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the only way she knows

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this is the way it is:

elton has spent many months of his life surrounded by everyone and close to no one, and a good many more surrounded by no one and just as alone. he decides early on that that’s his story, that that’s what he knows and will always know, no matter the little tremors in his heart that arise every time he remembers Bernie. Bernie, is wonderful, is talented, is poetic, is going to get married—to a woman, he always reminds himself to add, whenever he thinks about it—which is a lot, which is too much. that’s what’s going to happen, that’s what was always going to happen, and he was nothing but a fool for wanting it any other way.

so elton is alone but not really. at least, people tell him so. he supposes they’re right. he’s got the same chances as any other-- probably more, because he gets to command a stage every night under a canvas of awe and applause. it’s only his fault that no one can really bear to get close. but Bernie is poetic, talented, wonderful; he could get anything and anyone he wants but for some strange reason he never seems to want as much as elton.

lay me down in sheets of linen, but he’s not singing it to Bernie’s LA girls. every night, that’s the way it is.

and the thing is, there aren’t many people who come along and try to change all the bad ways he feels about himself. not that he especially blames anyone. not anyone besides himself, alright? he’s not used to besides himself. in a not selfish way and in an exactly very selfish way. it’s John who is the first besides himself. the first who tries, the first who gets close, the first who surrounds him but is still there, completely. they meet, and he tells him he’s good, and it’s not just performance praise. not just a nod to the command of a stage he already knows he’s got, not just a smile and a nice shoes. he tells him that he’s good, and elton doesn’t realize how much he’s needed to hear that until it leaves these new lips. and it feels good. elton thinks he could listen to this one man all night, he needs it more than sleep, and it’s as good as any dream his mind could come up with anyway. so he doesn’t let him go. so it feels good that John doesn’t let him go either.

so they spend the night together. and a lot more, after that one. elton remembers the darkness, coming back to his hotel room, the slits in the shaded blinds with moonlight rolling through, and other things, stupid things like how nice it was to run his hands through short hair and to feel strong hands on him, pulling at him, pulling him close. he remembers them tangled together, moving like a wave, and somewhere at the bottom of a distant drawer in his cathartic, spaced out mind, he acknowledged how fucking good it felt to be so absolutely in synch with someone else. it’s writing a song, but he doesn’t need someone else’s words; he’s got his own, and more importantly he’s got someone who knows him, what he’s thinking, knows how he wants to be touched and what sweet lyrics he wants poured into his ears and how desperately he’s needed this, something, anything, together, and they keep writing and composing and writing until he is crying out into the night and John’s got his face pressed into the crook of elton’s neck, pressing kisses and indiscernible but palpably sugary words there as he recovers his own breath. and they lie there. they clean up, and lie there.

John’s got his leg over elton’s, his arm a blanket across his chest, and he’s asleep in a second. elton stares up at the beige, grey in the night, ceiling and thinks to himself that it’s funny, John is wrapped around him like this but he knows with absolute certainty that it’s this dark-haired half-stranger in his bed who’s got him wrapped around his finger. it’s not even a complaint. it’s just someone besides himself.

it’s not that much of a stretch to just assume they’re together, after that. no one says anything, of course. especially not elton. he’s new to this, but knows enough to know it’s not something they can just say. theirs is un cas unique. he always knew that, but sometimes he thinks it was stupid of him not to just grab John by the coat lapels and ask him if please, dear, are you really going to love me like this? but elton-at-the-time thinks it’s enough to just let their hands linger on the dips in each other’s backs, to wrap their legs together under shisha bar tables and at parties when everyone’s just had a little too much to drink, a little too much to smoke, them included. after all, it’s more than the enough he’s always been expecting. it’s always worth it when they stumble back to bedrooms and empty hallways and their hands are really on each other, they’re really wrapped up together, just like that first night.

“give me a kiss goodbye, love,” is one thing he tells him to do, one night, the first thing he tells him to do when they’ve got other artists and financiers and a litany of probably very important people still hanging around them, still with mostly un-fucked up senses and mostly working memories. he is nervous, he is unsure, so he gives John a big, dramatic kiss, a performance, once he’s stood up. and it’s fine. John gives him a satisfied smile, elton bows deeply to the others sitting around, intentionally letting their figures blur and bleed through his vision because they aren’t the people he really wants to see anyways; he leaves.

he thinks a camera’s got a picture of his lips on John’s cheeks. by the time the light’s even flashing, though, he’s made a lot of progress in learning not to care.

“got a favourite song?” he asks him; it’s 3 in the morning. and some twenty minutes past. John chuckles, a familiar sound, a familiar feeling when elton’s head is on his chest.

he pictures John rolling his eyes. “the man who sold the world,” he says, with annoyingly little hesitation. elton wiggles a little bit against him.

“you know what i meant.”

“oh, so you mean by you?” John chuckles again. “getting a little full of ourselves, are we?”

elton smiles against his chest, which he knows John can feel. “maybe,” he concedes. and then pauses. and then says, “you never answered my question, love.”

John hums, low and deliberate in his throat, before tapping his fingers to the rhythm guitar in rock and roll madonna and telling him so. elton wants him to say it’s your song, because it’s your song that he’s unintentionally started singing to John every night. but any song he thinks is good, any freeway he likes, makes him smile, so he smiles, presses the lightest kiss against John’s skin.

“you’re a sweetheart.”

John just laughs quietly again. elton decides that that’s his own favourite song.

Bernie writes him so many more lyrics. he looks at rocket man for a long while, reads it over until he hardly needs to glance at it as he’s pounding out the chords on his grand piano. John says it’s going to be a hit, keep him on the charts. “but do you like it?” elton asks.

and John brings a bag of coke to the studio while they’re recording. it’s not the joints he’s been pulling and blowing most nights, or the bottles of pills and whiskey he’s been throwing back and throwing up. but John says it’ll help, stop you being so damn shy, make you feel invincible, and elton knows it’s shit for him but god if he doesn’t need to be invincible sometimes. he sings rocket man again and he’s in space and high out of his fucking mind. the song charts.

the most powerful thing in the world is human thought. it’s human thought that thought up these fantastic headpieces he wears, because somehow somewhere someone sensed a desire for fabulous wings and feathers and crowns and created them just like that, just like god deciding what colour to make his strawberries or what leaves would look best on the trees in a king’s gardens. elton supposes it’s all human thought that he channels when he writes his music, even if it doesn’t feel like it. it feels like he’s the damn strawberries and someone else is thinking him up, thinking up the albums that place on the charts and make the big, big numbers he likes to spend on clothes and paintings and diamonds that someone else is still always thinking up. but it’s never him. of course, he knows it’s Bernie, it’s John. but elton still wishes he could think it was him, too.

the blow helps, though. John puts acid tabs on his tongue and his thoughts aren’t even human anymore, he feels like a god. it’s like when he sits at his piano in front of thousands, millions, but all the time, even when he sits alone on the bathroom tiles or sits just to look at John look at someone else. that’s the power of human thought. fuck if he could ever think up something in this reality but he likes making new ones, is good at it, even if they’re just for himself.

it gets a little out of control sometimes. that’s just the way it is.

Love. Love. Love.

he starts doing trills on thirds in his solos, does two hand glissandos, over and over, plays every song like his old royal academy teacher wrote in midnight blue ink animato on every page. he’s tugging on his end of the rope harder than ever before, and everyone on the other, John, the audience, they tug just as hard. his fingers never tire, though. it’s why he can keep playing this game forever.

he wins because the numbers keep going up. and Bernie keeps writing him songs, he gifts him with his wonderful, talented, poetic mind, so he must be doing something right. he’s never alone anymore; he lines the walls in versace, he’s got sunglasses worth more than all of pinner, he’s got John who buys him cars and winks at him from the wings. he gets him a horse for his birthday. he meets his mother; elton thinks she’s actually quite nice. really, really quite nice. he does another line of coke.

he drives in nice cars.

the nicest.

a dozen different twenty year-olds bring him coffee and tea and johnnie walker every day. he doesn’t know their names.

john lets him in on these types of industry secrets: it is not worth learning the names of the kids who bring you what you need, not worth calling the names of the little overachievers who give you what you need, on their knees or whatever, because when elton asks, who was he? it’s no one. john doesn’t know his name. so then why was he worth more than me?

he’s good at making new realities, just for himself, so he decides it’s a mistake. his own, not john’s. he looks down into the oval mirror on his bedside and grimaces, hates the image, grins, scrunches up his nose a little bit. he leaves on the orange star-shaped sunglasses he picked up in italy two months ago. he jumps up and down like a little kid, some random little kid, though, because although the comparison seems right he can’t quite remember it for himself back at ages seveneightnine. when the nausea hits he pushes into the bathroom and pushes himself and makes himself worth something. he doesn’t eat again for a couple days. he drinks bottles of whiskey every morning but it’s only because he needs that; he doesn’t need food.

john doesn’t really get why he’s so devastated. so he pretends not to be. argues, but doesn’t cry like he wants to, not in front of him.

he takes over stadiums. he pulls harder. he pushes farther. the cheers start to sound empty to him, he’s always so anxious to jump right into the next song just so that they’ll stop. when a hundred thousand voices chant his name like he’s a god he never even feels they’re talking about him, maybe he’s just in that strange person’s skin, funky colours and cocky grins, maybe the only thing he’s succeeded in so far is convincing a whole world that he is somebody else. one day they’re going to catch him in his lies and that’ll just be it-- the end. he is false, he is deceptive, he is somebody else. that’s when it’ll end, when people understand that. he sins when he finds he himself is unable to even stop pretending.

he never really sits alone again, once he starts thinking that. he’s always himself, whoever that even is, sitting surrounded by the shadows of a real fake star, sitting with the weight of some dozen addictions hanging around his ankles like diamond chains, sitting with the silence in this unsettled feeling he always seems to have now. there’s nothing right. maybe because there’s everything right.

sex with john is better after a show, after lines in the bathroom, after shots and the healthy dose of self-hatred and arrogance he shoots up in his veins when his head is already pounding and it hurts to keep his eyes this open, this long. when he was a million years younger he liked their first time because he was just a little tipsy and it felt pure, made him complete when for so many years he thought he was half of something whole. but now that would just feel wrong. now he knows that john doesn’t really understand him the way he thought, if he’s going to fuck him like this and not know how much it hurts. or maybe he truly doesn’t care. either or, really. both could kill him, both feel bad. so they both feel good. he likes that he’s tasting more pain and pleasure, that perfect mixture, that reason for living. he likes feeling wrong, likes falling asleep overthinking and holding too tightly onto something that doesn’t belong to him. likes knowing he’ll be all alone the next morning when he starts throwing up.

when john had fallen asleep first that night, elton had spent a lot of time feeling.

(thinking is the wrong word).

but he thinks maybe they both stirred while it was still dark, moved closer to one another, held each other more tightly. the whites of their eyes and the invasive lines of moonlight on their noses and brows and the tender, ethereal touch of their fingers and legs and backs and cheeks, all shiny and mellow and perfect. then maybe they fell asleep again, maybe after soft smiles and whispers and long eyelashes casting shadows where their eyes had yet to show the reach of stress and frustration and hurt.

this night, elton stirs because there is a new, unfamiliar space under his arm. he peels his blurry eyes open and watches a shadow walk out on him.

“come back to bed, love.”

the shadow turns back to him. “can’t. got some work, i’m afraid.”

the door closes and it is so late. so early.

“do it tomorrow, hun,” he thinks he says. he’s already slipping away. “come back to me.”

he doesn’t.

maybe elton had it right the first time.

love. love. love.

it all gets a little much, from then on. maybe it was already a little much. but when it’s as much as it can be, it’s even less enough for him. he’s not spending enough, not taking enough, not screaming his head off enough, not eating enough, not throwing up enough. not fucking enough. he takes a page from john’s book and takes mouths, doesn’t ask who they belong to. he fills the empty spaces in his bed with strong young men, fucks some girls here and there because a part of him wants to stick it to john and a bigger part of him just wants to stick it in anyone who looks at him with enough suggestion in their eyes. it’s not enough to make him complete, but he hasn’t been looking for that in years. he wakes up wherever he wakes up, whether it’s in his beach homes in LA or a New York penthouse or some stranger’s paradise back in England. he spends weeks in a haze of cocaine and smoke and when he emerges he finds all he wants is to just jump back in. he’ll eat for an hour, not remember it, not remember throwing it all up, just remembers the hatred and the anger and the hurt and holds onto that like nothing else. that’s the way it is.

Bernie is gone.

he doesn’t feel all captain fantastic anymore. but he gets on stage and he is exactly captain fucking fantastic, and people love it, people love him, love the music and wide grins he throws at the audience, the energy he throws at the audience. he tries to kill himself and then he’s playing dodger stadium, knocking it out of the park. he finds friends, people he really does genuinely like. he laughs a lot. drinks a lot. he’s a rockstar, a star, a rocket man. he knocks it out of the fucking park. he doesn’t let himself be alone. he is in noise all the time, in lights all the time, touched all the time.

and captain fantastic sometimes doesn’t let anyone in at all. he locks the doors and locks himself in with coke and whiskey and passes out on feelings of whatever bliss can be called when he is on fire at the same time. he falls awake, and doesn’t really care to figure out the time or the day or the year. john will come and pull him to his feet and those angry lines in his brow and in the ugly snarl of his lips will be enough for him to figure he’s got a show in about an hour. maybe two, if john is generous or even more disgusted than usual with him, whatever and whichever means he wants him to clean up and come back down to earth.

but the joke is on him, because elton is right back in the stars as soon as he steps onstage.

“i think we’re done, yeah?”

elton can’t focus his eyes on john. just replies, yes. yeah.

they are.

tilts his head back, blows smoke at the ceiling. it makes a cloud, a blanket, hangs there for far too long.

itsnotfairitsnotfairitsnotfairitsnotfair

he’s not telling this to anyone. not telling this to himself because he might really kill himself this time if he wallows in any more self-pity. he’s drowning in all of it right now. there’s so much anger inside him and so much blame. the assistants and the tailors who help him into jackets and fold his clothes and shine his shoes, he doesn’t trust them, he doesn’t believe they aren’t laughing at him when he walks away, sequins and jewels, the sparks of electric current in the air. when producers and mixers slap his shoulder and throw thumbs up behind the glass he thinks that maybe they know, know he’s not authentic.

that’s what john figured out, when he finally figured out elton was just a hollow suit of cash pumping himself up with drugs so at least he won’t blow away in the wind. Bernie figured it out, realized he was no genius, just good with his hands and smiles and taste in eccentric hats. he does come back, though, which is something. it points more to how good Bernie is than anything else. he’s writing songs that elton’s paranoia insists are about him. maybe he regrets honky cat, wants to make up for it. maybe they’ve both just changed.

but goodbye yellow brick road means a lot to him. he’s glad it’s his best album to date.

it doesn’t really stop much, though. he feels more like candy or ronnie or bennie electric queen herself instead of this brave little farmer leaving it all behind to go back to the woods. so, so spaced out.

it’s so incredibly annoying, he wishes he could just be someone. or be with someone. he just wishes he wouldn’t have to hold onto things so tightly just so they’ll stay. he wants someone to hold onto him. but everyone just leaves. people far better than him and far less selfish are dying in hospital beds and he is trying to kill himself anyways. the ones who don’t die leave anyways. and he hates everybody because how dare they hate him more than he hates himself. how dare they push harder than he’s already pushing? how dare they not care when he seizes, passes out, bleeding from the nose, how dare they not stop him when he falls awake and crawls back to the lines someone else cuts for him? and then he’s so selfish; maybe that’s why they all care so little.

his mind watches the sequence of his life with very little attention. he hates it for that. he would live and relive being on stage every night if he could, but the days and weeks start to bleed together, the faces are indistinguishable, indecipherable. everything is slipping from his fingers, and he’s just being carried along by the waves. if the ocean stops moving, will they find his body lifeless and floating in the water?

or will he just sink to the bottom?

one day he looks hard into the mirror. he hates it and he looks. his eyes are bloodshot and swollen at the lids, like someone’s gone and hit him, hard, tried to hurt him. but it doesn’t come from someone else. elton sees a mirror. the dark pools of ink in his irises are all bliss, maybe that’s what john used to see when he looked at him? now it’s just pain though. the dilated pain, the misleading devil. he even used to think it was pleasure, it was happiness, invincibility,

(it’s not)

he even used to trick himself. but when he’s looking at the thing he hates most in the world and it’s himself and his eyes look deceptively in love it becomes a moment of clarity, a realisation, that he’s never really been good at deciphering the two. when he’s mixing them, he’s a pro. when he’s faking one and hurting on the other, he’s fantastic. when he tries to ask himself what love and hate, pleasure and pain, even are, he crumbles. he falls. this is pain. in the middle of the pleasure of his life. this is hate.

and he doesn’t want to hate so much anymore.

___
___
___

“Can I read it?”

Elton is sitting cross-legged on his bed, hoping it isn’t so obvious that he’s got his arms resting on his knees because he knows they’ll tremble otherwise. The stark white papers in his hands, haphazardly stapled together, are almost glowing, but they’re cold to the tips of his fingers. He looks up at Bernie.

“You want to?”

Bernie doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah.” He nods. “Yeah, I do.”

Elton extends them to him in one hand, watching how they shake in his nervous grip. Bernie takes them from him. His hand is steady.

It’s a farewell letter, addressed in pen to cocaine. He won’t deny having found it a little silly, when his doctor first brought it up to him. No one’s going to read it but me, he had thought. He realized that that was exactly the point.

Bernie never seems to have thought of it that way. If he did, he is a wonder for hiding it, just for Elton, just so that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed. Elton lets either gesture—both, maybe—warm his sunken cheeks. His eyes follow Bernie’s while he’s reading, studying the minute furrows in his brow and the way he sometimes reads a sentence two, three times over. Even though it came to him in one sitting and in one downpour of emotions, he knows it intimately. It’s been his story and his thoughts and hopes, so of course he does. He remembers which lines he cried over putting to paper and which promises had made his heart ache to dream. He didn’t predict Bernie going through those exact same emotions as he read it, though. It gives him a little bit of shame.

He knows when Bernie’s gotten to the end. Bernie, who’s got tears in tracks down his cheeks and a quiver in his lips, brushes his thumb over the signature. He looks to Elton. He puts the letter on the bed beside him. He wraps his arms around Elton’s body.

Elton lets out the sob that his own tears had been beckoning once he has his arms around Bernie’s neck. Bernie is a talent; he’s got him spilling out all the misery that had him so convinced there was nothing but nothing inside him. There are a lot of things this moment helps him to realize. There are a lot of moments from then on that keep him holding onto that same clarity. He could talk at length about them all, or put them in chords and sing them to a world that loves him. He could write more letters. He could drown in all the wisdom he thinks he has now and all the excitement he knows he has when it comes to looking forward.

More than anything, though, he just wants to keep it all inside, to keep him going, to keep him standing.

Clarity means confusion. When he knew nothing, he was convinced of everything. It is so fucking refreshing to look at life like the mystery it is or to realize he doesn’t know what everyone is thinking of him, all the time, and that’s fine, because it doesn’t matter. He stops falling and he starts waking up. He’s got Bernie to help him navigate confusion. He’s got himself.

This is the way it is; he’s poetry.