallows roughly, busying himself with putting down his backpack and his jacket, needing something to do with his hands. “No one’s ever—you know, done something like this for me. This is new.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better, I’ve never done anything like this for somebody before either,” says Matteo.

“You haven’t?”

Matteo shakes his head. David doesn’t have a real table for them, just one big chair in the corner. He isn’t sure he even has any dishes, though Matteo manages to find some in the back of his cabinets and fixes them both plates. Matteo makes David take the chair, claiming he likes sitting on the floor anyways.

David takes the first bite. Matteo watches him so seriously that David almost bursts out laughing. He chews slowly, drawing it out, just to be an asshole, until Matteo gets so frustrated he punches David’s knee.

“It’s good,” David laughs. Matteo’s eyes narrow. “Seriously. It’s…actually like insanely good. Suspiciously good. How the fuck is this so good?”

Matteo twirls a forkful of pasta. “My mom…she’s Italian and she’s a really good cook. I used to always help her when I was a kid. But she um—”

David listens, taking another bite. He’s only ever heard Matteo mention his mom in passing before.

“—well,” says Matteo. “She’s struggled with depression for a long time. It got really bad when I was like…I dunno, eleven or so. So bad she wouldn’t leave her bed for days. I mean…days. And since I was a kid I didn’t really know how to do much on my own. I mean I could get myself to school and I’d eat there but when I got home…” Matteo’s fork clinks against the plate. A knot works in his throat. “Like, I’d get hungry, for dinner, you know, but she just…it’s like she might as well have not even been there. So I just started making dinner myself. Eventually I’d make dinner for both of us.”

“Is she okay now?” David asks quietly.

Matteo shrugs. “She’s been on medication for a while. I um…I don’t really see her that much.”

David nods. Matteo stands up to sit sideways in his lap on the big chair, and they make a mess trying to feed each other the rest of their dinner. Matteo bites a cherry tomato from David’s fingers, biting his thumb in the process, and David almost pushes him off the chair. Matteo hangs on, turning so he’s straddling David’s lap, their plates scraped clean and abandoned on the floor.

“You’ve spoiled me,” David murmurs, his fingers beginning to crawl up the back of Matteo’s shirt. “I mean, now I know you can do that I’m gonna wanna come home to that all the time.”

Matteo’s arms wind around David’s neck. “You should lower your expectations,” he whispers.

David tries to shove him off his lap again, but Matteo clings on, determined. After about a minute of wrestling, David finally disentangles himself and cleans their dishes, smacking Matteo with a dishtowel after Matteo sprays water on his shirt.

They brush their teeth together to wash out the garlic taste—David lectures Matteo for about three straight minutes about it doesn’t count as brushing your teeth if you only do it for ten seconds—and finally crawl into bed. 

“I feel like I still taste like garlic,” Matteo murmurs. He buries his head in David’s chest.

David picks up Matteo’s chin for a kiss. “Worth it.”

 

 

David has one essential morning rule for himself. It begins with the mirror. He started the ritual when he was young, long before he starting taking hormones, long before surgery, long before Laura, and Helena, and the theater. Sometimes he begins this ritual after his run, sometimes before. Some days, perhaps even most days, it is quick, easy, and painless. Sometimes the ritual takes hours: long, laborious, painstaking hours. He has punched the mirror more than once.

The rule is this: stand in front of the mirror until you like what’s reflected back.

What most people don’t say is that liking your reflection is work. Literal work. It means finding clothes he feels comfortable in, it means shaping his body into something he enjoys and admires, it means trying to marry his brain and his body in holy matrimony. It means reconciling them through the fight. It’s not a bending of wills, or a domination. It’s a negotiation. Every day is a negotiation. It is long, slow, private, lonely work. It is work that never, ever stops.

“David?” Matteo’s voice is still sleep-soft, groggy, half-muffled by his pillow.

David doesn’t turn away from the mirror. He unclips the headphones he wears for his morning run and removes the armband for his phone case. He’s wearing a long-sleeved grey shirt, stained with sweat at the collar. His cheeks are still red.

He likes his reflection today, though he wants to go to the gym. The trouble with running is it means you lose weight, muscle mass included. He runs because he loves the way it scrubs his brain clean, floods his body with endorphins, makes him feel strong and alive and durable. But it’s been a while since he’s been able to hit the gym, and he’s starting to feel anxious about how skinny he’s been looking recently.

He hears the bedsprings squeak and Matteo’s sleep-heavy footsteps.

“Morning,” Matteo whispers, putting his chin on David’s shoulder. Their eyes meet in the mirror.

“You might not wanna do that, I’m about ninety percent sweat right now,” says David.

“Don’t care,” Matteo yawns, pressing his cheek into David’s shoulder, his arms squeezing David’s middle. David wonders if Matteo could actually fall back asleep like this. It wouldn’t surprise him.

“What classes do you have today?” David asks.

“Don’t have any,” Matteo says, his voice muffled by David’s shoulder.

“Seriously?” says David.

Matteo nods.

“Okay. Well I think I’m gonna go to the gym for a bit,” says David. “Wanna come?”

Matteo’s eyes open. The look he gives David almost makes him laugh out loud.

Matteo points to himself. “Me?” He looks around the room. “Me? Was that addressed to me?”

David flicks Matteo’s forehead.

“Fuck you,” says Matteo, pushing him.

An hour later, they are both standing in front of the gym. David makes the hilariously bad decision to have Matteo spot him at the bar—Matteo not only has no idea how to spot but he also keeps muttering suggestive comments under his breath. David almost drops the weight bar on his face and condemns Matteo to the opposite side of the gym.

It’s after the morning rush, so there luckily aren’t that many people there—which is good, because Matteo is so obnoxious that if it were more crowded someone would probably try to get him kicked out.

David watches, laughing into his hands, as Matteo jumps away from a weight lifting machine, terrified by the loud crash it makes when he tries to change the weight.

“This was a terrible idea,” says David, shaking his head.

He finishes the rest of his circuit. Matteo bounces on a stability ball, watching David finish a pull-up. He stops bouncing and props his chin on his hand. David drops to the ground, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Are you almost done?” says Matteo, eyes roving over David’s body in a way that makes him wish they were back in David’s apartment, alone, instead of this very public gym.

They leave once David’s finished his last set, stopping into a coffeeshop on their way home. Even after breakfast and a shower, David is still feeling anxious about the play. He and Matteo do homework in the apartment that afternoon—or, David stresses at his desk while Matteo plays games on his phone. At one point Matteo tries to give David a shoulder massage, but he’s so terrible at it that David makes him stop. By evening, Matteo actually manages to crack open one of his books, though he falls asleep soon after that. David, still unable to shake his nerves about the play, shuts his laptop and crawls into bed behind him.

His sleep is patchy and strange, a thin sleep that never seems to actually penetrate into his brain. He dreams the entire first Act of the play, though only one of the actors actually shows up to perform. He wakes up around five AM, irritable and twitchy, unsure if he actually slept at all.

David is sending frantic emails to his technical staff, triple- and quadruple-checking every last detail when he hears Matteo’s confused, muffled noises as discovers that David is no longer in bed. A minute later, Matteo stumbles from bed in one of David’s big t-shirts and his boxers and hugs David from behind at his desk, resting his chin on his shoulder.

“Did I wake you up?” David asks quietly, still typing. He’s looking over his notes from the play. He feels Matteo shake his head, his soft hair tickling the back of David’s neck.

“You should come back to bed,” Matteo murmurs. “You need to sleep.”

“I can’t,” says David. He hates how irritable he sounds. He doesn’t want Matteo to think he’s angry with him—he isn’t, he really isn’t, nothing could be farther from the truth, he’s just stressed and he wants the play to be perfect and he can’t turn off his brain even for an hour of fucking sleep and it’s starting to wear him down.

“Want me to make you coffee?” Matteo yawns, still draped over David’s shoulders. David stops typing. He leans his head back, resting against Matteo, overcome by a sudden rush of gratitude for how sweet this boy is.

“You should go back to sleep,” says David.

“Don’t wanna,” says Matteo. He sounds so sleepy. David takes one of Matteo’s hands and threads their fingers together, then kisses his knuckles.

“What’s stressing you out?” Matteo whispers.

David sighs loudly. “Just this one scene in Act One. I think I need to cut it. It’s been dragging a lot in rehearsals.”

“With Queen Gertrude?”

David nods.

“So cut it,” says Matteo.

“I can’t,” says David. “Leonie’s been working so hard on it.”

“So?” says Matteo. “I mean she might not be happy at first but she’ll understand in the end. It’s your production. You’re the boss. ”

David doesn’t say anything. Matteo kisses the top of his head and mumbles that he’s going to make coffee.

“I have to go to work in a little bit,” says David, finally shutting his laptop. “Wanna just hang out here while I’m gone? We can meet in the PAC for workshop later?”

“Sure,” Matteo shrugs. “Though if you’re as busy as you are, and with workshop, maybe…you should call it off? Just for today?”

“Call off work?” David repeats.

Matteo nods. He pours David a cup of coffee and places it on the desk.

“I’ve never done that before.”

“Exactly. One day off isn’t gonna hurt anybody. And you’ve said yourself the bookstore’s usually slow on weekdays.”

David blows steam from the rim of his coffee mug, mulling it over. He hates the idea of cancelling work. But if he goes, he’s gonna be stuck there for seven hours, which means he won’t get to meet with any of his tech staff before workshop that afternoon, which means he’ll have to chase everyone down in the evening, which is virtually impossible, which means once again, he won’t get home until late and probably will get another shitty night’s sleep.

He hears Matteo turn on the faucet in the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“I feel bad you keep doing all this shit for me,” says David. Matteo leans against the bathroom door, his toothbrush hanging from his mouth. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to. You have your own stuff, your own work—you don’t have to ignore it just because I’m being so crazy and intense right now with the play.”

He hears Matteo spit out a mouthful of toothpaste in the sink. Then Matteo walks over and sits on the corner of David’s desk.

“I’m not ignoring anything. I told you—my course load’s really light this term. Which is good, since you’re so demanding,” Matteo teases. He gives David a minty kiss. “But I like that,” he whispers.

David calls off work, and his boss—as Matteo promised—was understanding about it. Matteo goes with him to the PAC to sit with David while he runs around the theater doing tech checks until it’s time for workshop.

In workshop, Matteo and a boy named Jacob, who plays Polonius, rehearse Ophelia’s first scene in Act 1. Matteo’s demeanor in this scene is much different from how he behaves in the rest of the performance: at this early stage in the play, Ophelia is more innocent and has less reason to be guarded. As far as Ophelia’s aware, she and Hamlet have a budding relationship: she’s falling for him, and she has no reason to believe otherwise on his part.

David watches from the sidelines with the rest of the class as Polonius circles Ophelia. Jacob plays Polonius warmly, fatherly: an approach that David likes, since it makes the strange turn in the scene that much more unsettling. He begins by asking Ophelia about how much time she’s been spending with Hamlet, casually, as if simply making small talk.

Then, edgier, he asks, “What is between you? Give me up the truth.”

Matteo’s brow furrows, confused, as if taken aback by the sudden seriousness in Polonius’s demeanor.

“He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me,” says Ophelia.

“Affection?” Polonius laughs cruelly. “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?”

Ophelia swallows roughly, staring at the ground. Finally, Ophelia manages to answer, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.”

Polonius puts his arm around Ophelia’s shoulders. “Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby. That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay, which are not sterling.”

“My lord,” Ophelia protests, “he hath importuned me with love in honorable fashion.”

“Ah, fashion, you may call it,” says Polonius disdainfully. “Go to, go to.”

“And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,” says Ophelia, almost desperately, stumbling a little over the words, as if combing through her own memories, begging them to be true, “with almost all the holy vows of heaven.”

Polonius dismisses her. He says the blazes of such vows give off more light than heat, and she must not mistake them for genuine fire. He tells Ophelia that Hamlet is not to be believed. He tells her not to give him so much of her time anymore, if any at all.

The way Matteo’s face slowly collapses over the course of the scene is devastatingly perfect. It is such a tightly controlled, gradual shift, the way he moves almost imperceptibly from her innocent, doe-eyed excitement at the beginning of the scene to utter self-doubt.

“I shall obey, my lord,” Ophelia whispers.

The scene ends. The class applauds, and David—who normally tries to avoid being overly affectionate with Matteo in workshop—can’t help but throw an arm around him and kiss his temple.

After a quick dinner with Amira, Matteo and David head back to his dorm room. David sets up camp at his desk again, still poring over his notes. He can hear the tinny, pinging sounds of Matteo’s phone as he plays some game, sprawling out on David’s bed.

Matteo changes into another one of David’s shirts—a dangerously attractive habit he’s taken up recently—and brushes his teeth.

“Are you gonna be up much later?” Matteo asks, sitting on the corner of David’s desk. The t-shirt Matteo’s wearing is baby-blue, and it hangs a little off one of his shoulders, exposing the pale, sharp bow of his collarbone. David scoots back a little from the desk, making room for Matteo to sit on his lap.

“Still stressed?” says Matteo, playing with the collar of David’s shirt.

David shrugs. “Yeah. I guess.”

“Well,” says Matteo, “maybe we could go over another one of my scenes. Would that help?”

“What do you mean?”

“You could direct me,” says Matteo quietly. He is staring at David’s mouth, his eyes soft and unfocused.

The air in the room suddenly seems dangerously thin. Hot. Charged with ions.

Matteo’s lips brush against his. “Direct me,” Matteo whispers.

David’s breath hitches. His hands ball into fists, taking handfuls of Matteo’s shirt. He captures Matteo’s mouth in a kiss, a heady, feverish, open-mouthed kiss.

“Get on the bed,” David whispers. Matteo almost falls with how fast he climbs off David’s lap. David walks him backward until the back of Matteo’s knees hit the bed, and he sprawls back into the sheets.

Matteo immediately leans up on his elbows, wanting another kiss, but David plants a hand on his chest, holding him down.

“Wait,” says David. “Just wait a second.”

He can tell Matteo wants to ask why: the question is right there, a vocal chord away, waiting behind that perfect, kiss-swollen mouth. He doesn’t ask. But if he did, David would answer this. This is the picture. This is the unpaintable picture. This, the bright blue heat of Matteo’s eyes and the flames of his cheeks and the bruised pink of his mouth, this is a picture he’ll never be able to sketch. It’s unsketchable. Ink and paint and oil could never do it justice. He can only drink the image in, in the flesh, and hope he never forgets it.

Matteo throws his hands over his face, embarrassed. David laughs, peeling his hands away and pinning them to the bed.

“What?” says Matteo.

David exhales. He presses their foreheads together. Matteo closes the gap between their mouths gracelessly, artlessly, needing to kiss him again.

“There’s so much I want to do to you right now,” says David, almost laughing with how savagely he means it.

“What do you want to do to me?” Matteo asks breathlessly, his eyes dark with longing.

David doesn’t say it out loud, but he answers with his mouth nonetheless: lips pressing to every inch of Matteo he can find, teeth dragging down Matteo’s spare, soft-skinned abdomen, sucking bruises across his ribcage, kissing his knee, his thigh, his hipbone. His mouth. His cheekbones. The knit between his brow: that soft, confused knit, like Matteo can’t quite believe any of this is real.

Everything, he says, I want to do everything.

David lays him out. He sucks a map of kisses across the lithe planes of Matteo’s body. He kisses down Matteo’s stomach, marveling at the way his skin flushes, blooming with color wherever David kisses and licks and bites, like a canvas he’s painting. He kisses further and further down, until Matteo’s fingers are knotting in David’s hair, until Matteo’s panting please, please, please like he doesn’t even know what he’s begging for.

Long afterwards, they are still curled together, limbs entwined in almost the same spot.

For the first time in days, David manages to get a full night’s sleep.

 

 

On Thursday, the day before opening night, they have their first full dress rehearsal. Matteo is in costume: a silk button-down shirt, black with a gold print, unbuttoned, with a black t-shirt underneath. As the show develops, he becomes more and more unraveled: shirts on backwards, sweatpants, a bathrobe. The only constant is a little flower behind his ear. A dandelion.

David paces backstage. A kind of furious calm has taken over him as he watches the actors from the wings of the stage. There are a few hiccups: a missed lighting cue, a few fumbled line readings, a scene transition that goes much slower than he would like.

Overall, even David has to admit: it’s everything he envisioned. The sets, the performances, everything, it’s all just as he imagined it, and the hard work has clearly paid off.

But nothing, nothing in this world, could prepare him for Matteo. After all their workshops together, all their rehearsals, David thought he’d seen everything Matteo could do. He didn’t think it was possible for Matteo to still be able to stun him into silence.

And yet there he is, more electrifying than ever before. Watching Matteo onstage is like wading into one of David’s sketchbooks. He is a lucid dream. He is something divine. When David watches him, he feels something thrum inside him, like a hundred piano strings plucked at once.

There is still an entire act left after Matteo finishes his final scene, but David can’t help but sweep him into his arms, nearly off the ground. He kisses him in a way he never thought he’d kiss anybody in public. He can’t help it. He can’t.

David barely takes any notes for the final act. He and Matteo lean against each other, almost vibrating. He is desperate to get Matteo home: he can feel Matteo is thinking the exact same thing.

When the rehearsal is finished, David somehow manages to join in the celebrations and congratulations. Amira, Mia, Leonie and the others have all brought drinks backstage to celebrate after the rehearsal. David and Matteo’s eyes meet across the stage, silently agreeing to sneak out after one drink. David knows he really shouldn’t leave this early: it’s bad form, he knows it is, but he can’t bear it any longer. His need has become a palpable, touchable thing, with edges and mass and teeth. It feels as immense as a planet.

Matteo eventually jerks his head towards the door, and he and David make some feeble excuses to Amira and slip away.

The night air is bracing on their faces. They don’t speak to each other on the walk home: whatever is brewing between them, whatever silent, sacred thing, it seems they both understand that words might shatter its sublimity.

David’s apartment is silent. The window is still open from earlier. There are dishes in the sink: David’s coffee mug, a water glass, a cereal bowl.

The dandelion is still tucked behind Matteo’s ear.

“Come here,” David says, a little hoarsely.

Matteo comes to him. David takes Matteo’s hands and brings them to the top button of his shirt. Matteo’s eyes flick up to his, as if wanting to make sure David really wants him to undress him.

David kisses him, as if to say Yes.

Matteo opens the top button slowly, then the next. He kisses David’s chest, lingering on the thin, dark ridge of scar tissue. He takes off the rest of David’s shirt, still kissing down his stomach, until Matteo’s on his knees. He takes the zipper of David’s jeans. Matteo’s eyes find David’s, asking, silently.

David’s heart is like a wild animal in his hands, thrashing, fighting. He is tired of fighting. His heart is like a cornered animal, all gnashing teeth, terrified. He has spent so long feeling so afraid of this moment. He has been naked for no one but himself. And as hard as he has worked to love this body of his, he has always been afraid that his love was fragile and shatterable. He was afraid that this body of his, this house he built for himself, wasn’t a house at all, but a tent in the woods, or a bunker for him to hide in. Nothing someone could call a home.

Matteo looks like a boy at an alter. He runs his thumb along the button. A question.

David pulls Matteo back to his feet—he wants to kiss him again, he always wants to kiss him—and they undress each other, for the first time. They lie on the bed beside each other, exploring, reverent, and giddy. David has to show Matteo what to do, what feels good, what he likes and what he doesn’t—and Matteo, who wants to be directed, Matteo, who is nothing if not teachable, is the most eager and beautiful student. They are awkward and fumbling—they kiss, a lot, and they laugh, too, sometimes so hard there are tears in their eyes. They make a mess. Matteo gives himself to David completely—he lets David have him, invites him inside the most secret parts of himself, parts Matteo’s never invited anyone else. He lets David take him apart. Matteo yields more beautifully than David could have ever imagined. It is nothing like his dreams: it is better. It surpasses every private fantasy David’s ever harbored.

At the end of it there are tears in Matteo’s eyes for another reason, sweet, unguarded tears that David swipes away with this thumbs, cradling Matteo’s face in his hands.

Afterwards, Matteo lies with his head on David’s chest, weak and over-sensitized. David pushes back his sweaty hair and kisses him deeply, holding him as closely as possible.

“I haven’t even told you yet how incredible you were onstage tonight,” David whispers. He still can’t believe how vulnerable Matteo can be, both onstage and with him, just now—how raw and open and trusting. How he can just give himself away.

They stare into each other’s eyes. Matteo is still a little glassy-eyed, tender and exposed.

“Do you believe me yet?” David whispers. “I mean it, Matteo. What you did today…I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Matteo’s eyes dip down. David strokes back his hair. Matteo looks like he’s actually thinking it over.

“I don’t know. But…today is the best I’ve felt in a really long time,” says Matteo. After a pause, he adds, “I just mean the rehearsal, by the way. What came after, just now—that was just okay. Average at best.”

David flicks Matteo in the temple. Matteo grabs at his hand, warding off further attacks.

After a long moment, David whispers, “I’ve never done that before.”

Matteo looks at him. “I know,” he says quietly. Matteo gives David another kiss, a kiss that reassures David, for the hundredth time, that not only did Matteo feel good and sated and taken care of, but he felt safe with David, which means more to him than almost anything.

David watches moonlight pool on the dark floorboards. He can still feel Matteo’s eyes on the side of his face.

“I was thinking of this thing Helena used to say to me,” David says softly. “She said I had so many rules for myself—and she was right. But I thought I needed my rules. One time she asked me, but do your rules make you happy? And as crazy as it sounds, I’d never even considered that. I thought all that mattered was following them. I thought that’s how I’d survive.”

Matteo threads their fingers together. He tells David, his voice barely louder than a whisper, that for a long time he only had one rule for himself, and that was to never let himself be alone. He put up with anything as long as he wasn’t alone. He stayed in relationships he didn’t want to be in. He put up with things he shouldn’t have. He thought anything, no matter how miserable it made him, was better than being by himself. He treated himself terribly. Like an abandoned house. He let anybody stay there, any wandering passerby.

David thinks of the boy he once was. The boy with the rules. The boy building himself into a house—a house on an island at the end of the fucking world: a beautiful house on a rocky beach, built with his own two hands, a house that existed on no map, a house with an ocean between him and everybody else. Undiscoverable.

But what David didn’t know then was that all this time, he’s been building a lighthouse. And somehow, at the end of this choppy ocean, these violent waters, Matteo found him.

 

 

In the morning, David and Matteo are quiet and syrupy-sweet with each other, speaking in hushed voices, like they’ve hatched some newer, even more tender chapter of love between them, and they want to treat it gently.

But there is also the other thing. Matteo keeps glancing at him, wordlessly, as if the minute he acknowledges it David might shatter or spiral into another stressful rage-loop.

Today is Hamlet’s opening night.

They get breakfast together, a quiet, intimate breakfast in a thinly-trafficked corner of the dining hall, though both of them are too nervous to eat much. Afterwards, Matteo heads to his dorm to shower properly and change and gather his things. He gives David a kiss on the cheek, promising to meet him at the theatre in a couple of hours.

David walks over to the PAC. Normally he would throw his headphones on, but even music seems like too much stimulation right now. He wishes he’d gotten up early enough to go for a run. He feels like a general, or an athlete before the game starts, a runner before the gun goes off. He’s got energy to burn.

Amira and Mia are already at the theatre, coffee in hand. They smile at him knowingly as he approaches.

“You and Matteo disappeared early last night,” Mia teases, gently nudging him with her elbow.

David gives into the inevitability of his blush. There’s no point fighting it. Mia and Amira both laugh at him, teasing gently as they walk into Helena’s office, which she’s allowed to become a kind of war-room for David and his tech staff.

“Speaking of your lover-boy, where’s Ophelia?” Amira asks.

“He had to go home and change and get his stuff,” says David, still a little pink-cheeked.

“I’m happy for you both,” says Mia, sitting on the edge of Helena’s desk. “It’s kind of perfect, isn’t it? A director and an actor.”

David shrugs, biting back a smile. “I guess.”

“Do you think you’ll keep doing shows together? He really is talented. And so are you. You’re kind of perfectly matched,” says Mia.

“I dunno,” says David. “I’d like to. I have a lot of ideas for him, but—” He blushes again. He hadn’t really intended to admit that. He’s never said it out loud: just how many roles he’s envisioned for Matteo, how many stages he’d like to direct him on, just how many new, transcendent heights he’d like to see Matteo reach.

“He really is good,” says Amira, laughing a little. “It’s so weird to me. I’ve known Matteo forever, since way back when. In school he was always this quiet stoner kid. Definitely a sweet guy, kind of a little shit, but just…unmotivated.”

“How did you know him?”

“We were bio partners,” says Amira. “Though getting him to actually do the work was a fucking chore in itself. He could do it though. If you pushed him.”

“It is nice to see him actually enjoying something for once,” says Mia.

“You knew him, too?” says David.

“Yeah, we actually lived together, for a little bit,” says Mia, a little carefully, as if she isn’t sure she should be talking about it. “In a flatshare, after he moved out of his Mom’s house. I didn’t actually see him that much, though. He wasn’t really in a great place back then. He mostly stayed in his room.” She looks like she wants to say a little more, but then thinks better of it. David’s grateful for that. As much as he wants to learn more about Matteo—he wants to know every piece of him, every forgotten corner and drawer and hideaway inside him—he doesn’t want to hear it from anyone other than Matteo himself.

“Anyways,” says Amira, clearing her throat. “All good now. Let’s get started?”

David nods. They spend the rest of the morning and afternoon running around backstage, ironing out scene changes, fine-tuning the lighting and sound design, and making sure all the players are accounted for. As evening approaches, the actors begin showing up, one by one.

Around six PM, David realizes he’s feeling a little bit over-caffeinated. Mia offers to grab him something to eat from the dining hall for him and the tech staff, since David doesn’t really have any time to leave. He and Helena are going over Amira’s notes together when he realizes he hasn’t actually heard from Matteo in a while.

He checks his phone. David had sent his last text to Matteo two hours ago, a simple checking-in text to see how Matteo was doing. No response.

David sends another text, asking Matteo to let him know when he’d be arriving.

Mia arrives with food a few minutes later, and she, David, Amira, and the rest of the tech staff scarf it down in Helena’s office.

“How are you feeling?” Helena asks.

“Good,” says David, honestly. It feels good to say it out loud. “I feel good, actually.”

Before David even understands what’s happening, Helena takes him into her arms. A deep, parental hug. No adult beside his godmother has hugged him like his in ages. David feels a lump bob in his throat.

“I’m so proud of you, David,” Helena whispers. The lump grows larger. David swallows it back. He promised himself he wouldn’t cry until the show was over.

“Thank you,” David whispers. She pulls away, still gripping his shoulders.

It’s seven PM. Amira is in full-blown stage-manager mode: barking orders, manically downing iced-coffees, sprinting around backstage. David checks his phone again. Matteo should have been here hours ago.

He calls him. The phone rings, and rings, and rings again. Matteo doesn’t answer.

David grabs Amira by the sleeve. “Have you heard from Matteo?”

“He isn’t here?” she says, wide-eyed.

“No,” says David. “I’m afraid maybe my service is bad. Would you call him?”

“Of course,” she says. She finds Matteo in her contacts and calls him. He doesn’t pick up.

“Fuck,” David mutters. “You haven’t seen him backstage?”

Amira shakes her head. David runs backstage, asking Sara and Leonie if they’ve seen Matteo. They both shake their heads. He grabs Laura, who’s applying her makeup with Anna’s help, but neither of them have seen Matteo either.

“He’s seriously not here yet?” Laura demands. “What the fuck?”

Panic knifes into David’s chest. He calls Matteo again. No answer.

“It’s fine,” David says, trying to sound casual, “he’s probably just turned his phone off. He’s probably nervous.”

He wishes he had the number of one of Matteo’s friends. Jonas, Carlos, or Abdi. Maybe he could message them on Instagram.

Amira gathers everyone for curtain call, doing a head count. Everyone but Matteo is accounted for.

It’s seven thirty. David peers behind the curtain onstage. The audience is beginning to file into their seats. He checks his phone again. Still nothing. He calls Matteo again.

“Matteo?” David starts after he hears the beep for voicemail. “Where are you? We just finished headcount. The audience is starting to fill in. Are you okay? If you’re nervous, it’s alright. Matteo, you’re gonna be so incredible. Everyone’s so excited to see you perform. Just please get here soon so I know you’re okay. Call me back as soon as you get this. Okay?”

He calls Matteo again, just in case. Nothing. David glances around, frantically. Amira rushes over to him.

“He didn’t pick up?”

David pockets his phone. He shakes his head. He’s not sure he can speak.

He checks his watch again. 7:40.

“Where the fuck is he?” he mutters. Amira bites her lip.

“Shit,” she says. “I don’t know. I’ll try calling him again, too.”

David watches her. He can hear the ringing sound. The anxious pit in his stomach grows. He feels nauseous.

“Where’s Kiki? She’s been helping you, right? Maybe she could go find him,” says David.

“I told Kiki to help Mia with lighting,” says Amira. “No one’s free. Sam’s working on costumes, Hanna’s doing makeup. All my people are swamped.”

David looks around, frantic. All the actors are finishing the final touches on their costumes, gripping each other anxiously, rehearsing their lines, scarfing down meals, chugging water.

He checks his watch. 7:45. Fifteen minutes until show time.

“Where the fuck is Matteo?” he hears someone shout.

David spins around. Laura is marching towards him.

“David?” she asks, much softer. David feels his eyes burning.

“I don’t know,” he finally whispers. “I don’t know.”

“Okay,” says Laura, gently. “Okay. Maybe—shit. Do we have an understudy?”

David sways, unmoored. His hands curl into fists. Understudy. He tries to say the word out loud. Understudy. Does he have an understudy? There is only one Ophelia. There is only one Ophelia in the entire world. How could he have an understudy?

“David,” Laura takes his hands into her own. “David, it’s going to be okay—”

David shakes his head. He can hear Amira shouting at everyone in the background. He can hear the loud chatter of the audience.

“David,” says Laura, shaking him a little, “We’re on in ten minutes. Ten minutes. If Matteo isn’t here…”

David is still shaking his head. He closes his eyes. Laura shakes his shoulders until he opens them.

“David, he isn’t coming.”

No.

“If he’s not here now, he isn’t coming,” Laura says firmly. “It’s time to get a backup plan. Now.

“I can’t,” David murmurs, “I can’t—”

“Call him again.”

David calls him again. But he already knows it’s useless. He knows. He knows.

He throws his phone to the ground. The heel of his shoe is inches away from smashes it when Laura pushes him back, scooping his phone into her hands.

“Don’t,” says Laura.

David looks down at his hands. He’s shaking. He’s—he doesn’t know what’s happening. All he knows is that he’s furious. He’s so angry he can barely breathe.

He was counting on him, he was counting on him, he didn’t think Matteo could do this to him, he didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t—

“Get angry later,” Laura hisses, shaking him again. “We don’t have time now. We need someone to do his lines.”

Out of nowhere, Amira rushes over to them.

“Still nothing?” she says, sounding much calmer than she should.

David manages to shake his head. A muscle in his jaw throbs so violently he’s afraid it might burst.

“Okay,” says Amira, almost to herself, nodding manically, “okay, okay, okay—”

“I can do it. I know the lines.”

David turns around. Mia is standing there, an anxious but determined look on her face.

“But you have to do lighting,” says David.

“The switchboard basically operates itself at this point,” says Mia. “Plus Kiki can handle the rest—I showed her how to do everything.”

David looks at Amira. She nods, swallowing hard.

“Okay,” says David, numbly. He digs his phone out of his pocket again. The blank screen hurts worse than a punch in the gut. “Okay,” he repeats again.

“Is this okay?” Mia asks, gesturing to her clothes.

“Yeah,” says David, without looking at her. He looks into the crowd again, as if expecting to see Matteo’s face, floating in the audience like a poltergeist. Like a trick. A hallucination. What was David thinking? What had he been thinking? Laura had been right, all along.

“I think—” I think I’m gonna be sick.

Amira takes hold of his elbow. David has no time to be sick.

7:59.

He clenches his jaw. The actors in the first scene are all waiting onstage for the curtains to open. The audience falls silent. The lights dim. Amira squeezes David’s shoulder. His eyes burn, and burn, and burn. He shakes his head, refusing to release.

Fuck Matteo. Fuck him, fuck him, fuck him.

The curtains open.

David hears the actor playing Bernardo call out onstage, his voice faint and faraway, “Who’s there?”

“Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.”

David is walking away. He is walking and walking and walking, blood roaring in his ears. He’s in Helena’s office. The door slams behind him.

He screams into his sweatshirt. He feels his knuckles collide with the wall.

His phone vibrates in his pocket. David pulls it out, his hand shaking. His hand is throbbing.

It’s Amira.

“David—” she starts, her voice low.

“I’m gonna fucking kill him,” says David. His voice is barely louder than a whisper. “I’m gonna—”

He puts the phone on Helena’s desk, staring at it. He can still hear Amira’s voice. He runs his hands through his hair. He knows he needs to calm down. He knows, he knows, he knows.

The door to Helena’s office opens. David’s heart is in his throat.

He springs to his feet. Matteo—

A blonde head appears in the door.

It’s Sara.

David squeezes his phone so hard he thinks it might shatter in his hand.

“Mia’s about to go onstage for Scene Three,” says Sara, in a gentle, placating voice that makes David’s blood pressure spike. Be calm, be calm, it’s not her fault, be calm—

“Okay,” says David. His voice is a still river. It is as even and tranquil as frozen lake. He is a liquid transmuting into a solid. He can feel himself becoming hard, and stony, and cold. “I’m coming.”

He follows her backstage. He pulls out his phone and sends Matteo one final message.

“I can’t believe you,” he types. “I can’t.”

Then he pockets his phone, stands in the wings, and watches Mia perform Matteo’s part. She knows the lines. She performs them perfectly adequately. The scene transition goes smoothly, and Laura takes the stage, transcendent as ever. David’s eyes travel over the audience. They look focused, rapt, entranced: no one’s fidgeting, no one’s fishing for their phones.

He doesn’t check his phone for the rest of the play. He puts on a smile and helps calm the actors down before they take the stage, adjusts their shirt collars, gives them hushed pep talks. He consults with Amira, makes sure the tech staff feels supported, and runs around backstage making sure that everybody who needs help is getting it. He does not check his phone. Not once.

When the play is over, David takes his first full breath in what feels like hours. He feels Laura’s arms around him, and Amira’s, and Mia’s. He joins in the celebration. He drinks the glass of champagne handed to him, he laughs along with the others, he accepts their applause. David is no actor—but this might be the greatest performance of his life.

Afterwards, he walks home with Laura, talking about the performance, and how he didn’t even care that Leonie missed that line, or that Sara put on too much makeup, or that Markus tripped backstage and nearly took out their sound design guy. He can feel her eyes burning into the side of his face, wanting to ask, wanting to talk about him, but David can’t. He can’t bear the thought of it.

She says good night, in a halting voice, and David can tell she’s about to ask about him.

David slams his door shut before she can.

He rests his head against the door. The silence of his bedroom swallows him.

The first thing he sees is Matteo’s sweatshirt, abandoned on the chair. His water glass. In the bathroom is his toothbrush. On the bed is the imprint of his body in the sheets and the pillow he slept on.

A single, furious tear leaks from David’s eye. He wipes it. Even in the privacy of his room, he can’t stand the idea of crying for him. For him.

He hears a knock on his door. David sighs and opens it.

Laura’s standing on the other side of it, her expression nervous but determined.

“I know you’ll never ask,” she says, “But I don’t want you to be alone right now.”

David can feel his face collapsing. He feels Laura collide with his chest, and his arms come around her. He’s not sure how long they stand there, holding each other.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, finally. She nods against his chest.

He brushes his teeth and climbs into bed beside her. She wraps herself around his back, and David threads their fingers together.

“Thank you,” he whispers. He feels so exhausted—his body aches with how tired he is—but he knows he won’t be able to fall asleep. He knows.

After an hour, he finally manages to slip into a shallow sleep. He jerks in and out of it, before finally throwing off the covers and getting to his feet. He feels like he is going to jump out of his skin.

He sees his phone light up on the bedside table. David stares at it for a long moment, a muscle in his jaw leaping, before he finally picks it up.

He doesn’t recognize the number.

“Hello?” David says, hoarsely.

“Is this David?” It’s a boy’s voice. It’s familiar. It sounds like he’s crying.

“Yeah,” says David. “Who’s this?”

“I’m so sorry, I just didn’t know who else to call. Is Matteo with you?” he asks.

The sound of Matteo’s name makes David’s entire body seize up. “No,” David manages. “Who is this?”

“It’s Jonas. Matteo’s friend. His roommate.”

Jonas is crying. David is certain of that now. He hears Jonas take another long, shaky breath. He can feel Laura sit up behind him, her hand on his shoulder.

“You don’t know where he is?” David whispers.

“No,” Jonas says, his voice rising, frantically. David can hear cars go by in the background. It sounds like Jonas is standing in the middle of traffic. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I—”

He looks at Laura. She mouths, Who?

“Did something happen?” David demands. Laura is still staring at David, wide-eyed. He tells her Matteo’s disappeared.

“Fuck him,” Laura whispers. “David, just go to sleep and forget him. If you want, I’ll help you hunt him down in the morning to kill him but now let’s just sleep, okay? Please. You’re making yourself miserable for this kid—he doesn’t deserve this—”

“Jonas,” David says sharply into the phone, cutting her off. His heart jackhammers inside his chest. “What’s going on? Did something happen earlier?”

“He—” Jonas takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. It doesn’t work. “He—he got called into administration and he—he wouldn’t tell me what happened but I—”

David waits for Jonas to gather his bearings. He stands up, unable to sit still.

“—I went through some of his mail and I think he might be getting kicked out of school—”

“What?” David breathes.

“—he hasn’t been going to any of his classes. Literally any of them. Not one. He’s—I know he’s been struggling with depression, I know he has, we know all he has—I’ve seen him, I’ve seen what he gets like, and I think he knows something’s wrong, deep down but he can’t—he doesn’t want to see it—”

“Wait, what?” David squeezes the phone even harder. Laura climbs out of bed, hovering behind him. He knows she's just being protective over him, but it just makes him feel even more on edge.

“I’m sorry, I know I’m dumping a lot on you right now, I just don’t know what to do, I don’t—”

“You have no idea where he is?” David demands.

“He’s probably at a bar somewhere, he does this, sometimes, and—I know he wouldn’t hurt himself, I just want to know where he is, if I just knew where he is—”

“I’m coming,” says David. He grabs a sweatshirt and pulls it over his head. He tugs on his shoes and grabs his keys. Laura follows him to the door.

“No fucking way,” she protests. “David, come on.”

“Text me where you are, I’ll be there,” says David into the phone, giving Laura one last look, before he closes the door behind him.

David runs to the location Jonas sends him. He finds Jonas outside a bar, a mostly empty bar. It’s late, after all. Nearly three AM.

Jonas looks a mess, his eyes bloodshot and frantic.

“Thank you for coming,” he says.

“Yeah,” says David, breathlessly. “Has he—has he done this before?”

Jonas runs a hand through his hair. “Sometimes he just—disappears. He’ll go to a bar or he’ll just walk aimlessly and like…he’s never trying to hurt himself, not on purpose, but—it still scares the shit out of me. You know? It scares the shit out of me—” Jonas takes another deep breath. David stares at him—this friend of Matteo’s, who he’s never even met, this person who must be like a brother to him, who clearly cares so much about Matteo. He’s lost for words.

“Where have you looked?”

“All these bars. I went down to the bridge too. I found him sleeping under it once. There’s a few hideouts he likes—I’ve checked all of them. Carlos and Abdi are out looking too.”

David looks around. There are barely any cars on the road now. Most of the bars look as thought they’re about to shut down for the night.

“Have you looked on campus?”

Jonas nods. “That’s where I looked first. I think Abdi’s still around there. But he hasn’t called me back yet.”

“I’ll go look there now,” says David.

“Do you think you know where he is?” Jonas asks. He looks so desperate David’s heart clenches.

“I have an idea,” he says quietly.

David promises to call Jonas if he finds him. He runs back to campus, through the empty quad, past the dining hall, past the benches where he once quoted Romeo and Juliet to the boy who asked, in that soft, halting voice, if he and David were together, past the campus housing where David once pressed Matteo into the wall and kissed him, properly, for the first time, past the dormitory where he once brushed an eyelash off Matteo’s cheek and asked him what he wished for (I wish you didn’t hate me), past the registrar building where he first the saw the boy with cereal crumbs on his t-shirt, the boy with the saltwater-blue eyes, the boy plucked straight from a dream of a painting of Shakespeare’s most tragic character: the saddest, loneliest girl he ever wrote.

He opens the theater doors. His steps fumble to a stop.

The stage is dark. Moonbeams lance through the high windows, illuminating the dark, fragile silhouette onstage, standing in front of the Ophelia backdrop: the final set of the show.

David makes his way down the aisle, carefully, as if he’s approaching a wounded animal. He walks up the steps.

Matteo doesn’t move. He’s wearing a jacket that’s too big for him—it slumps down his arms, tangled around his elbows. Underneath is a plain, white t-shirt. Moonlight rinses his face. Though David can only see his profile, he can make out a shimmer of tears.

David wraps his arms around Matteo from behind. Matteo turns in his arms, burying his face in David’s chest like he intends to dig himself a grave there. David holds him, tight, so tight he’s afraid he might be hurting him, but he feels Matteo’s hands grip the back of his jacket. His whole body is shaking, wracking with sobs. David’s eyes burn. He lifts them to the theater’s proscenium arch. His hands curl into fists in the back of Matteo’s jacket.

Matteo doesn’t make any sound. His shoulders just shake and shake and shake. Finally, David hears a ragged intake of breath. Matteo releases a painful, shuddering sob into David’s neck. And then, two words, so quiet they’re barely even words: “I’m sorry.”

David swipes his knuckles across his own cheek, then runs a hand down the back of Matteo’s head, then his neck and his back, soothing. Over Matteo’s shoulder is the painting of Ophelia, face-up in the river, her long, blonde hair fanning around her, floating in the river like a lily-pad. All around her are flowers: pansies, daisies, and violets.

David presses his lips to Matteo’s forehead, holding him close until he feels Matteo’s body finally stop shaking. Then he takes Matteo’s hand and leads him as far away from the girl and the river as he can.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Matteo stares at the lamp next to David’s bed. David has painted a torso of a man onto the lamp’s short, squat base, so that the painted torso disappears at the shoulders, bottlenecking into the lightbulb. It sits right against the wall on a side table—one David says he picked up off the street once, abandoned outside an apartment building. He painted this too, black legs with a checkered top, like a chess board. David’s room is filled with little items like these, and Matteo loves them, not just because David has hand-crafted them, but because David has put so much love and care in each and every thing he brings into his home. He has a little story for everything: vintage gold-leaf picture books he bought at a garage sale he stumbled upon on a long bike ride, a painting he fell in love with at a flea market, which the seller insisted he could have for free if David gave him his jacket (he was a little cold walking home, David says, but it was worth it), a coffee mug that once belonged to a favorite teacher. Matteo wonders about how particular and personal David is with all his belongings: he wonders if it’s because David had to build it all from the ground-up, so his things mean more to him, or if it’s because David’s an artist, and this is just how artists are. Matteo wouldn’t know. He can’t remember how he came to have anything: even most of his clothes were hand-me-downs from Jonas, Carlos, and Abdi. He has one box: one tiny box of shit he still cares about. A photo album he can’t bear to look at most days. An ancient, stained recipe book that once belonged to his grandmother. Smooth green sea-glass his mom brought back from a beach in Italy close to where she grew up, where they used to spend their summers when he was little.

But David’s things, on the other hand, Matteo has spent hours looking at and asking about. The lamp, in particular, mostly because it’s right next to David’s bed, and that’s where Matteo spends most of his time. The lampshade itself is plain white, a round cylinder, so the light spreads from both ends in mirrored images of each other. Matteo tells David it makes him think of that optical illusion of the two faces, with the goblet.

“Do you know what I’m talking about?” says Matteo. He and David are in bed. David’s chest presses against Matteo’s back, an arm slung over his waist, his chin on Matteo’s shoulder.  “It’s like a goblet, or a vase, but it’s also two faces, like mirror images.”

“Rubin’s vase,” says David. “I think that’s what it’s called. It’s like, you think what’s around the vase is just negative space, but if you look closer that negative space is a picture of it’s own. Faces.”

Matteo tells David he thinks that’s what those shadows are like. The space where the light can’t meet. It opens above and below the lampshade, but not between.

“It’s just a lamp,” whispers David, teasing. Matteo laughs. He likes that David is teasing him again—it’s been days since David’s done anything but hover near him, with that terrible, concerned expression, constantly asking Matteo what he needs, like he’s a hospital patient, or a child.

But Matteo finds himself still thinking about that shadow. That space where the light can’t meet. That’s what he feels like. He can see the light, he can even touch it, but he can’t leave the shadow. He gets glimpses of the light, he can taste it, sometimes he can drink from it—that’s what kissing David feels like to Matteo. But in the end he is a lonely planet, condemned to orbit the sun, but never leave his own axis.

If he could leave his axis, he’d drift right into the sun’s flames. He’d let it burn him alive.

 

 

“What does it feel like? Try to describe it to me.” David’s voice is gentle. He’s so gentle with Matteo that sometimes it makes him feel worse. Sometimes he wonders if it would be easier if David yelled at him or hurt him or pushed him away, if he said out loud all the thoughts running their bruising circuits into the soft, wounded parts of Matteo’s brain. But no. David pets Matteo’s hair and holds him close and murmurs sweet things in his ear and Matteo loves it, he loves it so much, and at the same time the other part of him—the part that’s rotting, the part that’s eating him from the inside, the parasite—that part of him is screaming. They are at war. There is a whole battle playing out under the numb, glass-smooth surface of Matteo’s misery. He is so tired.

David runs his fingers through Matteo’s hair, waiting for him to answer. He is so patient it makes Matteo want to scream. He hasn’t left this room in three days. Surely David is tired of this by now. Tired of him.

“I don’t know,” Matteo whispers, honestly. He doesn’t know how to describe how he feels. Sometimes it feels like he’s a shadow that light can’t touch. Sometimes it feels like there’s a weight on every inch of his body, holding him down. Other times it feels like he’s a ghost. Like you could put a hand right through him. Like he’s stopped existing entirely, and nobody’s noticed yet.

“Do you think you can go somewhere with me tomorrow?” David traces patterns on Matteo’s arm.

“Where?” Matteo asks.

“Anywhere you want,” says David. “The dining hall. Or maybe the coffeeshop. Even just a walk.”

Matteo turns over onto his side. He stares at the dark shadows that lamp makes against the wall. He can feel David behind him, not touching him. Maybe this time David will leave. Maybe Matteo has finally broken him, too.

But David doesn’t. He presses against Matteo’s back, against the entire length of it. He hugs Matteo tightly to him, so tightly it almost hurts, but that’s how Matteo likes to be held. He exhales, leaning back into David, allowing himself this touch.

“How about you decide tomorrow?” David whispers. Matteo nods. David kisses the back of his neck, and his shoulders, until they fall asleep.

 

 

After five days, David stops asking Matteo if he wants to leave his room. Matteo had hated when David asked—it made him feel weak (he was) and broken (he was that, too), like he needed somebody to take care of him (he did).

But Matteo hates it even more that David has stopped asking.

 

 

It’s late when David comes home the next night. His cheeks are flushed pink, like he’s been drinking, and Matteo can smell beer. He’s not an idiot. He can count the days, even if they all bleed together some times. Six days ago Matteo was called into an austere-looking building on campus, sat in front of three stony-faced school administrators, and told he was getting kicked out of school. Hamlet has a six-day-long production run, which means tonight was the long-awaited final night, after which was the long-awaited after party. They’d talked about it for weeks. Matteo, who never put anything in his schedule, had even added it to his calendar, back when they were still in the rehearsal stage.

Hours ago, a little notification had come up on Matteo’s phone, a taunting little white window at the top of the screen when Matteo was playing some stupid game: “Final Show After-Party.” Matteo had stared at his screen for a full thirty seconds before throwing it to the floor.

It didn’t break, this time. David bought him a shatter-proof phone case.

“How was the party?” Matteo asks, trying to sound normal. David doesn’t look at him as he puts his bags down on his desk.

“Eh, it was fine,” says David lightly, too-casual. David is good at a lot of things, almost everything, it seems, but he’s not a great actor. Matteo’s eyes drop to his lap.

“There was lots of food there—Helena went all out,” says David. “I brought you some.”

He pulls out a plate, plastic-wrapped, and puts it on the nightstand next to Matteo. There’s a bunch of little hors d’ouevres, a little bit of everything, it looks like, and some cookies. Matteo takes a bite of a cookie, chewing slowly, but he still doesn’t have much appetite.

David slides into bed next to him. Matteo tenses. He can feel David watching him. The silence thickens.

Then Matteo feels David’s thumb run along his wrist bone, back and forth, over and over again. Matteo’s head tips back against the bed frame, his eyes lifting to the ceiling. He can’t look at David. His eyes burn. He doesn’t know why.

He does know why. Of course he knows why. David does, too.

“Talk to me,” David whispers, finally. “Please talk to me.”

Matteo closes his eyes. What is there to say? I’m sorry I can’t let you enjoy anything and I’m sorry I’m like this and I’m sorry I’m still like this and I’m sorry if they all hate me, I’m sure they do and if they don’t they’re fucking stupid because they should—

(And so should you).

“I’m sorry—”

“Matteo, I told you to stop saying sorry,” says David. It’s true. He had. Yesterday, David had joked that he was going to get one of those tiny water guns and spray Matteo with it every time he apologized for something he shouldn’t. Negative reinforcement. Matteo had cracked a smile, a pale, lopsided, only half-real smile, but it was a start.

“I’m sorry I missed it,” Matteo says. He finally looks at David. David looks back. His eyes soften, and Matteo wishes, for the hundredth time, that he could just sink into the darkness of those eyes and disappear.

“Don’t spray me,” says Matteo, after a beat. David laughs, pressing his face into Matteo’s shoulder.

Matteo slumps down in the bed, letting David pull him close, so his head is on David’s shoulder. He inhales, deeply, burying his face in David’s neck.

David puts on a movie—something light and funny, something that eases the knot in Matteo’s stomach.

“I wish you’d eat something,” David whispers. “You’ll feel better.”

Matteo doesn’t say anything.

“Will you try?”

Matteo swallows back the spike of anger that lodges itself in his throat. He doesn’t even know why that makes him angry.

He closes his eyes, trying to focus himself. He imagines himself sitting up. Taking the plate. Chewing, swallowing. Over and over again. He still doesn’t have any appetite at all, and even that, that simple task—eating—feels like so much work.

“Okay,” he says. He sits up. He takes the plate. There’s lots of finger food—little sandwiches, chips, some fruit, the cookie he took a bite of earlier. Matteo takes the sandwich.

It takes him almost an hour to eat everything, but he manages it. David takes his empty paper plate and throws it away—Matteo can tell David’s trying to be casual about it, not to look too pleased about the fact that Matteo’s finally finished a plate of food, so he doesn’t make Matteo feel uncomfortable.

“I’m uh,” says Matteo, “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Cool,” says David, too-casual. Matteo almost laughs at how bad David is at trying not to look too openly happy about this announcement.

Matteo can feel his mood lifting, ever so slightly, after eating an actual meal. The shower helps even more.

He puts on one of David’s big t-shirts when he’s done and crawls back into bed, his hair still damp. In the corner of his eye, he sees his phone light up on the bedside table.

Matteo picks it up, bracing himself. He hasn’t looked at it since that night. The premiere. He couldn’t bring himself to. The opening screen is an endless scroll of messages, mostly from Jonas, but Carlos, Abdi, Amira, and Hanna have sent him plenty too. Near the bottom are messages from the night of the premiere, from Leonie, Sara, and Laura. Matteo reads them all at once.

“Matteo, stop,” David says.

Matteo looks up, dazedly. “What?”

“You don’t need to read any of those,” says David. “I’ve already explained what happened. I told you—no one’s mad at you.”

Matteo laughs through his nose, an incredulous, miserable little laugh.

“I’m serious,” says David. “Everyone understands. It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay,” Matteo whispers.

“I don’t know how many more times I can tell you that it is,” says David. “Why are you so determined to convince yourself that everyone hates you?”

A lump rises in Matteo’s throat. He doesn’t know what to say. All he knows is that David is wrong.

“Okay,” says David, “Give me your phone.”

“Why?”

“I’m deleting the messages.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re just going to keep reading them.”

“No, I’m not.”

David raises his eyebrows. Matteo sighs and hands over his phone.

“Here’s the thing,” says David, taking Matteo’s hands in his. Matteo finds himself staring at David’s hands. He has beautiful hands. Artist’s hands. Strong, craftsman’s hands. “Can I tell you some facts? You like facts, right?”

Matteo rolls his eyes. The corner of his mouth lifts, just a little. David smiles.

“Here’s some facts: everybody in that theater thinks you’re talented as shit and would love to see you get to perform. Here’s another fact: everybody knows you’re having a hard time—and even if they didn’t understand it the night of the premiere, it’s just because they didn’t know what they know now. Okay?”

Matteo closes his eyes.

“I don’t know what to do,” Matteo whispers, finally.

“You’re gonna be okay. Everything’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna figure this out. This thing with the school—it’s all gonna work out in the end. I promise you. Okay? I promise.”

Matteo is not sure how long David holds him, how more sweet things he whispers in his ear. He wishes he could hear them. Really, properly hear them.

In the morning, David gets up for class, and Matteo gets dressed with him. He is not sure where he’s going to go today. But he does know this: for the first time in seven days, he is going to leave this room.

The morning air is bracing on Matteo’s face. It feels good. As much as he loves David’s bedroom, there are only so many times he can study the book spines on his shelf and the knick-knacks on his desk and the art on his walls until he goes mad.

He decides to walk to the coffeeshop after David leaves for class. It’s a nice walk—a grayish, foggy morning, but the fresh air feels good. He can feel his body returning to life after remaining still and stiff for so many days. He even thinks he might be able to eat something.

A bell jingles as he opens the door to the coffeeshop. It’s not too crowded. He scans the pastries behind the window, determined to actually eat breakfast for once. He buys a croissant and some fruit and a coffee and takes a seat by the window.

He pulls out his phone and reads his most recent message from Jonas, the latest in a long stream of worried, unanswered texts.

Matteo begins to type: “Hey, Jonas. I’m sorry—

A hand swipes in front of Matteo’s face. He jumps, nearly spilling coffee all down his front.

“Sorry!” Amira exclaims. Matteo throws a hand over his heart. Amira laughs, grabbing a handful of napkins and dabbing them on his shirt collar, though barely any actually spilled. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” says Matteo, laughing a little, shaking his head, “You just scared the shit out of me.”

“Can I sit?” Amira asks.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Matteo, gesturing to the empty seat across from him. He pushes his uneaten fruit cup towards her, and she takes a strawberry.

“How’ve you been?” Amira asks, in the same forced-casual voice David uses. Matteo busies himself with tearing off a piece of croissant.

He shrugs. “Eh, you know. Alright.”

“I, um,” Amira plays with the lid on her latte, “I heard—or, David told me what happened.”

Matteo lifts his coffee cup, with a mirthless smile. “I’m officially a college dropout.”

Amira stares at him, anxiously. “You’re really dropping out?”

“Don’t have much choice, do I?” Matteo mumbles, his face collapsing. “They’re kicking me out.”

“Yeah, but, maybe—” Amira starts.

“It’s done,” Matteo cuts her off. “I failed all my classes.”

“Have you even tried to go talk to them?”

“What am I gonna say, Amira? ‘Oops, my bad—won’t do it again,’” Matteo says, sarcastically.

Amira leans back in her chair, her expression unreadable. Matteo pushes the rest of his food away from him, feeling suddenly sick.

“David thinks they’re might be something you can do,” Amira says finally.

“David should lower his expectation,” Matteo mumbles.

“Of you?” Amira says.

“Yeah,” says Matteo. His eyes bore into hers. “Of me. Doesn’t he get it? Don’t all of you get it, yet? You all had it right from the beginning. I’m a fuck up. That’s what I do.”

Amira is silent for a long time. Matteo looks away first. He knew this was a bad idea. He never should have left David’s room. He never should have come here at all.

“You know something, Matteo,” says Amira. “You’re right. When you showed up at that first workshop with that sulky look on your face, we all thought you’d find some way to just slack off or disappear. When David cast you as Ophelia, we thought he had lost his mind. We did. And when I confronted him about it, you know what he said?”

Matteo clutches the coffee cup so hard he’s afraid he might crush it. He stares at the table, bracing himself for the worst.

“He said, ‘It has to be him.’ He wouldn’t accept anyone else. He knew. He just…knew. He saw something in you the moment he laid eyes on you. He knew how much shit he was going to get after he cast you, but he did it anyways. He believed in you that much.”

Matteo’s eyes burn.

“I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty. I know you wanted to be there that night more than anyone—I’m not trying to make you feel bad about that. I know this week has been difficult for you. I just want you to know that David thinks you’re the best fucking thing that’s ever stepped onto that stage. I’ve seen him every day this week, taking down the sets from the show. Matteo, you’re all he ever talks about. Did you know that? I mean, you’re literally all he can think about. You mean everything to him.”

Matteo shakes his head. He can feel his eyes burning. Amira reaches across the table and grabs his hands.

“God, I could just fucking shake you right now. Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to see you beat yourself up like this? Look—I have days like this too. There are days when I’d like to be just about anybody else. But Matteo, you have to understand that the way you see yourself, all this self-hatred you have right now—you’ve got to find a way to dig yourself out of that hole. Because no one else sees you the way you do. Especially not David.”

He can feel his most private thought right behind his tongue, the one he finds himself dwelling on over and over and over again, like clockwork: But he deserves so much better than me.

He doesn’t say it out loud. But Amira is looking at him like she knows exactly what he’s thinking.

“What are you gonna do now?” she asks him.

Matteo looks at her, like he might find the right answer written on her face. He shrugs.

“I can’t make you do anything,” she says. “I wish I could. But that’s not how this works. You want to feel like this forever?”

Matteo crumples up the wrapper from his pastry in his fist. “Of course I don’t,” he mutters.

“Okay,” says Amira. “So what are you going to do?”

 

 

The next morning, Matteo texts Jonas. He meets the boys on the quad, where they used to hang out between classes. Kiki is there, too, sitting between Carlos’s knees on the bench.

None of the boys ask Matteo where he’s been, and he’s grateful for that. He sits with Jonas in the grass, sipping his beer, watching Abdi nearly take out a group of nearby first-years with a frisbee. Carlos runs after it, and Kiki sits on the grass next to Matteo.

She turns to Matteo, as if to ask him something—something Matteo is dreading—but before she can, Jonas jumps in, “So, Kiki, how’s everything?”

“Good!” she says cheerfully. “Really good, actually. Yesterday I ate pizza for the first time in like…three years.”

“Really?” Jonas says, making eye contact with Matteo. They both fight back a grin.

“Yeah,” she says. “It wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.”

Carlos throws the frisbee back in their direction. Jonas leaps to his feet, catches it, and launches it back in Abdi’s direction.

“My therapist—she’s been encouraging me to stop feeling scared of foods I used to love. She’s been helping me a lot.”

“Your therapist?” says Jonas. “Who d’you see?”

“Dr. Klein—she’s on campus, actually. We get free counseling, did you know that? I used to go to someone in the city, but it was really expensive. Carlos found Dr. Klein and I started seeing her. She’s really good.”

“Nice,” says Jonas. Matteo can feel Jonas glancing at him. He takes another long sip of his beer.

“What’s David up to today?” Jonas asks, nudging Matteo with his elbow. Kiki runs back over to Carlos, kisses his cheek and hurries off to class.

“They’re taking down the last of the sets today,” says Matteo.

“Oh yeah?”

Matteo nods. He feels his phone buzz. Matteo pulls his backpack between his knees to check. A piece of paper catches his eye.

He pulls it out. It’s a drawing.

A drawing of him.

Matteo runs his fingers along it, marveling. It’s undoubtedly one of David’s—Matteo has spent so many hours poring over David’s sketch books that he would recognize his art in a heartbeat. Matteo is wearing a white sweater, the one David lovingly calls his grandpa sweater. He’s standing on stage, holding a copy of Hamlet. There is a sign posted in the background that says “Auditions.” Only Matteo’s outline is clear: thick, bold lines of charcoal. In the background is David’s familiar, looping handwriting, smudged in black lines: “How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night, like softest music to attending ears.” In the corner of the page, it says “flip over.”

He flips it over. In red ink are the words: “1. Your Voice. It’s soft and silver-sweet.”

Matteo stares at it. He can see Jonas reading over his shoulder.

Jonas takes the drawing from him, studies it up close for a moment. He starts laughing.

“That romantic son of a bitch,” he says, shaking his head.

“What?” says Matteo.

“This is gonna be one of those big romantic, List of Things I Love About Matteo. Honestly, can you tell him to chill out for once? Your boyfriend makes the rest of us look like fucking garbage.”

Pink floods Matteo’s cheeks. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to Jonas calling David “his boyfriend.”

“You are garbage,” says Matteo.

“We are?” says Carlos. He and Abdi lean back in the grass opposite Jonas and Matteo. Abdi tosses the frisbee into the air and catches it. “What did we do now?”

“Carlos, it’s not what we did,” says Jonas, “it’s what we didn’t do. Have you ever given Kiki a drawing of her with some fucking Shakespeare quote, talking about how much you love her voice?”

“Uh,” says Carlos, “Am I supposed to?”

“Seriously,” says Jonas, turning back to Matteo sternly. “He’s making us look terrible.

“I don’t think we need David to look terrible,” Abdi laughs. Jonas plucks the frisbee from Abdi’s hands and smacks him in the face with it.

Matteo leans back, watching Carlos, Abdi, and Jonas wrestle in the grass. He looks back at the drawing again, a small, private smile playing on his face.

After the boys leave for class, Matteo walks down the street outside campus. He ducks into the bookstore—he knows David doesn’t have a shift there today—and picks up a new novel from a writer he knows David likes. He walks to the river and pockets a strange, smooth amber rock he’s sure David will turn into something crafty and interesting.

The sun is setting by the time Matteo walks back to David’s dorm. When Matteo walks inside, David is waiting for him with his favorite takeout from the Thai restaurant they both love.

“I know I’m no Chef Luigi,” says David, “but it’s the best I could do.”

They still don’t have a proper table, but Matteo sits in David’s lap and makes fun of the way David holds his chopsticks, and David laughs when Matteo accidentally eats a chili that’s too hot for him, until he finally takes pity on him and brings Matteo ice water.

Matteo gives him the book and the weird little rock. David’s face lights up—he loves shit like this—and holds it close to his face, then adds it to his box of similar little knick-knacks: a strangely-shaped pinecone, a drawer pull, a chipped tea-cup, a seashell, a geode.

They’re still curled up in the chair. Matteo rests his head back on David’s shoulder. David is flipping through the book Matteo bought for him, studying the illustrations, his fingers in Matteo’s hair.

“I found your drawing,” Matteo whispers.

David’s fingers pause. Matteo lifts his face to look at him, and they study each other quietly, for a long moment. Then David runs his thumb along Matteo’s bottom lip, thoughtfully.

“You have no idea how many of those I have,” David whispers.

Matteo shivers. He has to look away. He never knows what to do when faced with David like this. When David states his desire for him, so plainly. The blunt, straightforward force of it. He turns his face into David’s chest.

“Come on,” David says quietly, his fingers returning to Matteo’s hair. “Let’s go to bed.”

 

 

The Student Health Center looks a little bit like a prison: it’s squat and gray with rows of tall, thin windows, like rows of teeth. It’s hidden behind the dining hall beneath a low, shady canopy of trees, like a strange fortress in the jungle.

Matteo approaches the counter. The waiting room is small, filled with chairs grouped close together against the wall. A student sneezes loudly into the collar of her sweatshirt. Matteo grimaces, waiting for the secretary behind the desk to acknowledge him.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

Matteo watches as the Sneezing Girl muffles a loud coughing fit into the crook of her arm.

“Uh, yeah,” he says, distractedly. “I wanted to make an appointment with Dr. Klein.”

“Dr. Klein,” says the secretary, pushing her glasses up her nose. She turns to her computer screen. “Have you seen her before?”

“No,” says Matteo. “I uh. I don’t really know how this works.”

The secretary has long, pink fingernails which match the frames of her glasses. She smiles at Matteo.

“No problem,” she says. “Why don’t you take a seat right here and I’ll see if Dr. Klein has any availability this afternoon. Sound good?”

Matteo takes the seat, digging into his backpack to find his headphones.

Inside his backpack is another folded sheet of paper. Matteo opens it.

Another drawing of him. This one is just a close-up of his face, a pencil-drawing. On the back of it are calculus equations. It looks as though David had drawn this absent-mindedly when he was in class. Scrawled diagonally across the page are the words: “Hear my soul speak. Of the very instant that I saw you, did my heart fly at your service.”

Matteo flips over the page: “2. You are my favorite distraction. Note the date.”

He looks at the corner of the page. David’s math homework is dated many weeks back, before production on Hamlet even began.

His heartbeat stutters. How long ago had David drawn this?

He texts a photo of it to David. “Stalker,” he writes.

David replies immediately: “Can you blame me?”

Matteo’s face colors. He barely notices the secretary waving in his direction.

“Hello?” she shouts behind the desk. Matteo startles, looking up. He folds the drawing and puts it back in his bag then returns to desk.

“I was worried about you for a second there,” she says, “I called your name like five times.”

Matteo flushes even darker. “Sorry,” he says.

She waves off his apology. “Good news. Dr. Klein actually has a free window open right now if you’d like to drop in.”

“Oh,” Matteo says. He didn’t expect to actually get to see her today. He didn’t expect anything really. When he’d woken up that morning, he hadn’t expected to come at all. But then he saw the “Voice” drawing again, folded sweetly in his backpack, as he and David got ready together that morning. He decided he might as well try.

“If you’re worried—don’t be. Dr. Klein is great with people who are new to therapy.”

Therapy. Even just the word sends a bolt of ice to Matteo’s stomach.

“Okay,” he mumbles, after a beat. The secretary grins.

“Great,” she says. “I’ll walk you down the hall.”

She leads Matteo down a brightly-lit hallway. At the very end is dark, polished door with a clean, silver name plate.

The door opens, and a short woman with long, grey hair and blunt bangs appears in the frame.

“Are you Matteo?” she asks, holding a hand. “I’m Dr. Klein. Please, come in.”

Matteo steps inside, hesitantly. It’s a brightly-lit office with an aquarium in the corner of the room. The walls are palest green, and there’s a light fixture shaped like a coral reef hanging from the ceiling.

He sits down opposite her.

“So, Matteo,” she says, “This is your first time seeing a counselor?”

He nods.

“I, um,” he starts, “I’m only allowed to stay until the end of the semester. So I don’t know how many sessions we’ll get.”

“Don’t worry about that now,” says Dr. Klein. “Let’s just focus on this session. Anything in particular you’d like to talk about?”

Matteo studies an orange goldfish, darting into a miniature model of a ruined ship. Bubbles stream to the surface.

“I’m getting kicked out school,” he says. He studies the carpet: it has a weird, repeating geometric pattern. It’s a hideous carpet, but Matteo would rather study it than look into Dr. Klein’s face.

He can see her write something down on the clipboard in her lap.

“Okay,” she says. “Do you want to talk about that?”

Matteo shrugs. He tells her, haltingly, about how he stopped going to class. How at first it began slowly: sometimes he’d even make it all the way to the door. He’d watch the students filing into the lecture hall. Then he’d turn around and walk home. He did this twice before he finally stopped leaving his room for class altogether, except to go to Acting Workshop.

“Has this happened to you before?”

Matteo unknots a long string dangling from the hem of his sweater. He knots it again.

He nods.

“Can you talk to me about that?”

 

 

He’s sixteen and he can’t leave his bed. He lays there just day-dreaming about what he would do if he could: he would walk to the kitchen and get a glass of water, because his throat hurts and he can’t remember the last time he had something to drink. He would take a shower. He would change out of the clothes he’s been wearing for the past three days. He would walk to a coffeeshop where there are people, other people, and he would talk to the barista when he orders his drink. He would go on a walk. He would go and see Jonas. They would play video games in Jonas’s bedroom. Maybe Matteo would fall asleep on his shoulder. Maybe Jonas would let him stay. Matteo closes his eyes, still day-dreaming of leaving his bed. He falls back asleep.

 

 

It’s raining when Matteo walks home, and he doesn’t have an umbrella. He unlocks David’s door, soaking wet, and stands on the threshold.

The apartment is empty. Slowly, Matteo puts his backpack on the floor. He wrings out his jacket in the shower and hangs it on a hook on the back of the door. He changes into dry clothes and curls up in the middle of David’s bed.

He texts David: “where are you?”

A minute later, an audio message comes in: “Sorry. Working on something. I’ll be home in a few hours.”

Matteo buries his face in the pillow. He knows it’s not fair of him to be upset: David has a life separate from him, a life Matteo wants him to have, a life David deserves.

But he wants him. He can’t help but want him, always. He wants David’s arms around him, he wants to lose himself in his touch. He wants to escape the prison of his own mind.

After a few minutes, Matteo rolls out of David’s bed. He takes a shower. He doesn’t have much appetite, but he makes himself a sandwich with what little food David has in his fridge. He watches a stupid television show on Netflix, something light and funny that doesn’t quite rip Matteo from his mind, but at least dulls the misery a little.

Matteo is asleep when he hears the door open. He hears David’s quiet footsteps as he takes off his shoes and puts down his bags. He feels the covers rustle behind him. David presses his lips to Matteo’s shoulder.

“You’re back,” Matteo whispers.

“I’m back.” David kisses him again. “Can I turn on the light?”

“Yeah, of course,” says Matteo, sitting up. David turns on the light and crosses the room again, changing into sleep clothes. Matteo watches him quietly, hugging his knees to his chest.

“How was your day?” David asks, from the bathroom. Matteo listens to him spit a mouthful of toothpaste into the sink.

Matteo pulls the covers around his shoulders, feeling cold again. He doesn’t answer.

“Matteo?” David asks, wiping the back of his mouth. Matteo glances at him—David looks unbelievably good, his hair still a little damp from the rain, his t-shirt clinging to his arms and shoulders in a way that makes Matteo’s throat run dry. He looks away again.

David climbs into bed with him. “What happened?” he asks quietly.

Matteo sinks back into the pillows. David leans on his elbow, hovering over Matteo, combing his fingers through his hair.

“I saw a therapist today.”

Matteo closes his eyes. Whatever expression is on David’s face—concern, surprise, relief—he’s not ready to see it.

He feels David shift beside him.

“Okay,” says David quietly. He sounds like he’s trying to be casual about it. “And how was that?”

Matteo shrugs. “It was good, I guess. Kind of weird.”

“I saw a counselor once,” David says.

Matteo opens his eyes. “You did?”

David nods. “Sure. When I left home. Laura pushed me to do it. I…didn’t like it much at first. It was hard, opening up, you know, to a total stranger. But I got used to it. It helped me, a lot, actually.”

Matteo chews on his lip. He felt so raw after talking to Dr. Klein. It was like playing with an open wound.

“Do you think you’ll go again?” David asks.

“Do you want me to?”

David kisses his forehead. “I want you to do whatever makes you feel better.”

“But do you want me to?” Matteo repeats.

“It doesn’t matter what I want,” says David.

“Yes, it does,” says Matteo. “It matters to me.”

David swallows, roughly. “Matteo, I’m not gonna lie to you. It hurts seeing you like this. It does. But I don’t want you to do anything just to make it easier on me. I’m here, no matter what. You know that, right?”

Matteo pushes his face into David’s shoulder, feeling even more raw than before. A different kind of raw. Like David could ask anything of him right now, anything at all, and Matteo would say yes. He feels David’s arms fold around him, holding him close. There is so much more Matteo wants to say but knows he shouldn’t: that he wants to be better, that he doesn’t want David to worry about him, that he wants everything to go back to the way it was before David discovered that Matteo was wading too deep into the river.

But for the first time, Matteo thinks he might be able to swim back to shore.

 

 

David brings Matteo to breakfast in the dining hall with Laura and Anna. Matteo hasn’t seen Laura since before the play, and he’s so nervous to see her that he almost backs out at the last minute.

“I’m not hungry,” says Matteo, watching in the doorway as David finishes messing with his hair in the mirror.

“You’ve been saying that every day for like two weeks,” says David.

Matteo shrugs. He’s wearing one of David’s hoodies, and he’s already put on his shoes. He is actually hungry: his appetite has been a lot better recently, and on Wednesdays the dining hall usually has a breakfast sandwich he really likes.

“Matteo,” says David, washing his hands in the sink. “I’ve told you for the millionth time. She isn’t mad at you.”

Matteo zips his hoodie over his face. David zips it back down and gives him a quick kiss.

“Come on,” says David, handing Matteo his backpack.

Matteo lets David drag him to the dining hall. Laura and Anna are waiting outside, sitting on one of the benches, laughing at something on Anna’s phone.

“Hey,” says David. Laura and Anna look up.

Laura’s eyes lock onto Matteo’s. She climbs off the bench and punches him lightly in the arm.

“Missed you,” she says. Matteo shakes his head a little, with a ghost of a grin. David is giving him a fond told-you-so look over Laura’s shoulder.

“Come on,” Anna calls out, already heading into the dining hall. “I’m fucking starving.”

After breakfast, David, Laura, and Anna all leave for class.

Ten minutes later, Matteo finds himself standing in front of a tall, imposing staircase.

The administration building.

He holds the straps of his backpack close and begins trudging up the steps and into the dark marble foyer, his footsteps echoing. He takes a deep breath and approaches the front desk. Tentatively, he asks if he can meet with a school administrator. The secretary tells him there’s an open slot in thirty minutes.

Matteo takes a paper cup and fills it with coffee from the machine in the waiting area, then slumps into one of the chairs. There’s only a few other students in here, most of them with their parents. Prospectives, most likely.

He takes a nervous sip. It’s lukewarm and watery, but at least it gives him something to do. He digs into his backpack for his headphones.

Right there, folded into a square on top of his notebook, is another piece of paper.

Matteo bites back a smile. He opens it.

It’s a boy sitting in the front row of a theater. The boy is looking down, his eyelashes fanning over his cheeks. A tiara sits lopsided on his head, nearly falling down. A hand adjusts the tiara upright.

The boy looks too beautiful to be him. Matteo’s breath shallows. Across the page are the words: “If thou remember’st not the slightest folly that ever love did make thee run into, thou hast not loved.”

He flips it over. “3. I have laughed more in my weeks with you than all the weeks that came before.”

“Matteo Florenzi?” A voice calls.

Matteo looks up, swiping his hand across the back of his cheek.

“Are you ready?”

“Yeah, yeah—” Matteo fumbles to his feet, folding the paper carefully and zipping it into his bag.

A familiar dread twists his stomach as the secretary leads him down the hallway: the same hallway he walked down almost two weeks ago, before he was told the news that made him sink deeper than he’d ever sunk.

His hands curl into fists as he faces the door. It opens, slowly.

This time, there is only one administrator sitting on the other side of the desk, instead of three.

The man smiles at him—he has very white, straight teeth—as Matteo takes the seat opposite him. Matteo is not sure if the smile makes him feel more afraid or less.

“I was wondering, um—” Matteo swallows, hard. His throat is so dry. He wishes he’d remembered to bring a water bottle with him—David is constantly badgering him about that, but Matteo always forgets. “I know, when I was here a few weeks ago, you told me—”

The administrator stares at Matteo, waiting. His bland, bureaucratic smile collapses, just a little.

“I was just wondering if there’s anything else I can do,” Matteo blurts out. “To stay. I want—I want to stay.”

“Matteo, your professors report that you didn’t show up to almost a single one of your courses this term. Except for your acting workshop.”

“I know,” says Matteo, running a hand through his hair. “I know—” He doesn’t know what else to say.

The administrators shuffles some papers on his desk, then puts them aside. He folds his hands in his lap and fixes Matteo with a look over the rim of his glasses.

“We have a few options,” he says. “If you’ve had a health crisis for example, including a mental health crisis, you can declare a leave of absence. You will need a doctor’s note and letters from each one of your professors this term.”

Matteo pulls the sleeves of David’s hoodie over his hands. “Does Dr. Klein count?” he asks quietly.

“Dr. Klein, in the student health center?” he asks. “Of course she does.”

Matteo nods.

“I would also consider you to speak with your advisor. Do you have one?”

“I think so,” says Matteo. “I was assigned one in the science department, but I’ve never visited him. I’m…not really into science.”

“But most of your registered courses have been in the science department.”

Matteo shrugs. “I didn’t really know what to sign up for.”

The administrator nods for a long time, as if mulling that over. “Okay, Matteo. I think I’m starting to see what’s going on. And I want you to know: your first year of university can be one of the most difficult years of your life. Some students come in already knowing what they want to do. Many more don’t, and that’s okay. It takes a long time, and we must be patient with ourselves. You understand?”

Matteo looks at his lap. “I think so.”

“I noticed your attendance was good in your acting workshop.”

Matteo chews on his thumbnail. He shrugs. “I liked that class.”

“Have you considered taking more theatre courses? The theatre department here is quite excellent, if I do say so myself—it has an amazing reputation. You could even declare a theatre major.”

Matteo thinks it over. He hasn’t considered it much, in all honesty. Not seriously. Not as something he could actually pursue professionally. He just thought it was a random skill he’d stumbled upon, like being decent at cooking, or video games. Acting makes sense to him, he knows that—sometimes it makes so much sense to him that it terrifies him. Sometimes, when he was playing Ophelia, it was like he had entered some strange amnesiac realm, and when the scene was over, it was like being ripped back into this dimension. He couldn’t remember what he’d said or what he did: all he knew was the awestruck look on David’s face.

“How about this: why don’t you meet with the acting instructor?”

“Helena?” Matteo asks. The administrator nods.

“I’m sure she can talk about your options. Recommend other courses you might take, next term.”

“So I can come back?” Matteo asks hopefully.

“Like I said, you’ll need to file all the proper paperwork for a leave of absence. I don’t want to promise you anything: the school is very strict about these things. But I believe there’s certainly a chance. It can take a few weeks to go through—first, you’ll need to keep seeing Dr. Klein. That paperwork will come through the health center. Plus, you’ll need to submit paperwork to all the professors you had this term. Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes,” says Matteo, a little breathlessly. The administrator gets to his feet. Matteo follows his lead.

“Good,” he says, sticking out his hand to shake. Matteo takes it. “Then let’s get started.”

 

 

David is on his workout mat when Matteo gets home, leaning back on his elbows as he rolls out his calf muscles on a foam roller. The collar of his t-shirt is dark with sweat, and he’s got his headphones on. He pulls them down around his neck when he sees Matteo, and switches to roll out his other calf.

“Good run?” Matteo asks. He goes to the sink and fills two water glasses, one for David, one for himself.

David drinks it, gratefully. He sits up, his elbows on his knees.

“Yeah, it was good. I ran into Anna—she and Laura are gonna try out this free yoga class later. Wanna come?”

Matteo shrugs and sits on the floor next to him. He picks up the foam roller—he’s always thought this thing was weird—and sits on top of it. David shakes his head, amused.

“How was your day?” David asks him.

Matteo’s mouth twists, feeling suddenly shy. After a minute or so, he tells him about visiting the administration building.

David wrestles him to the ground. Matteo lets himself be pinned, unable to hold back his grin. David looks unspeakably beautiful like this—his dark eyes glittering, his smile so bright it makes Matteo’s chest ache.

“So you really think there’s a chance?” says David.

Matteo bites his lip and nods. David presses their foreheads together. Matteo’s chin lifts, just a little, begging for a kiss. David’s mouth meets his in a kiss so light it is almost unbearable.

He remembers the drawing. He kisses David again.

“How do you feel?” David whispers.

“Good,” says Matteo. “I feel good. I have to keep seeing Dr. Klein, but I think—I think maybe that’s good.”

David nods against his forehead. Matteo presses his face into David’s neck—it’s still a little damp from his run, but he smells good, like sweat and his cologne and shampoo. Matteo inhales.

“So are we gonna do this yoga thing?” David teases.

Matteo laughs. He changes into a pair of sweatpants—neither of them have any idea what you’re supposed to wear to yoga—and they meet Laura and Anna outside the rec center.

David and Matteo give it a solid ten minutes, but they can’t stop laughing through every pose. Both of them keep falling over, and after a while the instructor—her serene voice cracking, just slightly—asks them politely to leave.

They’re both still wiping tears from their cheeks as they stumble from the gym. Matteo feels weak from laughter.

“Okay, I don’t know how the fuck Laura and Anna do that. I thought I was strong. That shit is hard,” says David.

Matteo hides his face in his hands, remembering falling over backwards into David. They eat a quick dinner in the dining hall and shower when they get home. Matteo climbs into David’s lap afterwards, still warm and damp from his shower. David’s fingers crawl up at the back of his t-shirt, then begin to slip down the back of Matteo’s boxers.

Matteo inhales, sharply. David removes his fingers. He squeezes Matteo’s hands, crushed between their chests.

“Good?” says David.

Slowly, Matteo meets David’s eyes.

“Good,” he whispers. “But maybe—maybe not yet.”

David runs his thumbs along Matteo’s wrists.

“Is that okay?” Matteo says nervously.

“Of course it’s okay,” says David. “There’s no rush to get back to that.”

Matteo rolls off David, and they both lie down. David brings out his laptop and pulls up a movie. Matteo tries to shove down the guilty feeling writhing in his stomach until eventually, he manages to fall asleep.

 

 

“Can you try to describe to me what it feels like when you’re acting? It would be good to try to identify what it is about performing that clicks with you. I’d like to follow that impulse, if we can.”

Matteo stares at Dr. Klein’s pen, poised on her clipboard. There is a new fish in the aquarium today, a bright lemon-yellow fish swimming near the top of the tank.

He watches the fish dart from corner to corner, remembering something Hanna had said to him once, when they were younger, maybe only fifteen or so. They were laying on the couch on Jonas’s house, their heads bent together sleepily, watching Jonas play video games. Matteo was telling her some story, he couldn’t remember what exactly, something stupid their history teacher had done that day, when he looked over and noticed she was falling asleep.

“Am I boring you that much?” Matteo teased, sitting up on the couch.

“No,” Hanna laughed, pulling him back, “your voice makes me sleepy. In a good way. It’s nice.”

“What are you saying?”

“I don’t know, I’m tired,” said Hanna. “It’s just…I don’t know. Soft. It’s nice.”

Matteo hadn’t really known what to make of that. He’d always thought it was a bad thing—he never did like raising his voice if he could avoid it. He always spoke as quietly as he could. He thinks it probably came from his mom: he loved climbing into bed with her when he was a kid and making her tell him a story. He loved falling asleep to the sound of her voice. When he was older, and his mom’s episodes worsened, he used the same gentle, hushed voice on her to try to coax her out of bed. Sometimes he was so quiet he thought his voice might just fade away. If he went without out speaking for too long, he might lose the ability entirely.

That’s why he would never forget the first time he took the stage. Until that moment, he had never heard his voice carry.

 

 

David isn’t there when Matteo wakes up the next morning. Matteo resists the urge to feel upset, though he doesn’t quite succeed: David hadn’t made it home until late the night before either, and though Matteo is glad that David isn’t feeling that same need to constantly hover around Matteo, he can’t shake the feeling that David’s absence is somehow his fault.

He forces himself to shower and change: he picks David’s grey sweater, which is hanging off the back of a hair. It hangs off Matteo a little more loosely than it normally does. He really does need to get back to his regular eating habits. He walks past the benches outside the dining hall on the way to campus and hangs with Jonas, Carlos, and Abdi for a bit—Jonas gives him a banana to eat, and the rest of his coffee, and makes Matteo stay with them until he finishes it.

“How’re you feeling, Mr. Florenzi?” Jonas asks, quiet enough so that only Matteo can hear him. Carlos and Abdi are arguing animatedly about a bet Carlos insists Abdi lost. Matteo hadn’t been able to follow exactly, but it seems like it involved a girl and a party and whether or not Abdi could actually get a girl to speak to him.

Matteo shrugs, tossing his banana peel in the trash. “Okay, I guess.” He tells Jonas about the game plan the school administrator laid out for him to return to school next term, and how he’s been seeing Kiki’s therapist.

Jonas puts Matteo in an affectionate headlock, and Matteo nearly spills coffee all over both of them, batting away Jonas’s hugs.

After Jonas and the others leave, Matteo walks over to the PAC. He ignores the uncomfortable jolt of déjà vu—he doesn’t ever want to revisit the rock-bottom misery that brought him to the theatre building the last time he was here.

He walks to the lowest floor, underground, until he reaches the office he’s looking for.

Matteo knocks. A few seconds later, Helena’s dark head appears in the door frame. She looks at him for a second, confused, before her expression slides quickly from surprise to delight. She gives him a wide, red-lipped smile and ushers him inside with a hand on his shoulder.

“Hi,” says Matteo, feeling much shyer now that he’s actually in her office. He’d rehearsed this moment many times last night and this morning, as soon as he decided he wanted to officially meet with her. But he can’t quite move on from the anxiety that she might hate him after he disappeared on the night of the premiere.

They make awkward small talk for a few minutes, and Matteo manages to stammer through a few answers before finally blurting, “I’m sorry.”

Helena falls silent and looks down at her tea cup.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry,” finishes Matteo, his hands twisting awkwardly in his lap. “I wanted to tell you sooner. I just—” He shifts in his chair, running his thumb along the scratchy cushion material. “I didn’t know what to say,” he whispers.

“Matteo, you don’t need to apologize,” says Helena, gently. “David—he didn’t go into detail, but I know you wanted to be there. I know you did.”

Matteo can’t bring himself to look at her. He still feels so guilty. No matter how many times he hears someone tell him he shouldn’t—he still can’t help but wish he could go back in time and do everything differently. Be someone different.

But he can’t. Dr. Klein has been telling him he needs to stop dwelling in the past. He wishes it were that easy. Sometimes it seems like an impossible habit to shake.

“I did miss you, though,” says Helena, smiling softly. “Matteo, I’m not lying when I tell you’re one of the most naturally gifted students I’ve ever had.”

Matteo huffs a disbelieving laugh through his nose. He can’t help it.

“I mean it,” she says, “you really are. You have such an instinct for performing. The way you internalized Ophelia on such a cellular level, your talent for play—I like to think of myself as a good teacher, but Matteo, I mean it when I say that so much of that was you. Your hard work. You seemed to truly understand the character. But more than that, I feel like you could inhabit just about anyone—one of the things so few people realize is that so much of acting is not about speaking. It’s about listening. Listening to your character, listening to the other actors on stage. Listening is a gift—and a very difficult one to learn. But you have that gift.”

Matteo doesn’t say anything. She takes a deep breath, watching him steadily.

“Alright, fine,” she says, leaning back in her chair, “I can see you don’t believe me. And that’s a shame. But please, Matteo, don’t give it up. Keep sticking with it—keep trying.”

“I want to,” he says, finally, his voice a little raspy. “I do want to. I was hoping, um—I actually wanted to ask you if you would be my advisor. If they let me back.”

He can feel how fast his heart is beating. He didn’t expect to feel this nervous. But now, being in this room, sitting opposite this woman who believes in him—he wants her to be right about him. He wants to believe in himself the way that she does.

“Of course,” she says, simply, almost dismissively, as if she can’t believe he’s even asking her something so obvious, “I’m surprised it took you so long to ask.”

Matteo runs a hand through his hair, then lets it fall to his lap. She winks at him across the desk and gets to her feet, giving him a final pat on the shoulder.

“Hang on, I’ll be right back,” she calls out, “let me go get some pamphlets for you. I want us to go over next term’s course catalog.”

Matteo digs for his phone in his bag—he doesn’t want to wait a second longer to tell David.

He fishes through his books. His fingers close around a folded piece of paper.

Matteo’s breath hitches. He unfolds it.

He recognizes the scene immediately: it’s him, his knees curled to his chest, headphones slung around his neck, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the storage closet in the theatre department. He remembers that afternoon so well. How sure he had been David had cast him as Ophelia just to fuck with him. How sure he’d been that David hated him—hated everything about him.

Written across the background of the page are the words: “A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind. A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound.”

Matteo flips the paper over, reading the lines written in David’s beautiful, looping handwriting: “4. Because you always let me in. Your trust in me helps me learn to trust myself.”

He hears the door creak again and folds the paper back into his bag.

“You alright?” Helena asks, studying his face. She takes her seat. “You look—”

Matteo is sure his cheeks are bright red. “I’m fine,” he stammers.

Helena pushes a catalogue across the desk. They spent the next forty-five minutes flipping through it, talking about all the options available, what she’d like to see him take, what plays he might be interested in auditioning for.

At the end of it, Matteo feels lighter than he’s felt in weeks. He gets to his feet, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.

She walks him to the door.

“You know, one day, maybe in a few years, we’ll reprise Hamlet. People always want to do Hamlet, you know. There will be another production, maybe not soon, but some day. I promise you that,” Helena says.

Matteo squeezes the straps of his backpack, nodding. He can still feel Ophelia with him, drifting through his mind sometimes, like a ghost wandering through an abandoned house. He wonders if she’ll ever truly leave.

“Do you still remember her lines?” Helena asks, curiously.

Matteo steps into the hallway and turns around, meeting her eyes. The corner of his mouth lifts, but it’s too faint, too wistful, too painful to be a smile. “Every word.”

 

 

Jonas invites Matteo to pizza and beers with the boys that night. Matteo invites David over to hang with them, but he doesn’t text back. After a few minutes without a response, Matteo pockets his phone. He’s determined to maintain his good mood after his meeting with Helena, and he manages to actually have a decent night, even it does end with Carlos ordering them the most disgusting pizza he’s ever seen in his life and Abdi almost accidentally swallowing a bottle cap.

By the time Matteo gets back to David’s, it’s nearly midnight.

David still isn’t home. Matteo checks his phone again. David still hasn’t answered his last text. He calls David, but he doesn’t answer, so Matteo leaves a quick audio message: “Hey Mr. Schreibner. Still alive?”

Matteo strips down to his boxers and crawls into bed, playing games on his phone until he falls asleep.

He wakes up the next morning to David hurriedly pulling on his shoes, his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth.

Matteo sits up, sleepily. David rushes over and presses a toothpaste kiss to Matteo’s temple.

“Ew—” Matteo grumbles, trying to wipe the toothpaste onto David’s sweater, but David dodges him just in time, laughing.

“I didn’t hear you come home last night,” Matteo says to David’s back. David gargles his mouth wash, their eyes meeting in the mirror. He spits it out and turns around.

“I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to wake you up,” says David.

Matteo wraps his arms around his knees, tugging the blanket up to his chin. “I like when you wake me up,” he says.

David crosses the room again, sitting next to Matteo on the edge of the bed. He takes Matteo’s chin in his hand and kisses him. Matteo falls into his touch, wanting more, and David puts his arms around him, holding him close.

“Hey,” says David, gently.

Matteo knows that tone. He recognizes it immediately. It’s the voice David uses when Matteo is doing something worrisome.

“Did you see my drawing yesterday?” David asks.

Matteo nods. He presses his forehead into David’s shoulder, inhaling. He doesn’t want to let him go.

“Did you like it?”

Matteo nods again. David’s thumb strokes the back of his neck.

“Good,” David whispers. He lifts Matteo’s chin so he can kiss him again. “Are you gonna let me go to class now?”

Matteo shakes his head. He feels David laugh into his shoulder.

“Wanna walk with me?” David asks.

“I don’t want you to be late,” Matteo mumbles, still gripping the back of David’s sweater.

“Oh, yeah? You don’t want me to be late?” David teases. Matteo holds on even tighter, until David finally removes Matteo’s hands himself and pins them gently to the bed. He kisses him one last time. Matteo sulks, watching David cross the room to swing his bag onto his shoulder.

“What’s your plan today?”

Matteo shrugs. “Therapy.”

“Okay,” says David, looking down. He walks to the door. “I um. I might be home kind of late again.”

Matteo’s mouth twists, trying not to feel disappointed. “Okay,” he says.

“I’d pick you up after therapy but I’ve got class all day.”

“It’s okay,” says Matteo.

“Maybe, uh—I don’t know, what’s Jonas doing later?”

“David,” says Matteo, “It’s really okay.”

David is still standing at the door, looking like he wants to say something more.

“You’re gonna be late for class,” Matteo says.

“Yeah,” says David. He doesn’t move for another long moment. “Okay. I’ll wake you up this time. When I get home. Maybe if you’re still up we can watch a movie or something.”

“Yeah,” says Matteo, trying to smile. “Maybe.”

David finally leaves. Matteo falls back into the sheets and scrubs his hands over his face. He takes out his phone, wanting to text David again, even just something stupid, a meme, but he can’t think of what to do. He doesn’t even know why he suddenly feels so miserable. All he knows is his boyfriend is trying so hard, all the time, to make Matteo feel good. And Matteo can’t help but feel like all he’s doing is letting him down.

Another text message comes up as he stares at his phone, trying to think of what to write to David.

 

Mama: Just had a wonderful morning with my choir group and couldn’t help but think of my beautiful boy. We’re planning a lovely service for this Friday. Will you join me?

 

Matteo gnaws on his bottom lip for a full minute, staring at the message. It’s been almost four months since he’d seen her. They had gone to lunch and had a good afternoon, all things considered. She had some shopping to do afterwards, and she invited him to tag along. He should’ve known they were pushing their luck. They ended up fighting over something stupid—an expensive houseplant she wanted to buy that Matteo insisted she didn’t need. He doesn’t even know why he’d fought with her about it. She is so lonely as it is. But something ugly came over him every time their paths crossed—everything would be fine, he would be happy with her, nearly crying from how much he’d missed her, and yet by the end of every day they spent together he nearly always felt like screaming.

He tosses his phone to the foot of the bed and finally rolls onto his feet. He stands silently in David’s empty room, staring out of the window. He puts on one of David’s hoodies and clears up some of the dishes they’ve left lying around. He showers and eats some cereal David’s left for him on the counter.

At noon, he goes to see Dr. Klein. He tells her about meeting with Helena, and how he still feels guilty about not doing the play. He tells her his fears about David.

“Did anything else happen today?” she asks, nearly the end of their session.

“Well.” Matteo scratches the back of his neck, slumping a little in the chair. “My mom texted me.”

They have talked about his mom before. Dr. Klein knows about her history with depression. The conversation terrified him. It was like an arrow drawing nearer and nearer to a bullseye. A bullseye he’d been avoiding for as long as he can remember.

And yet when the moment came where she finally said the words out loud—words like “depression” and “you” and “let’s talk about it” all in one sentence together—Matteo felt surprisingly numb. They’d talked about various courses of action, and Matteo had panicked when she brought up the idea of medication. She told him he didn’t have to do anything, if he didn’t want to. All she wanted was that he keep seeing her, as long as he felt comfortable.

Truth be told, Matteo wasn’t sure how comfortable he felt. Dr. Klein was good at her job: she never pushed him into corners he didn’t want to linger in. She asked good questions— sometimes questions Matteo didn’t know how to answer—but she never pried if he wasn’t ready. Sometimes her advice made him nearly roll his eyes, but then he’d find himself in the shower, or on his walk home, days later, and sometimes advice he wasn’t ready to hear in the moment would return to him, suddenly lucid.

“Okay. Your mom texted you,” says Dr. Klein. “Do you feel like talking about that?”

Matteo tells Dr. Klein that his mother wants to see him on Friday. That he hasn’t seen her in four months. That he has so much to tell her, too much, and that every time he imagines the conversation he feels like he can hardly breathe.

“Do you often feel like that when you think about talking to your mom?”

“I guess,” he says. “Mostly it’s just…I don’t know how she’s going to be. Sometimes she’s good, you know. But then she’ll fall into another episode. I used to think, when I was a kid, that I could figure out what triggered them. Like I could plan them—like if I just acted a certain way, if I did all the right things, she’d be fine.”

“You thought they were your fault.”

Matteo shrugs.

“Can you think of one of those times? An episode of hers you remember?”

Matteo doesn’t say anything. He stares at the clock on the wall. The session is almost over.

“It’s okay if you don’t feel like it,” Dr. Klein reminds him, gently.

He doesn’t feel like it.

Matteo walks home after the session, headphones on, dodging clusters of students walking back to their dorms, or hauling backpacks to the library, or heading to the dining hall for dinner. He stops into the grocery store on his walk and picks up supplies to make a pasta he knows David likes. Though he knows David won’t be home when he gets there, he figures he can at least have the leftovers waiting for him in the fridge when he gets home.

Matteo plays an album that reminds him of David while he cooks, and he watches an episode of some silly comedy program in the chair by the window while he eats. Afterwards, he cleans up and leaves the leftovers in some tupperware with a note for David in the fridge.

He curls up on David’s side of the bed and pulls out his phone. He has one unread message.

It’s another text from his mom.

 

Mama: “I miss you. Please let me know when you get the chance if you’d like to come to service on Friday. We can go to dinner after, just you and me. Maybe I will even cook. Love, Mama.”

 

Matteo hugs David’s pillow to his chest, scrolling through old photos on his phone: baby pictures from an old photo album that he’d saved in his phone. Most of them are just him: his mother had obsessively chronicled every little thing Matteo did when he was a baby. When he got older, it used to annoy him—the farther he scrolls back, the more photos he finds with his hands in front of the camera, or over his face, hiding from her. She never listened. She said wanted to remember every moment.

 

 

He’s five and he’s standing in front of the oven watching the crust on a casserole turn brown. He runs to his mom’s room and jostles her shoulder. He tells her it’s burning.

She asks Matteo if he can take it out.

Matteo crawls onto the bed. She opens her eyes, staring at him, as if just now realizing who he is, and what he is (a child, a child of five, a child of five who shouldn’t touch the oven).

She climbs out of bed and runs to the kitchen. She takes out the casserole and sits with him at the dinner table for a long time, silent. Her eyes are bruised from lack of sleep. Matteo tries to sit on her lap, but she picks him up and puts him back down.

“I don’t feel like it right now, baby,” she says, in a dull monotone voice, a voice that terrified him. Matteo remembers crying—usually that made her pay attention to him. But this time she just looks at him: a strange, unseeing, almost cruel look, like Matteo is a bug she just noticed on the floor, or a decorative plant she couldn’t remember buying, or a puppy she bought on a whim and is now considering exchanging for another.

She goes back to her room. Matteo falls asleep on the floor outside her door.

 

 

The next morning, Matteo wakes up and David is already gone. He grabs his phone off the nightstand. No messages.

He climbs out of bed and walks to the fridge. The tupperware is gone. He looks around the kitchen and finds it, already cleaned, sitting in the dish rack. At least David had eaten it.

He still can’t help but wish David had woken him up. He takes a shower and decides to go visit David at the bookstore, knowing he has a shift until five. He picks up a coffee on the way to bring to him, and one of the pastries he knows David likes.

The door to the bookstore jingles when it opens. Sometimes David is at the cash register, though more and more frequently he’s been in the back, shelving books, since he’s the employee most suited to haul the heavy boxes. David always tells Matteo it surprises him how much he actually likes doing that kind of work: he says it’s the only part of his day where he’s allowed to turn off his brain and do something mindless.

Matteo goes up to the cash register and asks where David is. The employee is a girl with short red hair whose name Matteo always forgets. She says David called off work that day.

“What?” Matteo stares at her, still processing.

“He didn’t tell you?” says the girl. “I thought you two basically lived together.”

Matteo blinks.

“Sorry,” she says quickly, “I just realized that sounded really shitty. I’m just surprised. He called pretty early, maybe you could—”

“It’s okay,” says Matteo, feeling a little sick. He digs his phone out of his pocket.

Matteo calls David as he walks out of the bookstore, still holding the coffee and pastry he’d bought for him. David doesn’t answer.

Matteo feels even more nauseous. Why wouldn’t David tell him he felt sick? He pulls out his phone to text David, asking where he is, but David doesn’t respond. Matteo stands on the street corner, still staring at his phone, wondering what he should do, when he sees his phone light up.

His mom’s contact photo fills the screen. She’s calling him.

Matteo takes a deep breath and answers it. “Mama?”

“Oh,” she says, as if surprised he actually answered. “Hi! You picked up.”

“Yeah,” says Matteo. He puts the phone between his ear and his shoulder, switching the coffee cup and pastry to his other hand as he crosses the street to walk back to campus. “How—how are you, Mama?”

She tells him about her morning in great detail: the breakfast she made, a program she caught on the news as she was getting ready, an encounter she had with a neighbor she doesn’t like. She’s rambling about a new recipe she tried recently when Matteo finally interrupts her.

“Mama?”

“Yes, baby?” she says. Matteo is standing in front of a fountain on campus. He’s always liked this fountain: it’s nothing particularly special, and it’s chipped in places, but he likes sitting out here and listening to the running water. Coins glitter at the bottom of the pool. At least three of those coins are his, and he’s made wishes on all of them.

“I, um,” he swallows, hard. “I wanna come see you on Friday. But I want to bring my boyfriend.”

He listens to her breathing for a long time, his eyes screwed shut. The pastry, still in its wax paper, is almost completely crushed in his hands. He sits on the ledge of the fountain, unable to hold himself upright any longer.

“What’s his name?” she whispers finally.

Matteo exhales. “David,” he whispers back.

“David,” she repeats to herself. He lifts his eyes to the sky. He wonders what she’s doing, right now, at this very moment, as she whispers David’s name to herself. If she in their old apartment? Is she in the kitchen, in front of the stove, where he always used to wait at her feet, watching her cook? Is she in her bedroom, where they used to watch movies?

David,” she says again. “Of course he can come. I can’t wait to meet him.”

Matteo’s eyes flutter shut. He feels a tear snake down his cheek. She rambles on a little more: finishing one of the stories she was telling earlier, but Matteo doesn’t hear a word of it, and he doesn’t say anything either. He’s not sure he can speak.

“Matteo, sweetheart, are you still there?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Matteo whispers, wiping his cheek. “I’m here.”

“Okay. I’ll let you go. I can’t wait for Friday,” she says. “I miss you so much.”

“I miss you too,” he manages.

“Good bye, sweetheart,” she says. Matteo hangs up, a lump still bobbing his throat. He looks around: this part of campus is usually empty, so no one is nearby to see him like this.

He looks at his phone. David still hasn’t texted him back. It’s possible he just needs a break from everything. He works so hard. And Matteo knows it hasn’t been easy having to take care of him, too, on top of everything.

Matteo throws away the coffee and the crushed pastry and walks back to David’s apartment. It’s past noon, now, and he doesn’t have anything else to do. He thinks about going grocery shopping again, so he can make David another dinner, but he feels exhausted now.

He spends the rest of the day playing video games and watching television. In the evening, he pulls out the catalogue of theatre courses Helena gave him and flips through it again, looking over all the little notes she left him in the margins.

It’s late, nearly eleven PM, when Matteo finally hears the door unlock. He’s sitting in the middle of their bed, pen in his mouth, catalogue in his lap, when David walks inside.

“Hey,” says David, putting his bags by the door.

Matteo swallows, hard. He doesn’t know why he suddenly feels so nervous.

“Hey,” Matteo replies, a little too late. David has his back to him as he goes through the fridge. Suddenly Matteo wishes he had made the effort to go to the store and make David dinner. All they have is bread and some cheese, a little bit of deli meat. He watches as David starts to make himself a sandwich.

“You want one?” David asks, looking at Matteo over his shoulder. He doesn’t look sick. He looks good. He always looks good. It seems like no matter how stressed David is, no matter how hard he works, he somehow always manages to look perfect.

Matteo shakes his head.

“Are you okay?” says David. He takes his plate and sits at the foot of the bed. Matteo can’t help but notice David didn’t come over and kiss him, or hug him, or even pet his hair. The distance between them—two feet, at most—feels suddenly interminable.

“I um,” Matteo forces himself to meet David’s eyes. “I stopped by the coffeeshop earlier—”

David’s face pales.

“—sorry, I would’ve texted you, I just—I wanted to surprise you, I brought you a coffee, and one of those pastries you like, the one with the chocolate, but your co-worker said—”

“I called off sick this morning,” David cuts him off, in a strange voice that Matteo can’t read.

Matteo looks down at the bed. In his lap is the course catalogue, marked with Helena’s notes. He puts it aside. Neither of them say anything, for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” says David, “I’m not sick. I’ve just been working a lot and I needed a little break. I just didn’t want you worry.”

Matteo nods. He plays with the pen in his hands.

“David, if you—” he takes a deep breath, unsure of what to say next. “If you need, like, I don’t know—space, or something, I—I get it. I wouldn’t blame you. I just don’t want you to ever feel like—”

David gets to his feet, cutting Matteo off before he can say anything more. He’s still holding the plate with the sandwich. He brings it back to the counter and stands there for a long moment, with his back to Matteo. Matteo watches him, his heart racing, needing desperately to know what David is thinking.

“Get dressed,” David says.

“What?” Matteo’s brow knits. All he’s wearing are his boxers and one of David’s big sweatshirts.

“Here,” says David, tossing a pair of sweatpants in Matteo’s direction. “Put these on.”

“Why?”

“Do you trust me?” says David, looking at Matteo so intensely he feels there’s only one answer he can give.

“Yes,” says Matteo, honestly. He does trust David. He trusts him in everything.

“I’m going to take you somewhere,” says David. “And I don’t want you to ask any questions.”

“Okay,” says Matteo. He does as David says. David pockets his keys and his phone, and Matteo follows him to the door.

Without warning, David takes Matteo by the hip and kisses him. 

Matteo feels a thrill shiver through his entire body.

“Let’s go,” says David.

Matteo lets David thread their fingers together as they walk through the dark streets, down grimy alleyways, through fenced gardens and abandoned parking lots until they reach a cluster of tall apartment buildings. They have to hop a fence, to Matteo’s great irritation, but David doesn’t tease Matteo about how long it takes him to climb over it—or at least, not too much. They take an elevator to the top floor, which brings them out to a roof.

David helps Matteo over a ledge—they have to jump to make it to the part of the rooftop David wants to reach.

But as soon as they make it to the other side, Matteo can see why David wanted to bring him here. The city glitters below them, a faraway grid of racing headlights and ant-sized figures dancing in windows, like something out of a toy music-box. It is almost entirely silent up here. In the distance is the river, a dark, serpentine thread, gleaming with moonlight.

Matteo follows David to the ledge. He stares at David’s profile, admiring the way the starlight glimmers along his piercing. David’s dark eyes meet his, sidelong, and Matteo can’t help but feel the same gut-punch loss of breath he felt the very first time their eyes met, in the registrar, all those weeks ago. He wonders if the sight of David will ever stop affecting him like this. He doesn’t think it will. He doesn’t think it’s possible to ever get used to a face like David’s. Looking at him is like a jolt to Matteo’s entire body, every time. It reorients all of his senses.

“My parents used to bring me up here,” David says quietly, his eyes still fixed on Matteo’s. “It was this romantic thing for them. They met in university and used to have dates up here. When they had me, I became a part of that ritual. Then, when I was older, I started coming up here on my own. When I needed to get away. It became such a huge part of my life that when I left home, I told them this spot was off-limits to them. I told them it was mine. They could take everything else from me. But not this.”

A muscle leaps in David’s jaw. Matteo puts a hand on David’s hip, gently, waiting.

“I used to come here every day because I missed them so much. I missed them so fucking much.” There is heat to David’s voice now. His eyes shimmer, fiercely, but no tears fall. “That’s what I hated most. I hated that I missed them. I should’ve hated them. And I did, most of the time. I did. But sometimes I just wanted to go back. They were like this fucking wound I couldn’t stop picking at.”

Matteo puts his head on David’s shoulder. He feels David exhale, shakily. They hold each other, tightly, staring down at the city below.

“I never thought I’d bring anybody up here,” David whispers, after a long silence. “But then, you see….this boy came along. And at first I thought he was just some pretty face, you know?”

David looks down at Matteo, his eyes glittering. Matteo hides his face in his shoulder, shaking his head with a grin.

“But then I got to know him better. And the more I got to know him the more he scared me, because I didn’t think I could ever feel that way about anyone. I got used to the idea that I was going to be alone. I spent years just trying to convince myself I could live like that—for the rest of my life, if I had to. But one look at this boy fucked up any hope that plan ever had. Just like that.”

David shifts Matteo off his shoulder and takes him by the hips. Matteo sways a little, like he might fall if David lets him go. David presses their forehead together.

“You think I’m pretty?” Matteo whispers, grinning against David’s mouth.

David pinches Matteo’s hip. Matteo tries to push him away, but David captures him in his arms, tugging Matteo close. It feels like there isn’t a single inch of them that isn’t touching.

“I think you’re a menace,” says David.

“You love me,” Matteo teases, leaning in to kiss David again.

David goes stock-still. Matteo freezes. He only just realizes what he said. David stares at him, wide-eyed, his throat bobbing.

“I—” Matteo stammers. He doesn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry. It was just a joke. I—”

David’s breath shallows. A strange, vulnerable look moves across his eyes, and suddenly Matteo can’t breathe.

“I do,” says David, his voice barely louder than a whisper. As if surprising even himself. “I do love you.” The corner of his mouth twitches, as if he’s thinking out loud. A smile ghosts his lips. “I love you.”

Matteo reaches out to pull David closer at the same moment David reaches for him. The kiss is more a collision—neither of them can stop grinning long enough to actually kiss, and Matteo feels so light-headed and dizzy with elation that he’s afraid he might actually fall this time if David’s grip on him weren’t so strong.

“I love you,” David says again. The laughter slips from his voice. This time he says it like a confession. He cradles Matteo’s face in his hands, his thumbs dragging against Matteo’s cheeks.

Matteo’s chest heaves. His heart is like a battering-ram against his ribcage. “I love you, too,” he whispers, barely able to catch his breath again before David captures his lips in another kiss.

“Come on,” says David. “Let’s go home.”

 

 

They barely make it through the door. Matteo’s shirt is on the floor just seconds after David presses him against it. David’s fingers slip down the front of Matteo’s sweatpants, undressing the rest of him with skillful ease, until Matteo is completely bare in front of him.

Then David’s mouth is against his, urgent and hard, unmoving. He pushes Matteo into the door, his hands on Matteo’s shoulders, his chest, his hipbones. His fingers twist in Matteo’s hair. Matteo’s hands crawl up the back of David’s t-shirt. He wraps his arms around David’s waist and squeezes, as if holding on for dear life. His head falls backwards, baring his throat. David’s lips draft dazedly up to his forehead, his temple, his nose. He murmurs something, but Matteo can’t hear him over his own panting breath, his raging heartbeat, the roar of blood in his ears. Have me, he thinks, scratching his nails into David’s shoulder blades, feeling the muscle moving dangerously under his skin.

Suddenly David pulls Matteo’s hands away. He pins Matteo’s wrists to the wall, over his head. He bears down on him a little, just to look at him. Matteo looks back. David’s face is fierce and hungry. Matteo shivers. All the blood in his body rushes southward. He’s still the only one naked. David has both his wrists in one hand—with the other, his fingers skate down Matteo’s throat, his ribcage, down his stomach, ghosting over the curve of his hipbone. But no further.

Matteo’s eyes flutter shut. He’s so turned on he can barely think. He thinks his body might puddle to the floor at any moment.

Fuck, Matteo,” David pants against his mouth, “I wish you could see how fucking good you look right now. You have no idea, do you?”

Matteo shakes his head, swallowing, roughly. He doesn’t even know what David is saying. He can barely process words at all.

David lets go of his wrists. For a moment, Matteo keeps them there above his head, against the door. David’s eyes keep him pinned, molten-dark, and then David pulls Matteo in by the waist so tight he almost lifts him off the floor. Matteo clings to David’s shoulders.

They make their way to the bed. David finally tears off his own t-shirt and his pants, and Matteo reaches for him, greedily, making room for David between his spread knees. David buries his mouth in the juncture between Matteo’s neck and shoulder. He feels the warmth of Matteo under his cheek, brushing his quick, thumping pulse with his mouth. Matteo feels himself giving a little more beneath him, his limbs liquid-loose under David’s touch.

It almost terrifies Matteo, how much he wants him. How far he’d let David go. He feels so wrecked already, and David’s barely even touched him.

Some of this must show on Matteo’s face, because David leans over him and cups his jaw to kiss him, deep and slow and luxurious. His mouth moves down Matteo’s neck, sucking slow wet kisses everywhere he can reach. Matteo’s cheeks flush. He feels like a peeled fruit, raw and exposed and heady with David’s kisses, the intensity of his touch, the heaviness of his heart.

David’s mouth moves up his jaw to his ear. “You’re everything,” he whispers.

Matteo shakes his head, closing his eyes. He doesn’t even mean to, but he feels too raw. Dizzy with feeling, aching with it and overwhelmed.

David’s lips are at his ears again, his fingers soft on Matteo’s face. Matteo presses his cheek into David’s palm. David’s thumb drags along Matteo’s bottom lip, and Matteo takes it into his mouth.

“Look at me,” says David.

Matteo’s body seizes with something so sharp and electrifying he can hardly breathe. He couldn’t disobey even if he wanted to.

He opens his eyes. David’s thumb slips from his mouth. His eyes never leave Matteo’s. He puts his mouth to Matteo’s ribcage, his hipbone, his sternum. The crook of his elbow, the inside of his wrist.

Matteo isn’t sure how long this goes on. He feels like a ribbon of film reel, disappearing into space, a hazy mosaic of mouths and hands and tangled limbs: David moves Matteo’s body how he pleases, turns him over, his mouth kissing down the length of Matteo’s spine, until Matteo’s fists clench in the sheets. A blur of soft, sweaty hair and clever fingers and flushed skin. Just as Matteo reaches the cusp of his release, David turns him over again. Matteo tries to cover his face with his hands, but David pulls them away, whispering that he loves the way Matteo looks when he comes apart.

When it’s over and Matteo has finished David off the way he likes best—kissing, reverently, drinking in every exquisite sound—they lie, sweaty and tangled together, Matteo’s head on David’s shoulder.

David strokes his hair gently, helping Matteo come down. It always takes him a while. He didn’t know sex could be like this. That it could render him almost totally nonverbal, dizzy and glassy-eyed and almost unbearably vulnerable. He feels David’s lips brush along his forehead.

“I love you,” Matteo whispers, lifting his chin so he can look David in the eye. David whispers it back, cupping Matteo’s jaw to kiss him.

Matteo closes his eyes. He feels David’s fingers trace along Matteo’s face, as if committing it to memory. A thumb drags across his cheeks.

“You have an eyelash,” David whispers. “Make a wish.”

Matteo grasps at a cloudy, drunken memory of a balcony. Another party, another long night, another lonely ending. A boy with the longest eyelashes he’d ever seen, his face inches from Matteo’s, holding up his eyelash. A boy who hated Matteo—he was sure of it. Matteo had been so sure of it.

“I don’t need to,” Matteo says.

David raises an eyebrow.

“What do you get the boy who has everything?” Matteo whispers.

David rolls his eyes. Matteo grins cheekily, overly pleased with himself.

“That was corny even for you.”

“I’m not corny,” says Matteo.

“There must be something else you want. C’mon. Here’s your chance.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in wishes,” Matteo says.

“I thought I didn’t believe in a lot of things,” David whispers.

Matteo bites back a smile. “Now who’s being corny?”

“Shut up and make your wish.”

“Okay, okay.” Matteo closes his eyes. He blows on the eyelash. He feels David’s fingers return to his hair.

“What’d do you wish for?”

“Silly David,” Matteo clucks his tongue. “I can’t tell you. Otherwise it won’t come true.”

The corner of David’s mouth lifts. He looks impossibly fond. So fond that Matteo feels his cheeks darken again.

“I didn’t wish for anything,” Matteo confesses, lifting his chin for a kiss. David cradles his face in his hands, obliging. “I don’t need wishes anymore.”

 

 

Matteo wakes up to music. A guitar. Soft singing. He scrubs a hand over his face and looks around, blinking himself awake.

Jonas is sitting on the chair in the corner of David’s apartment, tuning his guitar.

“Um….” says Matteo, sitting up. The sheets pool around his hips. He is still very naked. “Hi?”

“You’re up,” says Jonas, his face brightening. He throws a sweatshirt at him. It hits Matteo in the face. “Get dressed.”

“Why?” Matteo mumbles. It is way too early for this. “What’s going on?”

“David had some shit he needed to do this morning. But the boys and I want to spent the day together, all of us, and David said you’d probably try to sleep in late, so he let me in.”

“I feel invaded,” says Matteo.

Jonas pats Matteo on the cheek. “Tick tock, Luigi. The boys are waiting downstairs.”

Matteo grumbles, loudly. He pulls on the clothes Jonas brings him and stumbles into the bathroom, still barely awake. “Did you at least bring me coffee?” he calls out through the closed door.

“Of course, who do you think I am?” Jonas replies, tapping his knuckles on the door. “I take care of my baby.”

Matteo rolls his eyes at the mirror. He brushes his teeth and runs a hand through his hair, picks up one of David’s hair products in the medicine cabinet but then gives up almost immediately. His hair remains as stubbornly messy as ever.

Matteo and Jonas meet Carlos and Abdi downstairs, and the four of them head to the park.

The lay in the grass, reclining back on their elbows. Jonas clinks his beer against Matteo’s, laughing as Carlos and Abdi race to the river’s edge, trying to catch their soccer ball before it falls into the river.

“Where are the girls?” Matteo asks.

“They’re all helping Amira with something, I dunno. They might be around later.”

“Cool,” says Matteo.

The rest of them are all about to begin preparing for final exams. Matteo is listening to Jonas complain about his classes when he sees his phone light up in his lap. His mother’s contact photo fills the screen.

“Mama?” Matteo asks.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she says, “We are still meeting, yes? I thought we might meet at the church first and then decide where we want to go for lunch.”

“Oh, shit,” says Matteo, turning wide-eyed to Jonas. He pushes his beer into Jonas’s hands. “Yeah. Give me fifteen minutes, is that okay?”

“Of course,” she says. Matteo hangs up.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s Friday,” says Matteo, “I told my mom I’d meet up with her.”

“Really? Hasn’t it been a long time?” says Jonas.

“Yeah, I um…” says Matteo, “I don’t know. I just missed her, I guess.”

Jonas stands up with him. He pulls Matteo into a hug, still holding both of their beers, and pats him on the back. Matteo feels a little beer spill down the back of his shirt, and he shoves Jonas away.

“I’m proud of you, man,” says Jonas.

Matteo’s cheeks flush a little. He shrugs.

“Will I see you later?” says Jonas. “Meet back at our old dorm room after? The boys want to go out tonight. David says he’s gonna be working late, so might be nice to get out of the apartment for a bit.”

Matteo smiles at the idea of Jonas and David texting, trying to coordinate Matteo’s night for him.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” Matteo says.

“You still remember where our old dorm room is, right?” says Jonas cheekily. Matteo rolls his eyes, shoving him again, and leaves, ignoring Jonas, Carlos, and Abdi’s teasing behind him.

 

 

His mother’s eyes are the same color as his. It scared him, when he got older, seeing the similarities between them: sometimes her laugh sounded just like his, or there were certain phrases she used that he found himself repeating, certain tics and quirks. She had the same habit of running a hand through her hair when was overwhelmed. Burying herself in the covers. Sometimes she threw things, too. Nothing serious. Pillows, remotes, a shoe, once. Never at him. But Matteo knows that feeling. That helplessness.

Today his mother is smiling. She has brushed her hair. She’s wearing lipstick. She’s wearing a blouse that matches the color of her eyes. Their eyes. Matteo buries his face in her shoulder, his eyes screwing shut, before he even says “hello.”

He inhales. He feels her fingers in his hair. She smells just like he remembered. Like the perfume she’s always worn, and honeysuckle from her garden, and a fresh pot of coffee.

“I missed you,” she whispers.

Matteo feels a tear roll down his cheek. He’s not ready to let her go.

She brings him inside the church and introduces him to the women in her choir. She gives him a tour, and he listens to the familiar lull of her voice. Afterwards, they walk the streets together, and Matteo lets her take his arm.

“Where’s David?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” says Matteo. They’re standing in front of a bakery stall at a farmer’s market. She puts down a loaf of bread she was considering and looks at him. “He’s really busy right now. But soon. I um—” He looks down. She runs her fingers along his cheek. “I don’t want to go this long again without seeing you.”

She brings Matteo’s face close to hers and kisses his forehead. Matteo follows his mom around the farmer’s market, watching fondly as she gets excited over a candlemaker, and a fancy cheese monger, and a woman selling tiny hanging terrariums. He buys her a pair of earrings and takes her to a lunch spot he remembers her liking. They sit outside on the patio, and Matteo listens to her stories about her church choir, and her battles with the neighbor she hates, and the coworkers she’s started to become friends with.

“And you, sweetheart? I want to know everything.”

Matteo tells her. He tells her about accidentally signing up for an acting workshop, and getting cast as Ophelia. He tells her about the boy he fell in love with. He tells her about getting kicked out school, and meeting up with the administrators, and the leave of absence. He tells her he’s thinking of actually studying theatre, if they’ll let him. He tells her about therapy.

She takes her hands in his across the table. “I’m so proud of you, Matteo. For everything. You have no idea how proud of you I am.”

It’s late now. After lunch, she walks him back to campus. They sit outside the fountain, the same fountain where he first told her about David.

“I’m gonna call you more, Mama,” he says, “I promise.”

“I know you will,” she says. “Maybe next time you can come over for dinner. I’ll cook. You can bring David.”

She kisses his cheek. Matteo watches her leave. He lifts his face to the sky. The sun is just beginning to set, a golden wash of color, sweeping through the blue. He looks down at the coins glittering at the bottom of the fountain. All those wishes he made. Funnily enough, he is less certain than ever that all that’s happened to him—finally reaching a good place with his mother, finally figuring out what he might like to do with his life, finally finding the person he wants to spend it with—has anything at all to do with wishes. These were not the result of some bolt of good fortune, some magic he had no say in, some lucky star alignment. He isn’t a doll on a string, following the whims of some fateful puppeteer. He did those things. They have not been perfect, or easy—he has made more mistakes than he can count. But he is the one who got out of bed. He is the one who took the steps. For perhaps the first time ever in his life, he made those decisions for himself.

Matteo sits on the ledge of the fountain until the sky begins to flush into sunset colors, feeling more peaceful than he’s felt in weeks.

He walks to his old dorm room.

 

 

“Jonas?” Matteo calls out, dropping his keys on the desk. He runs a hand through his hair. Jonas’s bed is empty, and all the lights are off. The sky outside their window is a dusky lavender-pink.

He looks in the bathroom. It’s empty. He pulls out his phone and texts Jonas, asking where he is.

In the corner of the room is his old bed. Matteo sits down at the foot of it. On the night stand is his ash tray, filled with cigarette butts and roaches from old joints. A bobble-head doll he used to poke at when he was bored, and a tiny cactus Hanna bought him for once. He notices a folded piece of paper under an empty Coke can.

Matteo opens it. Two boys are standing on a balcony, their silhouettes visible against a starlit night sky, their charcoal outlines faded, weeks after David first drew it.

At the top of the page are the words: “In case you don’t remember.”

Matteo inhales, sharply. He still remembers the morning he found that note on his desk, underneath the water glass, knowing that David has been here, in his room. David was taking care of him before he and Matteo were even together. David was taking care of him when Matteo was still convinced David couldn’t stand the sight of him.

His phone vibrates in his pocket. He pulls it out.

 

David: Are you at Jonas’s yet?

 

Matteo: Yeah, just got here. You joining us later or still too busy?

 

David: I have to work…but see if you can find anything on your desk.

 

Matteo: Something like this?

 

He sends David a photo of the old drawing.

 

David: Something better.

 

Matteo folds the old drawing and sticks it in his back pocket. He rolls off the bed to look at his desk.

There, in the center, is a drawing. This one isn’t folded. This one was meant to be seen immediately.

Matteo picks it up, his heart already hammering wildly.

It’s him. He’s lying next to a river bed, his fingers idly reaching for the water. In the river are hundreds of floating flowers: peonies, roses, tulips, lilies. Behind his ear is a dandelion. He’s smiling. He looks beautiful. Matteo wonders, idly, if this is really how David sees him.

But this photo is different than the others. In this one, David’s drawn himself, too. He’s sitting in front of a canvas, a paintbrush in his hands. He’s painting Matteo.

Scrawled across the top of the page are the words: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

Matteo turns it over. On the back of the page are the words: “5. The minute you crossed that stage, I knew you’d be the only Muse I’d ever have.”

Below that are coordinates and the directions: “Meet me here at 7.”

Matteo looks at his screen. It’s 6:30. He types the coordinates into the GPS in his phone. He can’t tell exactly what building is in on the map, but it says it’s a fifteen minute walk from his dorm.

The campus feels quiet tonight as he strides through the quad, past the registrar, the dining hall, the administration building, the library. He passes a group of students in costume, clearly heading towards some kind of pre-drinks, and a couple arguing loudly on the lawn. The street outside is quiet too: though it’s a Friday night, the bars seem empty. It is still pretty early. The coffeeshop looks slow at the moment, and the bookstore, too.

He checks his phone again. He’s nearing the destination, though all he sees at the end of the street is a dark, empty-looking building. Like a warehouse.

Matteo stares at the GPS. According to the coordinates, this is the spot.

He looks around. It looks like an old gallery from the outside. The front door is a little dilapidated, graffitied. Matteo stares at the art sprayed onto the wall. It tickles something in the back of his brain. Something familiar.

The door creaks open. It’s dark inside. Matteo takes a tentative step forward.

A thrill of fear shivers down his spine. He shines the flashlight of his phone at the ground, so he can at least see his feet. The floor looks like carpet, dark red.

“David?” he calls out, hesitantly.

His voice echoes.

He hears something. Like a squeaking shoe.

“Asshole, I can hear you,” Matteo groans, “this isn’t funny.”

He hears somebody hiss, like a shushing sound.

“Enough,” says Matteo.

Hands grab the back of his shoulders.

Fuck,” Matteo stumbles backwards, his chest spasming with terror.

Someone catches him.

The lights come on. One by one, they flicker to life. Matteo blinks, adjusting, his heart still thrashing in his chest.

The first thing he sees is David’s face, floating above his, smiling bigger than Matteo’s ever seen.

“Trust fall,” he whispers, before tipping Matteo onto his feet.

Matteo clutches David’s shoulder, jostling him a little.

“You asshole, you scared the shit out of—”

The words die on his lips. He stares ahead of him, disbelieving.

He’s staring at a stage.

He sees Jonas, waving at him. Carlos and Abdi. Amira. Mia and Hanna. Leonie, Sara, Laura, Anna. Sam and Kiki. Helena. Behind them is the rest of the Hamlet cast and crew.

And behind them is the set. The set Matteo has spent so many hours standing in front of him, running his fingers over the dried paint. The skyline beyond. The long, blonde hair spilling into the river, threaded with flowers.

Ophelia.

“David,” Matteo whispers.

He feels David’s arms wrap around his waist. His chin on Matteo’s shoulder. A sound spills from Matteo’s throat, a helpless sound that isn’t quite a laugh. It’s something else. A lump in his throat rises and falls, rises and falls, like a little boat at sea.

“Most productions wait years for a revival,” David says, “but we didn’t feel like waiting that long.”

Matteo turns around in David’s arms. David’s hands cup his face, bringing their mouths together.

“What do you think?”

Matteo presses his face into David’s shoulder. He doesn’t think he can speak. He raises his head, looking around.

David nods. “If you don’t feel like performing, it’s ok, Mia’s happy to do it. But I wanted to give you the chance.”

“You did all this?”

David’s thumbs sweep under Matteo’s eyes. He can hear everyone on stage behind them, backstage, busying themselves. Someone starts playing music as they get ready. He hears Carlos’s laugh. A crash, like something’s fallen. One of the girl’s voice raising, admonishing. Another laugh.

He still can’t believe they’re all here. All of them. For him.

Matteo can taste salt. David’s lips press to his wet cheek.

“Is this what you’ve been working on, these past weeks? Is this why you’ve been coming home so late?”

David just smiles, his eyes softening.

“It was my idea,” he admits, “but everyone wanted to help. We started working on it before the original run even ended. Helena got us this space off-campus. Amira’s stage-managing. Hanna and Kiki have been working on ticket sales. The whole cast did another rehearsal. They all wanted to do this for you, Matteo.”

David looks at something over Matteo’s shoulder. He turns around. Amira is walking down the aisle of chairs. Matteo shakes his head at her, grinning.

“I hope you remember your lines,” she says, tugging him into a hug.

Matteo lets himself fall into her arms. “Thanks to you.”

“Don’t get sappy on me now,” she says.

“Too late for that,” Matteo mumbles, punching her gently in the arm.

David and Amira lead him to the stage. Matteo accepts everyone’s cheek-kisses and one-armed hugs and pats on the back, rolling his eyes at Carlos, Abdi and Jonas’s over-the-top applause. Leonie and Sara insist on helping Matteo get into costume. David gives Matteo one last kiss before he and Amira disappear to get everything ready.

Sara is sticking a dandelion behind Matteo’s ear when he sees a figure approaching behind in the vanity mirror. He spins his chair around.

It’s Helena. Matteo swallows, suddenly shy. He still can’t believe she was a part of this, too. That she would care so much to put all this together, for him.

“Are you nervous?” she asks.

Matteo shrugs. “A little.”

“That’s good. Nerves are good. Lean into it.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder. He looks up at her. “Thank you,” he says quietly. “I just—thank you. For all of this. I don’t know how I can repay you.”

“You’re repaying me right now. I told you all I ask if that you keep trying. That you don’t give up,” says Helena. “And here you are.”

 

 

By 7:45, the theater is filled. Matteo waits with David in the wings, watching behind the curtain as the actors take position in the first scene. Amira scrambles around with Mia, barking orders at everyone.

Matteo turns to David. He’s gazing out at the audience, a proud yet somehow vulnerable look.

He takes David by the chin. “I love you,” he whispers.

David grins against his mouth. “But can you say it in Shakespeare?”

Matteo raises an eyebrow. He mulls it over. David cocks his head, expectant, still grinning cheekily.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar,” Matteo whispers. David’s eyes fall to his mouth, his cockiness slipping into something more unguarded. Matteo’s mouth is an inch away. “But never doubt I love.”

Matteo kisses him. He feels David’s breath hitch.

“How was that?” Matteo whispers.

“That was corny as fuck,” David whispers back.

Matteo laughs. David slaps a hand over his mouth.

“Shhh,” he hisses, “they’re on.”

A hush falls over the stage. Amira’s fingers snap.

The curtain lifts.

Matteo watches, enraptured, as the actors perform the first scene. He rests his head on David’s shoulder. He feels David press a kiss into his air.

He can hear the actors on stage transiting into the next scene. Matteo’s eyes comb through the audience, which, to his surprise, actually looks full. He spots Jonas, Carlos, and Abdi all sitting in the front row, looking adorably serious, their brows knitted with concentration.

David turns to him. “Do you believe me now?” he whispers.

“Believe what?”

“That I love you,” David says simply. “That all of us do.”

Matteo inhales. The truth is, he’s not sure if he’s going to believe David every day. Some days, as Dr. Klein has told him, will be bad, and Matteo will not like himself, and he will be quite sure that no one else likes him either. Other days will be better. At some point in the future, it might even be that most days are better. She told Matteo all he can do is be patient with himself. She told him to stop beating himself up—he doesn’t need the hits. She told him to store up love instead—to hoard it in the little hideaways inside himself. One day, she promised, it would spill over. It would consume him whole.

He tells David “yes.” And he means it. David loves him, and he is not the only one. Perhaps, for once, in this moment, Matteo might even count himself among them.

He hears Amira’s fingers snap again. It’s time. Matteo joins the actor who plays Laertes for his first scene. He meets David’s eyes.

David nods.

Matteo walks onto the stage.