It was decided — not by them — that Eliot and Quentin should take a vacation.
At some point during the miserable spiderwebbed process of securing Quentin’s resurrection while Eliot and Josh had been spending their nights breaking into a bakery in Bayonne in which they attempted to concoct a recipe for gâteau basque rich enough to offer to an iratxo as a bribe, the task of researching the cultish scrolls in the Fillorian archive had fallen to Margo (for access) and Julia (for diligence). When Eliot had returned to Whitespire he could detect that an alliance had been forged on what he could only assume was the basis of their shared status as tiny lunatic she-beasts who had learned to take perverse pleasure in the fact that nearly everyone they met was stupid enough to underestimate them to a dangerous degree. What Margo wore as armor and bludgeon Julia had learned to carry like a radioactive pocketknife she was just dying for someone to make her use, which Eliot supposed was the sort of sophisticated trickery of which a person was capable who had the relative psychological cushion of having survived to adulthood on pleasant speaking terms with one (1) blood relation. While he had come to believe any decrease in the quotient of humming miasmic irritation among their improbably bound circle was a good thing, it had hurt to understand so belatedly that in fact he and Quentin had a type in common. Watching the two of them smirk over some private joke about Tick’s silver brocade Eliot had remembered the warm golden afternoon when Arielle had done her imitation of the blacksmith in a temper and he had laughed till his sides hurt and swallowed bile realizing or admitting that of course it was not and had never been her wholesome red-cheeked femaleness that had made Quentin look at her like she caused the sun to rise. Besides although he knew it made him a huge hypocrite Eliot was also unused to sharing and not actually any better at it than Margo was.
Now Quentin was alive and while Eliot rarely saw Quentin and therefore rarely saw Julia who had attached herself to him like a storybook witch’s familiar or perhaps a guard dog he suspected that Margo and Julia were continuing to nurture their nascent link of mutual respect and probable and justified exasperation with their persistently despondent soulmates. Knowing quite how much he was to care for Eliot could not begrudge Margo or for that matter Julia some kind of release, but he disliked this state of affairs too. Mostly because when he pictured the two of them commiserating over vodka tonics the image dissolved too easily into a scene from the alternate life in which he had not been a colossal idiot and Quentin had not run off wounded by said idiocy and therefore Blackspire monster possession so on et cetera and in conclusion no one had ever died. In that other life it was always Saturday afternoon and Eliot had his arm around Quentin who was laughing with none of the hard-set wariness into which his face had lately solidified and Margo and Julia were eating nachos with them and doing something affectionately embarrassing like listing all the dumbest movies that had made Quentin and Eliot cry, the kind of too-close familial coziness Eliot had never known he wanted until a scrapbook of memories he had never really lived had implanted itself into his brain and his heart had spun nearly out of his chest with how lovely he had learned after all to let it be. It was a brutal and at the time he thought unforgivable piece of self-knowledge which drove him of course into what was actually unforgivable which was where all of his thoughts looped back to eventually so perhaps the potential secret dyad of Margo and Julia was not in this regard special.
His suspicions were confirmed finally when Margo sat him down on the couch at the penthouse and brought out her Technically This Isn’t An Intervention voice, because Margo on her own would never have come up with a treatment for his spiritual malaise as deranged as two weeks of peace and quiet in a house in Dutchess County with Quentin.
“You’ve been colluding,” he accused. “This has Julia-idea marks all over it.”
“I’ve been collaborating,” she corrected. “And so what if I have? You need — something. Why not this?”
“Do you really think,” Eliot said, and stopped. Thinking, Do you really think what’s wrong with me can be cured with a little time off, do you really think some light hiking and an hour or two wandering the local tchotchke shops is going to unspool the twisted part inside that turns everything to rot…
“I really think,” Margo said, “that you’ve been spending a lot of time in places that have accumulated a lot of very painful memories, and it can’t hurt to shake that Etch-a-Sketch clean.”
“I don’t even remember being here,” Eliot said, gesturing around at the granite countertops and the enormous windows and the ostentatious spiral staircase and the refrigerator on which Kady had pinned under a magnet a reusable ongoing grocery list which erased itself upon fulfillment with the heading in big block letters EARN YOUR KEEP, ASSHOLES.
“I wasn’t talking about the monster,” Margo said quietly.
He ducked his head even though that was as good as conceding she was right. In the hospital when he had woken up still fuzzed out on painkillers and Margo had been the one to break the news he had received it as part of the all-encompassing anesthetized shock into which his mind had retreated on the occasion of finding itself back in charge of his body for the first time in months. But afterwards, when she had brought him to what was not home but would have to do, he had opened the junk drawer and found Quentin’s lighter and fallen to his knees and howled.
He said, “But Quentin will be there.”
Margo’s mouth made a hard line. “Which is fine, right? Because everything’s normal between you?”
It was a low blow to use against him his own obvious lie that he had insisted on continually repeating but it was one against which he had no defense. “Right. Exactly.” He forced a smile.
He had expected Margo to purse her lips in sulky judgment but instead her face melted a little into a sad unprecedented thing it tangled him up to see. “El, I don’t want to do this like this. I don’t want us to bullshit each other and I don’t want to force you into something you hate and I don’t want this to be some kind of game neither of us is winning.”
“So what do you want,” he said. He toyed aimlessly with the hem of his shirt.
“I want —” She chewed her lip wrathfully, which others might mistake as anger but which Eliot knew was her customary preparation for a moment of vulnerability. “I want to help you. And it fucking kills me that I can’t just — hit you with an axe and make it better, because I don’t know what else to do.”
A secret for a secret: the trade that had bound them that first year, naked in the garden and covered in ropes like some kinky Edenic coupling biting from the same messy fruit. “I don’t know what else to do either.”
She moved to sit next to him and leaned into his side and he put his arm around her shoulders. She still fit there; he didn’t know why he could not quite feel it. He picked up a strand of hair to twirl a little in his fingers and although he couldn’t see her face he knew that she smiled a bit at the touch. “I guess,” he said, “I don’t have any better ideas.” Rest in the penthouse had not worked and volunteering himself as errand boy for tracking down marked hedges or drawing up festival market arrangements had not worked and doctor-mandated sobriety had not worked and getting totally shitfaced on obscenely low quantities of whiskey afterwards had not worked and not one of Josh’s allegedly therapeutic hallucinogens had worked…. His life didn’t work and all the small miracles he had stumbled upon to keep it running had lost that particular power. Or he had drained them finally of what they had to offer. He tried out the words. “A vacation.”
“I’ll come with you,” Margo said. “If you want. I just thought — we just thought,” she amended with a tone of begrudging humility, “maybe there’s something to all that crap about, if you love somebody set them free. Maybe we’ve been… hovering. And that’s not what you need.” She straightened; took his face in his hands and looked at him with big full eyes. He remembered not for the first time that she had spent months thinking she would never see him behind his eyes again. “Maybe you get some time to be you,” she said, finger tracing down his cheek, “and then it’s easier to figure out us, again.”
He kissed her forehead and pulled his arms around her until she was close and warm in her spot up against him. “Bambi,” he murmured for the pleasure of saying it. He should have asked her to go with him or apologized for wanting to go alone or apologized for wanting to stay or asked pertinent questions about what precisely he could hope to accomplish and how he could ever hope to navigate the mess of himself alone even briefly and why Quentin who was perhaps even at that moment enduring a parallel conversation with Julia and where exactly was Alice in all this. But of course she knew without needing to be told that as much as he dreaded the thought of coexisting with Quentin in close quarters he shamefully craved it even more. She knew and didn’t judge which was only one of many reasons it was fortunate he had secured his spot by her side long ago.
Into his chest she said, “I’ll be waiting when you get back. And if you need me before then — anything, anytime, I’m here. You know that, right?” He tightened his grip trying to feel the solidness of her body and the subtle arc of her strong shoulders.
He missed the days when packing had itself been a grand adventure in selecting the selves he would bring abroad. Or he missed being a person who could make such selections. He had made Eliot Waugh out of trinity knots and pocket squares and then made him anew in the linen and silk of an adopted land and he had no patience for the congenitally dull-minded who would accuse him of hiding because he had spent eighteen years hiding in ways that went far beyond who he wanted to fuck and he knew the fucking difference. Sometime their first summer he had hit that sweet spot of drunk enough to be impulsive and sober enough to know it and plan in advance to blame it on the tequila and he had asked Margo why things hadn’t been different between them, after the Trials, now that she knew who he was, and she’d taken his face in her hands and waited for him to meet her eyes and with a seriousness heretofore unseen had said: I have known what you truly are since the day we met. He had swallowed; looked away; taken her hand. Stunned with fresh gratitude for how precious she was. Awed to have found someone else who understood: nothing was not performance and the best performance was the most authentic and everyone had to construct a self so you may as well do it on purpose. But he had been unmade and carved open and he didn’t know what he looked like anymore. In Fillory it was easy enough still to dress to expectation like a uniform but on Earth he opened his closet which Margo had restocked with old favorites and marveled at how far he felt from the person who had known how to wear these clothes and wondered fruitlessly what Eliot Waugh looked like now. He wore a lot of black lately and had not cut his hair.
Before leaving he went to Josh’s room to ask about fortifications and annoyingly Josh hesitated. “I don’t know if I should give drugs to a guy about to go on a mental health retreat.”
Eliot placed a hand thumb to temple and fingers to forehead, massaging against the irritation. “Josh I have not sat through ten thousand of your stoned lectures about the medicinal properties of the marijuana plant and our collective need to regain our ancestral fucking wisdom about using the natural world to enhance our psychic development for you to suddenly develop an interest in the public health.”
“I don’t lecture,” Josh mumbled, sullen.
“I’m not asking for the hard shit,” Eliot said. “Or even the magical shit. Just, like, a little weed. Maybe some edibles.”
Josh chewed his lip. “Is Margo gonna be mad?”
“Margo knows,” said Eliot, “that Eliot will do as Eliot pleases, and would prefer that Eliot acquire the relevant supplies from a reputable source.”
Josh conceded to hand over a pocket-sized Mason jar three-quarters full of tightly packed green buds and a Ziploc bag of red and black gummy spiders. “Halloween special,” Josh explained, “doesn’t go bad. Potent, though — I’d go one at a time.”
At least two for anything good, then, Eliot thought. He thanked Josh and went to retrieve his suitcase.
In the kitchen Julia was standing at the counter with a cup of coffee, reading some book with highlighter in hand. When he came closer she looked up at him, bright-faced. “Q’s already downstairs.”
“Thanks,” he said. “For — setting this up.”
“No problem.” She really did come across as so normal if he just forgot everything he had ever learned about her.
Eliot could hear Kady somewhere in the apartment yelling into a phone or maybe some two-way enchantment. On the counter someone had placed a blue glass fruit bowl and someone else or maybe the same someone had filled it with apples and clementines and bananas and there was still fresh coffee in the pot and under EARN YOUR KEEP, ASSHOLES he recognized Margo’s handwriting noting a need for hot sauce and he had spent months here and none of it felt less untouchable than it had. “I’ve never seen him like this,” he said because he was thinking of untouchable things.
“Me neither,” said Julia. “But I’ve seen him worse, so.” She shrugged a little.
Sometimes Eliot burned with a misplaced jealousy when he thought of their long history. Other and worse times he wondered if he had been a good enough person at sixteen to keep coming back the way she had kept coming back and typically concluded the answer was no. “Is that supposed to be comforting,” he said.
She shook her head. “No. Just —” She tilted her head to one side. “Data.”
It was such a Quentin-like phrasing that Eliot smiled in spite of himself. “You’re nuts,” he said appreciatively. Trusting her to understand.
Julia smiled, eyes crinkling. “I’ll see you soon,” she said.
Quentin was waiting outside leaning against the rental car. He looked like he had ever looked, since: tight and careful and nearly blank but for the unchanging ghost of some secret simmering anger behind his eyes. Brows permanently half-knit and mouth an unmoving line. He was so still now whenever Eliot had seen him. So quiet and so still. Like all his eternal restless longing and that raw ache that had always radiated out from him had been sealed off like a crime scene or a city under siege. Some place Eliot had loved to walk the dirty sidewalks and could no longer go. It was jarring and infuriating and concerning and kind of hot. He wore dark jeans and a plain white T-shirt over which his arms were crossed and shining a little in the July heat and since Eliot had last properly seen him he had had the lanky untended mane of his hair cut stylishly into something with layers that nicely framed his face. The edges were curling against his neck and forehead in the humidity. Probably Julia had made him get it cut and definitely she had given the stylist instructions. Of course the overall effect was devastating but Eliot suspected there was nothing that would have made his first moment alone with Quentin after everything less so. He didn’t know which of them had been avoiding the other and took inarticulable comfort in his sense that Quentin had been avoiding no one specifically so much as human contact generally excepting Julia who refused to be avoided and Alice about whom Eliot had no idea because Alice he had in fact been avoiding and quite successfully at that.
Quentin didn’t talk when he saw Eliot; just pushed himself upright and walked around to the driver’s side to get in. Eliot waited for the dull click of unlocking and tossed his suitcase into the back before following suit into the passenger seat.
Quentin put the keys in the ignition and turned. They sat for a moment in the quiet rumble of the car readying itself while Quentin typed the address into some app. “I think the logic is that both of us need time alone but neither of us can be trusted with it.”
That made sense and was probably wise although no one would enjoy hearing it about themselves. Eliot wondered how the conversation had gone in which Julia had talked him into this. “So what,” he said, “we’re each other’s chaperones?”
“More like a joint suicide watch,” Quentin said flatly, “but sure. If you want to be nice about it.” He began to pull into the street while an electronic female voice told him where to go.
Eliot wanted — many things Eliot would not get. To drive backwards out of time, away from the ruin of their lives knotted like a bezoar and into the place where they had known how to be around each other which Eliot now suspected had kept the best parts of him as punishment for his refusal to use them when he could. That closeness he had shattered exactly like the mirror he had smashed one tearful afternoon at fourteen after another sequence of slamming doors. And cut himself as badly. Alone and bleeding and unsaved, unsalvageable. Later his father had boxed his ears for the waste of money. He wanted what he had ever wanted: some way to stanch the wound.
They hit traffic on the bridge and Quentin said, “You can put music on, if you want.” Eliot had no real interest in music presently beyond his several carefully curated playlists for wallowing in self-pity and anhedonia and when he was the particular flavor of blindingly drunk he only indulged when Margo was off-world Boys for fucking Pele of all things like some suburban fourteen-year-old who had just discovered both feelings and the Internet but anything was better than the endless taunting silence so he turned on the radio and clicked the dial until he found some generic rotation of recent-ish hits. Neither the song that was ending as he tuned in nor the one that picked up next was familiar to him and it struck him that he had spent a long time cut off from the movement of the world. This realization hit him every now and then abstractly, like he couldn’t bring it into his body. He watched Quentin for some reaction but Quentin showed none and Eliot dropped his hand from the dial.
In all their various and far-flung journeyings together Eliot had never sat in a car that Quentin was driving. Horribly he found that he liked it. Quentin’s eyes focused and controlled on the road and the gentle slope of his profile anchored while the scenery blurred behind him and his back straight and alert. The artful curve of his neck. His hands on the steering wheel, the well-defined mountain ridge of his knuckles somehow always broader than Eliot expected and the veined backside like a river delta under the stretched skin and the usual kineticism of his fingers coiled electrically in his grip. And all the mirror-checking and angle-adjusting and the subtle give and take of direction and velocity, the minute bodily calculations of unconscious competence which some adolescent part of Eliot never fully expressed and perhaps for that reason never outgrown still viewed as dazzlingly grown-up and therefore almost painfully erotic. One Saturday in tenth grade his drama teacher had politely pretended he didn’t know Eliot’s father was not just late but not coming because he was on a bender and had given him a wholly appropriate ride home after the tech run (Grease; Eliot was a Kenickie to make the freshman chorus girls and one senior boy lying to himself blush) and Eliot had sat in the front seat nearly writhing in sweaty palpitating arousal such that he thought he could feel every breath and heartbeat and friendly sideways glance at a red light in his skin. This was not so acute thanks to the intervening years of development in his frontal cortex but then it was clouded with the silt of understanding and regret and someone else’s claim marking a boundary he could not cross again. He leaned against the window and closed his eyes in something between prayer and self-defense.
The worst part was that he liked Alice; had liked her even that first year if only in the distant admiring way that one usually appreciated the bright jewel tones of those poisonous frogs from the Amazon or wherever. She was like everyone on earth he liked in that she was full of pain and totally fucking crazy and kind of mean and incapable of answering life’s common questions in any of the usual acceptable ways. With her Peter Pan collars and black lace like a conceptual joke about Zooey Deschanel after a nervous breakdown. God. There was some other life where he and Margo had succeeded in charming down her guard over time enough at least to convince her it was safe to be a person in their presence, the way the person he thought he had made himself knew how to do. The way they had done with Quentin, until —. Some other Margo had come into some other better Eliot’s bedroom at the cottage bursting to show him the faces Alice had made when she had taken the opportunity to impart her considerable wisdom on the matter of sucking cock. The real Eliot instead could not stand to look at her knowing that she had been smart enough to hold on to what he had been too cowardly to keep.
They had left the city and settled into miles and miles on one of those interchangeable stretches of East Coast highway where motion and efficiency centrifuged the world into the gray ribbon of the road and next to it undifferentiated green and above the unmoving canvas of blue. He watched summer-heavy branches speed past his vision indistinguishable as drops of rain.
When they were approaching their destination they stopped at a supermarket for groceries. It had been ages frankly since Eliot had gone grocery shopping and much longer since he’d done so outside of a major metropolitan area and for a moment stepping past the sliding doors into the artificial chill and the white fluorescent glare and the speckled linoleum and the red plastic carts laden with bulk purchases and the aisles laid out orderly and retreating geometrically behind each other like a depressing Americanization of the topiaries at Versailles he felt almost a physical shock as though he had bumped into his younger self rushing out to the parking lot. Baby fat and bad skin and jeans gaping above his ankles. Avoiding home as long as he could. All the shit you bury, Eliot thought, and still it’s lying under the dirt waiting like a zombie or a land mine. Nuclear waste poisoning every step. Quentin had taken a cart and while his face retained its unchanging air of surliness he had tilted it toward Eliot just enough to feel like an expectation so Eliot shook himself and began to walk in front.
It soothed and excited some frayed thing within him that if Quentin would not talk to him or look at him at least he would trust Eliot to organize the project of keeping them fed. Like putting on a costume of the Eliot to whose periphery Quentin had tentatively attached himself years ago. The Eliot who could guide and cheer and persuade and take pleasure in Quentin’s constant bemusement and very occasionally be rewarded by the curling of his smile very slowly as though he were unused to the movement and confused to find it happening on his face. That self was gone and perhaps given certain outcomes that was no real loss but Eliot could place rice and eggs and sliced bread in the cart as Quentin kept pushing in mute acceptance, still.
Walking through the produce aisle the wicked genius of Margo and Julia’s plan struck him. Alone he would have skipped this step as he had skipped most food lately that was not take-out curries eaten very drunk or cold pizza eaten very hungover with every now and then a dose of several bowlfuls of a children’s breakfast cereal when he wanted to feel particularly sorry for himself. But some combination of performance and concern for Quentin’s nutritional well-being far beyond what he could ever muster for himself propelled him into selecting tomatoes, carrots, onions, all manner of leafy greens, bag of potatoes, peppers… He hesitated fingering a peach for ripeness but only minutely and he filled a bag with them without looking to see if Quentin had noticed. Even so they emerged with a case of beer and stopped without needing to discuss it at the poorly lit liquor store at the end of a strip a few minutes further down to pick up wine.
“Where exactly are we going?” Eliot asked in the parking lot as Quentin re-entered the address in the navigation app. Quentin held up the phone wordlessly. “Milan, New York,” Eliot read. “Well that’s pretentious.”
“According to Julia the locals pronounce it my -lun.”
Eliot wrinkled his nose. “Ew,” he said and then wished he hadn’t; the silence around where Quentin might in another time have responded with an affectionate half-smile or a tangent about the evolution of regional pronunciations was louder than it had been.
At the turn onto the narrow winding road far along which their destination lay the guardrail was badly dented and wrenched apart at the metal joining leaving a dull silverish ribbon hanging windless in the air like inscrutable modern art, as though someone going too fast had not seen it to stop in time or else had lost control. Eliot could not stop the thought from surfacing: same. It echoed into the space where elsewhen he would have said it and Quentin would have laughed. The place where Quentin had been a person who laughed even if only occasionally and usually with some degree of bitterness or irritation and Eliot had been a person who made that happen. I saved you, Eliot tried to think as he watched Quentin peer at the numbers on the mailboxes as they passed, as much as anyone else I saved you; but he couldn’t make it stick.
The house was owned by a lesbian couple who worked in the local school district as a social studies teacher and a speech pathologist. According to their AirBnB profile every June on the Saturday after the last week of classes they loaded their necessities into an RV and spent the summer chasing the most scenic views in America while they entrusted their home to a series of renters and a cleaning service scheduled to come every two weeks. It was a generous flat-roofed two-story built snug against a grassy knoll with brown clapboard siding and white-cased windows sheltered by beech and maple vibrant in their summer green; the property extended several acres to the rear although guests were not encouraged to explore. The faded welcome mat read TEACHING IS A WORK OF HEART in looping script. Inside the main floor looked to have been remodeled in recent years, with an open kitchen and dining area giving way to a glass-walled extension in the back that held a heathered taupe sectional and a richly dyed multicolor woven rug.
After they had unloaded the groceries into a kitchen which seemed to contain not one single actual glass but an astonishing collection of souvenir mugs they went upstairs, skipping by mutual unspoken agreement any discussion of the master bedroom in favor of rooms that had likely once belonged to the long since grown children who populated the picture frames dotted throughout and which now held an impersonally pleasant vibe. In Eliot’s there was a lingering bookcase but the texts were so universally beloved of high school English teachers and teenagers who always did the reading — Slaughterhouse-Five, Pride and Prejudice, Catcher in the Rye, most with bright yellow USED stickers on the spines — that he couldn’t tell if they had been left there by someone exiting their student days or purchased in bulk as an investment that would add character to the owners’ summer side hustle.
Quentin came by while Eliot was unpacking and god but the sight of him in the doorway having sought Eliot out lit some idiotic hopeful fire in his blood. But he was only there to say, “I’m not really feeling up to cooking after the drive up. I found a menu on the fridge for a pizza place that delivers, if that’s okay.”
“My cell service sucks here — I’m gonna walk down the road and see if I can get a signal.”
“Okay.” When he was gone Eliot played back the colorless loop of their exchange and had to fight the urge to throw something against a wall.
Downstairs he opened up the kitchen drawers idly and poured himself some wine in a mug with a black-and-white photograph of a pile of tabby kittens and walked to the edge of the living room where through the glass wall he could see a firepit and a grill and a set of sturdy Adirondacks under clear plastic tarp to guard against the weather and behind them the vertical brushstrokes of the trees coloring the air green. He had to admit it was a nice house but took no pleasure in it; he could imagine coming here in the life he had in his most optimistic moments thought he might be building at Brakebills back before his actual life clarified matters, he and Margo shepherding their delicately nurtured cadre of physical kids and carefully vetted associates away for a weekend of shenanigans and debauchery, could almost see Quentin and Alice coming downstairs rumpled and hungover to find Quentin’s maniacal best friend having made a pot of coldbrew probably after having run six miles or something equally inhuman while Kady and their Penny complained about the noise from where they had passed out tangled on the couch and Margo smirked in the red kimono she saved for the prettiest girls and the dumbest boys bright with afterglow and mostly with anticipation for delivering to Eliot the highlights reel, or else he had been there because they were sharing that summer or else he had picked out someone beautiful and ineloquent or else who knew perhaps the divine luck that life would have required had led him to someone nice who would kiss him with morning breath and in that life Quentin and Alice were probably like fucking engaged or something but it was okay because he’d never had cause to know otherwise… Was this what adulthood was, Eliot wondered: this never-ending accrual of ghosts. Hauntings piled on hauntings, every person you had ever been or pretended or wanted or failed to be and every wrong turn and extinguished spark of something like hope you were too stupid to seize, every ugliness inescapable and lost joy unreachable and the whole wretched muck of the past and each unbuilt future, all lingering like smoke until you could hardly see or breathe. Battlefield of slain possibilities moldering eternally under the sun.
They ate the pizza standing up by the black-topped kitchen island. When his plate was empty save for crumbs and grease Quentin leaned forward on his elbows and Eliot felt an electric surge of appreciation for his T-shirt thin against the line of his back and of hope that he might say something into the dimming room. What it would be like to place a hand against the lower curve of his spine and feel the warmth there for just a second void even of any meaning or intent not contained in his touch. I saved you, he tried again, and nearly choked on everything that had not in fact been saved. After a minute Quentin washed his plate and grabbed a can of beer and retreated upstairs without speaking.
Having restrained himself for fear of what his unfettered id might do alone at night in a house that contained Quentin Eliot woke the next morning without a hangover for the first time in weeks and perversely kind of missed it. The pounding head and wobbling vision and angry writhing of internal organs as if on strike to protest the previous evening’s gross misconduct lent one a clear focus that crowded out nagging questions such as What is wrong with my entire life and Is it perhaps that I am the worst and most useless person ever to live. Without it he was left only with these unanswerable inquiries and with the unsophisticated transparency of his own motivations in spending as much time as possible chemically kneecapping his own capacity for thought.
Julia had — in retrospect obviously — given Quentin a list of suggested activities, probably to mitigate the hardly inconceivable mental image of Quentin and Eliot spending fourteen days straight sitting in a room giving themselves alcohol poisoning. Quentin presented the email as they waited for the coffee to brew with the resignation of a teenager handing over his summer reading list, as though going through the motions of what a normal person might do on vacation were homework on which he would receive a grade, which was basically how Eliot felt about things like getting out of bed in the morning. So after caffeinating they drove out to Red Hook, stopping on the way at a deli for egg sandwiches on stale white rolls.
Red Hook was pretty in a generic way, quiet and tree-lined and quaint in its assemblage of colonial two-stories with their narrow windows and pitched roofs, all painted in tasteful and muted earth tones with thin white columns highlighting the cleanness of the village. Eliot knew that it was irrational to hate it but he did. Its air of pacific normalcy pressed down on him suffocatingly and made him fiercely nostalgic for the first few weeks after he had moved to the city, when in its ugliness and filth he had found the buoyant relief of knowing he would never be the stain marring the view. Quentin betrayed no reaction beyond his continued aura of tense suspicion, which of course was the real problem.
For lunch they went to an allegedly historic diner in like a railroad car. Kitschy Americana bullshit, Eliot thought uncharitably. Sitting in a booth trying not to stare at the soft waves of Quentin’s bangs falling into his face he took in the paper placemats and the stools lining the counter with its black-and-teal tile design beneath and the low curving ceiling and was hit with a shock of recognition. “I’ve been here before,” he realized, shaking his head a little in disbelief. Another fucking ghost.
Quentin looked up. After a beat and uncertainly, like an actor who was not fully off-book, he said, “When?”
A band whose drummer he had been trying to sleep with as a kind of exercise in checking off bingo squares had had a show at some Bard College student space and so Eliot had tagged along to sit in a poorly lit and terribly ventilated room papered with earnestly hand-lettered fliers advertising movie nights and dorm parties to watch three groups of which they were the last to play. There was a student production of Neil Labute’s Autobahn going up the following week. The music was exactly the kind of insufferable gnashing noise created by people who in their hearts believed that authenticity was not only superior but generally opposed to lesser virtues such as talent/artistry/aesthetic ambition/etc. and Eliot felt smugly aggravated by the private school punks in their Doc Martens and ripped fishnets and fingerless gloves, all those little rebels with fading Manic Panic streaks taking daddy’s money in quantities Eliot had not ever in his life seen to drink fucking Magic Hat and read Chaucer and scour thrift shops for the ugliest clothes they could find. Only years later had he realized that really what he resented in how cheerfully they wore the costumes of the people they wanted to be was that it terrified him to think he might be even half as obvious. Anyway he didn’t sleep with the drummer that night but he and the band had gotten miscellaneously fucked up with some undergrads in a double with a Dylan poster on the wall and hotboxed the van before driving out to the diner on the recommendation of their hosts and dozing in the parking lot for half an hour before it opened.
“When I was living in the city,” he told Quentin. He attempted a wry smile. “Chasing some guy in a band.” And maybe he did secretly hope with that to lure out of Quentin — what, god, anything, a guilty flash of jealousy or an amused understanding or that little prudish pout he had mostly outgrown but had worn so often that first semester, eyes scrambling away from some salacious remark like Eliot was literally fucking someone’s asshole in front of him while his face went through a funny dance of okay not that I’m judging but that’s really not any of my business and then sometimes his brows would knit together like his brain was reprocessing the fact that Eliot was his friend and he would ask an uncertain question or later even perhaps venture forth a tentative joke — Eliot had liked him so much. Since the beginning. Had loved to be the person who could get him to unfurl piece by piece and had loved to watch that unfurling, Quentin’s slow acclimation to the possibility of belief in solid ground. As much as Eliot wanted to drag Quentin to the nearest alleyway and blow him until he saw stars he wanted his friend back, more. He was certain could give a toast at Quentin and Alice’s wedding and buy stupid booties for every one of their eight bug-eyed children and be happy about it if he could just have that. But then he had sworn that he would need nothing else if only they could bring Quentin back to life and if anything he had since felt worse, so. Perhaps he was lying to himself. Either way Quentin looked at him for such a long second his heart started to pound but in the end he just looked back at the spiral-bound menu open to a listing of all-day breakfast options.
They spent the afternoon browsing shops (books, records, antiques), or Eliot pretended to browse while Quentin maybe did, who knew. Neither of them bought anything. Back at the house he put some burgers on the grill and remembered like a taunt halcyon days in the yard behind the cottage and felt he could scream to shake the woods until the land cracked open and swallowed him whole.
During his months locked in his mind no awareness of the world beyond had reached him but now sometimes he had dreams that he understood were memories the monster had used his body to make. Typically these were suffused with a sense of uncanniness: looking down at his hands and stretching the fingers out and in to remind himself that they were his hands. In some dreams he was so inebriated he could almost confuse it for one of his own memories and in others he was sweating through withdrawal and in most of them he was committing some horrorshow violence as unthinkingly as he might light a cigarette. Viscera spilling and bones split, skin flayed with all the sick wet sounds and screams which sounded as if they came from the wound itself. Disconcertingly often Quentin was there in some shade of distress from anxious to devastated to a kind of hollowed out sleepwalking exhaustion as though even then the livingest parts of him had been scraped away and discarded or as if (waking in a cold sweat mouth sour with adrenaline Eliot could not stop thinking) he himself had at a certain point set them aside. Dark circles under his eyes and clothes bloodied like a Pollock canvas. The red calamitous splatter which spoke in fact to the execution of a vision. And sometimes his throat bruising airless in Eliot’s grip or his arm bent at some nauseating impossible angle…
A light was already on in the kitchen. Quentin stood leaning his hands against the standing counter staring into a half-empty glass of water as if to scry. When he heard Eliot approach barefooted he jerked his head upward and before he could control it Eliot saw it in his face: the fear.
“Sorry,” Eliot whispered, chagrined. Of course the nighttime apparition of this body could ever only mean now one thing; of course he would seize up like terror itself held a hand to his throat, a hideous twisting weight against his body — “I’m sorry, I was just — I can go —”
“No it’s fine,” Quentin said with a voice that didn’t match his eyes. He dropped his gaze from Eliot for a second and when he looked back up he had smoothed out something behind his features although Eliot could still see the tension in his shoulders and his eyes darting as if seeking escape.
“If you wanted to be alone…”
“It’s fine.” There was a pleading note in his insistence which Eliot loved and hated himself for loving. Almost as good as hearing stay. “I’m just, uh — a little jumpy. Just —” He ran a hand through his hair. He was wearing a white undershirt and gray sweatpants and it seemed cruel that even here in the epicenter of the implosion of whatever it was they could have been to each other once something in Eliot could not stop admiring the shapely curve of his shoulders and the angular bend of his wrists with their dark hair. “Weird dreams, you know. You?”
Eliot thought, I dreamed that I broke you and then I woke up and I had broken you. “Something like that.” His mouth was dry. He reached into the cabinet for a glass and filled it with the press-on dispenser in the refrigerator door and took a drink and he did not look at Quentin but he could tell at the corner of his vision that Quentin watched him through each step as though enacting some protective spell that would be broken if he looked away. But protective for who, he wondered and set aside. “I could make some tea,” he said. “Margo’s been giving me this herbal stuff she says is good for nerves — I think I put it in one of these drawers.”
“Sure,” Quentin said. “Thanks.”
Eliot found the tea wedged in the corner against a divider of silverware and located the cheerful red kettle and set the water to start, tapping it with a little magic to speed it along. The boxy green numbers on the stove read 1:45. Quentin was still looking at him like he was trying to wrench from Eliot something he would or maybe could not name. Anything, Eliot thought, you can take it, whatever’s left. “You should drink your water.”
Quentin nodded and took a sip, then another. “So, um — you, uh.” His voice sounded unnaturally loud especially as he seemed to have started talking without anything to say but simply to speak and in doing so perhaps to ward something off. Monsters in the dark. For years as a child Eliot had slept covered toes to neck even in the depths of August when the heat rose to his bedroom and smothered him gravitationally because the rule was that that was how they didn’t get you. “You and that guy — did you ever, like, get together?” His face screwed instantly into a horrified bewilderment which in any other context would have been hilarious as though even he could not believe this was what his scrabbling brain had latched onto for purchase.
“Oh,” Eliot said. “Uh, yeah. We did. Not in — Red Hook, but.”
“Yeah? You — how did — or —” Quentin was nodding with a kind of wincing determination reminiscent of a teenager drinking vodka for the first time at a party. Hating every second but understanding he could not at this point abandon the path on which he had set himself.
Eliot had hardly been dying to revisit the memory himself but he found something bracing in the clarity of Quentin’s unarticulated request and so thought if Quentin needed a thin veneer of normalcy in which his limbic system could calm down he could pull that out for a few minutes at least. “Yeah, he was — in a band, you know. Drummer. They were awful — I think they were called something like Void of Hanoi, and obviously they were all white — but he had great arms. Great arms and this fucking, like, Jesus-of-Nazareth–ass beard, which looked so stupid it almost looped back around into working for him? They would play these like, nothing bars downtown or in Williamsburg, always at like six forty-five because no one would book them any later, with maybe twenty-five people in the audience on a good day.” It was easy to make it funny because objectively it was funny because Eliot had chosen most of the sexual partners he had had in his life based on whether one day they would be a funny story. “He had this girlfriend who was constantly breaking up with him because she thought he should get an actual job and you could always tell when they were broken up because his hair would get just unfathomably disgusting, I mean we’re talking walking biohazard…. So during one of those times we hooked up at a house party in Brooklyn.” Actually that night as he recalled (fuzzily) the drummer had been complaining about his girlfriend’s bourgeois Protestant attachment to employment which Eliot who hated church and had never held a job longer than four months at a time found very sexy but they had not broken up until a few days later, but he felt that Quentin knew enough terrible things about him already.
“What happened then?”
Quentin’s volume had evened out, which Eliot took for an encouraging sign. “Oh, you know. The usual.” They had spent several weeks having mediocre sex — the drummer was a disappointingly anemic lay for all the vigor with which he beat his kit onstage — and saying cruel things to each other that they each pretended were jokes, which at the time was more or less what Eliot thought it meant to be grown-up and liberated. “We hooked up a couple more times, he got weird about it, we hooked up again, I got weird about it, and — well actually then I got into Brakebills so the whole thing was kind of moot.”
The kettle whistled. Eliot brought down mugs from the cabinet — WORLD’S #1 MOM which he assumed or hoped had been a gag gift and a heteronormative but sweetly sketched snowfamily — and placed in them the bags onto which he poured the water to steep. He handed Quentin WORLD’S #1 MOM.
Quentin lifted the mug to his face and briefly breathed in the steam. Eliot could see something in him settling, easing, and his heart somersaulted absurdly. Like this, absent his fear and caught in the strange witching hour spell of dark and sleeplessness away from whatever churned endlessly through his days, Quentin looked almost familiar.
“I think I’m going to go drink this in bed,” Quentin said. “Maybe read a bit. Just — to try to get back to sleep. Julia keeps —” With the heel of his free hand he dug into his eye. “Talking about the importance of a regular sleep cycle.”
“It’s good advice,” Eliot said. “Not that I would know.” He had meant it as a bit but it came out true.
Quentin studied him a long moment mouth just slightly alert as though behind it was something he wasn’t sure should come out. All he said was “I’ll see you in the morning,” but after he said it he didn’t move.
“Yeah,” Eliot said. “See you tomorrow. Sleep well.”
Quentin closed his eyes briefly before walking away and disappearing behind the wall. Like he had been waiting for Eliot to confirm — something. That tomorrow would come, maybe. Or that he would wake up to see it.
In the morning it was pouring such that even without opening his eyes Eliot could tell by the sound of the rain’s steady wash against the roof and the window and the whole world beyond that it was too thick to drive in. He lay on his back listening to the rain batter the house and contemplated simply passing the whole day like this. He wondered how long until Quentin would come searching or if in fact he would and decided eventually that rather than risk receiving literally any possible answer to that question he would after all get out of bed.
The kitchen was empty as indeed the entire main level seemed to be empty and to stave off the temptation to make this a metaphor for his life Eliot set to work making pancakes. Strawberry-banana pancakes, on the grounds that probably the two of them should occasionally ingest some kind of recognizable plant matter and because all the slicing gave him something to do. By the time Quentin came in he had half a batch stacked under a warming charm and was pouring batter for another while on the back of the stove bacon fried. “There’s coffee if you want it,” he said with a false gaiety that probably just sounded kind of manic, gesturing with his chin.
Quentin raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he walked to the coffeemaker and poured himself a cup (Van Gogh’s Starry Night, courtesy of the gift shop at the Met) into which he splashed a little soy milk from the fridge. He had showered and dressed already and he was wearing an infuriatingly well-fitting black Henley which Julia had one hundred percent picked out for him without sparing the slightest thought for poor Eliot cursed now to think about Quentin’s neck.
“You don’t have to wait for me,” he said. “If you want to get started. I’m almost done anyway.” He flipped a pancake with perhaps more vigor than was strictly necessary.
Quentin didn’t react to that. He had again become unnervingly impassive. Eliot tried very hard to remind himself that last night’s thaw had been in fact a barely suppressed trauma response and that therefore missing it would make him a bad person. But Quentin didn’t move except to drink his coffee until Eliot had turned off the stove and placed the mixing bowl and pans in the sink and when he did it was to bring down plates for both of them.
They didn’t speak over breakfast. Only once they had sat down did Eliot feel a wave of stark longing which revealed in fact all along he had wanted this, badly: to cook Quentin breakfast. Was that wrong, he wondered; could that one desire be severed from everything he had no right to want such as to fuck Quentin on the dining table and over the arm of the squat sectional and on the floor by the glass sliding door with the lush embrace of nature watching them and to cook Quentin breakfast with all the attendant intimacy usually connoted by the act and to be forgiven. Could there be an innocence to the pleasure of finding something he could give which Quentin would accept. Or was everything he wanted tainted by proximity to everything else he wanted. He had never made Quentin pancakes before. It felt so good to watch him eat. His throat when he swallowed working under the unmarked skin and every shifting gradation made by shadow and light. Possibly Eliot was losing his mind.
When they had finished eating Quentin thanked him and cleared the table ignoring Eliot’s protests. Eliot stared at his shoulders hunched over the sink as he loaded their plates and silverware and the items Eliot used to cook into the dishwasher. He rinsed them each by hand.
As excruciating as the trip had been none of it had prepared him for the prospect of hours stretching indefinitely ahead of him boxed by the rain into a space neither he nor Quentin could leave. Logically a day alone in his room here with its plaid quilt and mounted shelf of teardrop-eyed Precious Moments figurines should have been functionally the same as any of the undifferentiated days spent holed up in his room at the penthouse which despite Margo’s encouragement he had not been able to infuse with the slightest personal touch preoccupied as he had been with the notion that his touch was in fact poison. But his awareness of Quentin’s presence was like a car alarm he could not turn off. He wanted to call Margo to complain but the weather had killed his signal and he cursed himself for not having set up an alternative. Instead he managed to burn maybe ten minutes cleaning out his contacts (who on earth was Barcelona Tall?). In desperation he turned to the bookshelf of syllabus staples and plucked from it The Great Gatsby having absorbed through cultural osmosis (showing up very stoned to the tenth grade English class in which he had eventually eked out a B-minus in-class essay, plus one NYU theme party he had crashed his first winter in New York before he had learned that NYU kids were the worst people in the city) that it had something to do with debauchery and glamor and like the futility of dreams, and also it was short and possibly kind of gay? Unfortunately his present circumstance/entire life had rendered him such a basketcase that he had to put it down after the first chapter because the image of a man on a dock reaching for something that would never not be on the other side of the water was apparently too resonant to bear. It did not make him feel better to realize that probably half the country had felt this same way once which was of course why schools kept assigning the stupid book. By the time he knocked at Quentin’s door to ask if he wanted to smoke up it was seventeen minutes to noon and he was nearly impressed with himself for having held out that long.
Quentin (legs stretched in front of him crossed at the ankles, barefoot, Eliot loved his feet, still wearing the fucking Henley which he had not had the decency to button even part-way, well into what looked to be his own copy of Les Miserables the book of which was apparently ten billion pages long, Eliot loved his feet? What?) waited a long wary moment stone-still as though sussing out some sinister motivation but finally he said, “Okay.”
They shared a joint back and forth on the couch in front of a television neither of them bothered to turn on and when they had finished it without discussion they began another at which point Eliot was forced to admit he could have rolled them two to start with but had wanted instead to put his mouth somewhere Quentin’s mouth had been. He let Quentin roll this time even though Quentin rolled like a seventh grader on cold medicine so that he could watch Quentin’s fingers make small deliberate motions.
Towards the end of the second joint Quentin exhaled smoke, held it out to the side, and without looking at Eliot asked, “What were you doing in the city?”
Eliot took it and inhaled before answering. He wondered if they had ever had this conversation in the life they had never lived. Mostly after the initial rush his memories of that life had settled into a kind of sweet dawn-hued blur like memories of dreams which left impressions but not images. But scattered throughout those fifty years were a few snapshots of the person he could have become if he had not been the person that he was. A page full of notes for that day’s design, black ink in Quentin’s tiny jagged handwriting, as Quentin stooped over to haul the last of the red tiles to their starting place. Purple flowers like crocuses gently speckled around their centers bobbing on their long green stems in the breeze while they shared a meal of thick bread and soft cheese and sweet apples. Their four feet under cool clear running water glinting under the high sun and Quentin was laughing. Arielle humming in her delicate soprano and when Eliot caught a harmony her eyebrows arched in pleased surprise. Quentin’s wrists under Eliot’s hands on the bed in the little house and the way his eyes closed like someone receiving a blessing even by then when the hair at his temples was gray. Quentin rocking his sleeping infant son face flayed stark with awe and his eyes were red from crying and two days without sleep and he had never looked more beautiful and Eliot had not believed until it was happening that Quentin would hand over this new piece of himself for Eliot to hold but he did so unthinkingly like this was something that was theirs and feeling the warm breathing weight in his arms it seemed that everything in the universe had aligned so that his heart could open for this dozing sweet-smelling creature and every fear felt banished to prehistory because he was touching a miracle and nothing could have been easier than to bathe him in love soft and radiant as daylight spreading to coat the world and every precious thing…. Shit, he was really stoned. “What was the question?”
Quentin rolled his eyes and took back the joint. “You said you lived in the city. Before Brakebills. What were you doing there?”
“Oh,” Eliot said. “Well what I told everyone I was doing was going to auditions, getting my name out there. Doing workshops to, whatever. Hone my craft.”
“You told everyone.” He took a hit and Eliot admired the shape his lips made when he exhaled. “But…”
“Mostly I was just getting fired from barista gigs and pissing off my roommate.”
“You had a roommate?”
“I had three roommates, actually.” Eliot reached for the joint and tried to take a hit but it was cashed so he set it to rest in the mug they were using for an ashtray (green map of Florida, red block letters reading THE SUNSHINE STATE). “At this place in Inwood I think was technically a two-bedroom once upon a time. But two of them were musicians and basically sociopaths so they didn’t give a shit what I did. The other one worked for some non-profit and hated all of us because he was trying to be this like responsible functional civic-minded adult and we would be like puking into the dirty dishes and then forgetting to clean it up.”
Quentin spared him a sidelong look of disdain that Eliot wanted to pin like a butterfly on corkboard. “So you were trying to be an actor?”
“Sure. Let’s go with that.”
“Do you think it would have worked out? If you’d stayed. Do you think you’d have — made it, or whatever.”
“I doubt it.” He hadn’t been untalented but he hadn’t been willing to work especially hard for it either and even shows that paid a weekly MetroCard and half an Equity point expected you to show up to rehearsal (1) on time and (2) sober. At the time of his Brakebills exam it was spring and he had been sleeping with the drummer for three months. He was doing a lot of coke that year because the drummer did a lot of coke always and because he hated himself and his life and joylessly fucking someone who hurt his feelings on purpose and it was interacting with his untrained magic in weird ways. Objects in his apartment would break or move while he slept or blacked out like he was his own poltergeist and sometimes during their terrible sex his bedroom door would start opening and slamming shut while he mumbled something about how he really had get the landlord in to look at that until the drummer lost his erection and let Eliot halfheartedly come on his stomach. Sometimes he would get paranoid and think this secret and dangerous but deeply true part of himself had actually been a long series of delusions and perhaps he was still in Indiana somewhere under heavy sedation. He woke up and the garbage can by his bed had moved to the other side and he wondered if he was going insane. When he first stumbled past the bathroom door at Bowery Ballroom and into what he later learned was the Brakebills health center where a third year student administered an overnight detox protocol his first thought was that he had truly lost his fucking mind. “I wasn’t exactly made for the hustle.”
“So where — I mean do you ever think about it? What would have happened if you, if you didn’t have magic. If you’d never gone to Brakebills. Where you would be.”
“Without Brakebills?” When he came home after being admitted the first thing he did was to go through his nightstand and his dresser and his coat pockets and the pants he had left on his bedroom floor and the pants he had left in the bathroom and flush all of his drugs down the toilet. Then he slid against the wall until he was sitting with his knees up on the dirty floor with its little white honeycombed tiles and cried — he didn’t know why he cried. He couldn’t name it. After a while he felt stupid because he had no intention of quitting and anyway if he really didn’t want them he could have sold them for an easy buck but for a few minutes something had felt important. Now when he remembered the scene mostly it embarrassed him for how strikingly cliché it was not unlike every other thing he had ever done in his stupid life. Had weed always made him this maudlin? “Probably dead.”
Immediately this struck him as grossly insensitive to Quentin who had been definitely dead. “I mean just because that’s where I met Margo. Without her, you know. Who fucking knows.” He gave a semi-hysterical little laugh.
Quentin nodded and kept nodding like he had forgotten he was doing it. It seemed to go on a long time but time was not quite running linearly anymore so perhaps not. “I used to think — there was a time when I thought that a lot,” he said. His voice sounded kind of blunted and unmusical and it was a relief for now to be able to blame the drugs. “Just — walking around campus and I’d think, without this place I’d be dead. Without magic I’d be dead. And when we lost magic, over and over, without magic I’d be dead, without magic I’d be dead. Like a song I couldn’t get out of my head. So…” He trailed off and stilled. Eliot swallowed. A whole galaxy in that unspoken sentence. Two entire unkept lives. “But then magic killed me.”
Eliot thought simultaneously I’m too high for this and Thank god I’m fucking high for this. Unbearable unmediated to hear Quentin speak of his own death as though superstitiously it might so acknowledged creep out of his throat with cold spiderlegs to reclaim him. Unbearable to resurrect their shared past only at its nadir. The awful writhing possibility that only the worst of them was real enough to have survived.
Quentin stood up, lifting with him the Florida mug with its ashes. “You want a beer?”
I want to transmute whatever personhood is left inside me into something that will make you whole and I want your knuckles in my mouth and also, Eliot thought, I want to eat potato chips until my tongue falls off. “I’ll take wine,” he said, “and maybe some snacks?”
It rained through the afternoon and into the evening. Shortly after they started drinking Quentin found the remote and an SVU marathon which they stared at while Eliot contemplated his early and confusing sex dreams about Richard Belzer. At some point his head grew heavy and he shifted to rest it against the arm of the couch and predictably then nodded off. When he woke up with his mouth tasting still of peanut butter his neck was sore and the rain had stopped and Quentin was gone.
Quentin had cleaned up the remains of their snacking which was convenient because Eliot preferred not to recall it. His wine mug was empty (plain white ceramic) so he refilled it and stood up to gather information on his present state of inebriation. Not so bad; a little woozy on his feet but his wits were whatever passed for intact these days. He should drink some water, he thought, but he didn’t. Margo had texted him how are you holding up? and before he could think better of it he sent back holding.
Quentin was outside, sitting by the firepit in one of the Adirondacks off of which he had lifted the tarp. There was an open can of beer by one of the chair’s legs and a stack of thick blocky logs by the other. In his lap he had gathered a pile of twigs and seemed to be using a Swiss Army knife to peel the bark away from one in strips. Eliot watched him work at it, trying to stretch out the ache in his neck. Quentin darted a quick glance at him without pausing his work. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just —” Eliot waved it off. “Sore. Getting old, I guess. Can’t sleep on a hard surface without fucking up my neck.” Quentin didn’t react, re-immersed in his knife and his twigs. “Are you… whittling?”
“There’s a bunch of firewood in the basement with a sign that says it’s free for guests to use,” Quentin said without looking up. “But you need tinder to get it started, and everything is wet. There’s probably some dry patches on the ground further in where the canopy’s thicker, but. This seemed easier.”
“Sure,” Eliot said. “You know we could just —” He rolled his fingers to indicate.
“I want to do it like this,” Quentin said.
Eliot heard like a physical echo his voice saying: But then magic killed me. The horrible blankness of his features in profile like behind them was left only some abyss. He said, “Okay,” and took the tarp off the other chair to sit.
The sky was still clouded over with gray stratus drifting together so thickly they looked solid but behind them the light had long since started to dim. It was warm and the air was thick with humidity and the soft telluric smell of wet soil and that palpable silence after rain in which every hushed sigh of leaves in the breeze felt like the world tentatively waking itself back up. The scrape of Quentin’s knife against wood. He decimated the twig he was working on into shavings and sprinkled them into the firepit where Eliot could see now they were not the first and drank some of his beer before beginning to strip the others in long efficient strokes. His hand on the red handle working in a sturdy practiced rhythm while his other gripped the branch steady unflinching as the blade brushed by until it was wholly naked and he placed it next to him in his seat with the others skinny and pale. The bark he tossed back onto the grass.
When he had finished night was truly falling and he crouched by the pit to start stacking his twigs in a loose conic shape. At one point he licked his thumb and held it up to the wind which struck Eliot as gratuitous given how hard he had been working not to think about Quentin’s tongue. His own mouth he realized had pathetically opened and he covered quickly by drinking some wine and then for good measure drinking some more.
“Are you making it a little house,” he said to distract himself, “to keep it warm?”
Quentin shot him an upward glance that was just barely not a roll of his eyes. “The tinder gets it started,” he said, “and then the kindling keeps it going so you can add the fuel logs. You never did this in Indiana?”
“They have electricity in the Midwest. Why on earth were you building fires in suburban New Jersey?”
“Junior cowboy camp, remember?” Some of the twigs fell over and Quentin adjusted their position. “The last week involved a four-night hike with your bunk. Everyone had to practice making a fire. Sucked, but. Do you have a match?”
“There’s probably some in the house, if you want me to look.”
“Forget it.” He pulled his lighter out of his pocket — Eliot’s heart wrenched to see it — and rolled his sleeves up as he knelt on the ring of stones, stretching his arm into the structure.
“Are you sure that’s —”
“It’s fine, I can —” He bit his tongue a bit in concentration. Hatefully cute. His forearm tense with the effort. Then he yanked his arm back out and shook his hand out the way he often did after he cast.
Flames licked up into existence. Quentin began setting the logs around them, close enough to catch. When the fire had grown such that Eliot could feel its warmth on his hands and face Quentin straightened and for just a second shrugged at Eliot as if to say See? No magic needed before picking up his beer and sitting back down.
This conversation they must have had, Eliot thought. Maybe not the first night but at some point in fifty years of living by fire it must have come up. Possibly Eliot had remarked on how lucky they were to have magic for it and Quentin had teased him a little; he could almost hear him saying Are you serious? incredulously, that half-smile of his curling at his lips. Or Quentin had set himself to it as a challenge to break up the monotony of their days. Or taught it to Teddy, for the pleasure of teaching him something when most of the skills he had grown up mastering were so irrelevant, and Eliot had watched with that stretched-skin feeling that accompanied every memory he had of Quentin with his son like the love inside him was too big and wild for his body, and asked about it later, in bed. Moonlight through the window; playing with Quentin’s long hair at the back of his neck. His stubble and the lines at the corners of his eyes and his hips crooked into Eliot’s and Eliot wondered if he had ever come right out and told him I would die for you. Quentin would have laughed a little, that warm riverbed rumble in his throat, smile spreading across his face, and told the story filled in that iteration with details like which of his fellow campers smelled the worst and what they all called their counselor behind his back, and maybe Eliot had dropped that he hadn’t even been allowed to join Cub Scouts for the objectively hilarious reason that his father thought they would turn him gay. His hand over Quentin’s, pressed against Quentin’s chest, fingers locked in the sad silence that followed memories of their old lives. And then his nose behind Quentin’s ear and unspoken the sweetness of the fact of each other at least, each other if nothing else, each other after everything and on until the end. And now irretrievable: the sweetness and their joining and the Eliot who could fold against and around and into someone like that. Their heartbeats in the night.
It was dark now. The clouds occluded all features of the sky and past the edge of their circle the space between the trees faded rapidly into blackness like fairy tale woods harboring some latent danger. There were fireflies hovering nearby like tiny earthbound stars. Little comets streaking green and fading back into the air. The fire dancing heavenward and Quentin’s skin golden in its lambent light. Smudging painterly shadows across the curves of his face. A piece of wood slipped sending off a fireworks arc of orange sparks. Quentin was watching the blaze and in his eyes the reflection glowed like embers. Eliot didn’t remember much but he remembered: the night stretching above them with its two waning moons. Nocturnal scurrying and the occasional hooting owl from the forest. He had barely been looking at Quentin; he barely looked at him after but he looked enough. Enough to take in his funny self-satisfied smile. Enough to see: firelight throwing flickering chiaroscuro over the angles of his face in the red-gold glow and his eyes shining with it. Enough to think: You are the loveliest thing I have ever seen. With your black hoodie and that strand of hair that won’t stay back. And for one night in this unreal sojourn I will. I can. Mouth still tasting of their rank mead. Drunk and unsure but still it seared into him. Some new and fathomless type of wanting like a violent blooming and he knew himself to be transformed. Still. It had never happened and still. When he looked at Quentin something in him stirred like a phantom limb, a place for which no one had ever taught him the name. A room with a door that hadn’t existed before. Sullen and lovely in the firelight. Never seen a light move, Eliot thought, like yours can do to me… then immediately, Jesus fuck I really have gone to the Tori Amos place. Perhaps instead of holing up in the Hudson Valley with Quentin he should have driven himself to New Orleans to drop ayahuasca in a church basement until Satan showed up to seduce him. Or simply chucked himself into a volcano.
Then Quentin said, “Alice and I broke up.”
He said this with a kind of clipped conversational tone into the fire but then he lifted his eyes to meet Eliot’s as though watching for his response. “Oh,” Eliot said to buy himself time as he scrambled for something neutral to say while all of his mental energy was diverted to keeping off his face the fact that this sentence had hit his body like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. “Like — today, or —”
“Three weeks ago.” His eyes had narrowed minutely and his jaw was set firm as if to pose a challenge.
“Oh,” Eliot said. He thought he could feel his ribs caving in. Only as it was dissolving could he see that in all the agony of the forcefield around Quentin marked THIS BELONGS TO SOMEONE ELSE there had been safety too. He wanted — he could not think. “You didn’t tell me.”
“Was I supposed to?”
Eliot wanted to say: Yes you fucking were supposed to tell me and then you were supposed to say You Eliot are absolved of all sins and wrap me in a cleansing embrace like a baptismal stream and then we were supposed to fuck harder and wilder than animals in heat. “No — no. I’m sorry.”
An edge creeping into his voice; his face hadn’t moved but he looked nearly angry now. “I just meant,” Eliot tried, and then instead of trying he let his ugly untamed longing claw its way into his mouth. “I just meant — you two seemed happy. That’s all.”
Quentin stared for a moment and then his mouth twisted into a bitter smile. He shook his head from side to side, making a noise like mean imitation of a laugh. “Yeah. Okay.” He downed his beer and stood up. “Remember to make sure it’s fully out before you go inside.”
Eliot watched him leave through the sliding door. His inscrutable back disappearing into the house with its unspoken rage and all the other secret places Eliot had once been able to touch. He doused the fire with magic and sat for a long time feeling feverish in the cool night air.
The shower smelled lightly sulfurous after the rain. Under the spray Eliot jerked off guiltily thinking of Quentin’s open upturned face.
They went hiking the next day on a trail at the edge of Catskills. Eliot had suggested the outing off Julia’s email in the hope that he could sublimate into physical exertion some fraction of the sexual frustration that it turned out had lain coiled in his chest shackled only by the knowledge of Quentin’s relationship and which now coursed through his body like a curse long held at bay finally feasting on the soul of someone foolish enough to have dropped his wards. His brain had overnight become a machine for reliving every incompletely discarded memory of Quentin’s skin and Quentin’s mouth and Quentin’s maddeningly clever hands. His breath hot against Eliot’s neck while Eliot tensed with the anticipation of the forthcoming scrape of his teeth. His hair dripping sweat onto Eliot’s chest while his hips worked Eliot’s cock with a kind of spellbound determination. The way his chest sagged after he came and this incredulous little laugh he made sometimes, like in all his years it had never occurred to him he might feel this good. Fingers wrapped around himself moving slowly and his funny shy smile glancing up from under those lovely lashes because he knew Eliot liked it when he put on a show and the way he would blush under Eliot’s gaze before his face lifted into something deliciously smug. How every trace of worry vanished from his face as if blown away when Eliot so much as whispered a request into his ear. The reliable sweetness of his kisses and his noisy gasping breaths when Eliot moved inside him and his inexhaustible eagerness for Eliot’s dick against his tongue which he knew how to put to just embarrassingly effective use. All clamoring in full color and top volume for his attention every second he spent near Quentin unable to touch him, like some Greek underworld torment designed to punish its victim for his hubris. Quentin for his part had raised an eyebrow minutely at this wildly out of character initiative but had without discussion agreed and gone to fetch his backpack.
Although Julia’s description had promised a mild hike Eliot had felt a flutter of apprehension as they pulled into the parking lot given the percentage of waking hours he had in recent weeks spent horizontal and/or intoxicated, but while the trail sloped steadily upward such that he found his heart rate elevated before long the incline was gentle enough that he was adequately served by the legs which alone had saved him from pure gym class humiliation in the years between his precocious growth spurt and his decision to systematically destroy any semblance of cardiovascular fitness for the aesthetic. Quentin for his part kept up ably and Eliot remembered that in fact he was always less pathologically unathletic than his temperament and wardrobe and entire personality would lead one to assume. He had asked about this once, in the other life, and Quentin had told him that he’d joined the cross-country team in eleventh grade because his psychiatrist and his mother and Julia and his father and the bullet-pointed lists that came up in late night Google searches said that exercise was good for depression, and while he’d never been much good the habit had stuck. Did it help, Eliot had said, and Quentin had shrugged and answered: Until it didn’t. Unspoken: like everything.
On either side of them stretched out a green stillness with sunlight filtering through the thick midsummer canopy as through stained glass into the wide echoing nave of a cathedral and beneath the undulating untamed ground rose and fell like a great earthen blanket shaded everywhere with the bright drooping chevron lines of ferns and patches of grass and shy curling leaves and when you peered into it even the shadows looked green and the leaning brown trunks of trees felt washed in it. Occasional constellations of tiny white summer wildflowers dotted the sides of the path. The day was clear and sunny and if anything too warm; Eliot could feel himself sweating unattractively through his shirt as they climbed, and his hair kept falling out of its tie to stick to the back of his neck. When there were no other hikers to see he would re-up his protective spell against UV damage and the flask he had quite responsibly set to fill itself with water. Quentin had opted for two enormous bottles of Poland Spring purchased at a gas station and a thick coating of sunscreen; he had a white dab on his nose he had missed rubbing in which filled Eliot with such unaccountable tenderness he thought if he spoke of it he might burst into tears. Every now and then the gravel on which they walked gave way to a knotted root extending over which they’d need to step, or to the stone heart of the land itself jutting out demanding balance.
When they had been climbing perhaps an hour they encountered a set of sharply angled steps laid across the path beyond which the land flattened and an enormous structure rose out of the patchwork growth.
“The fuck?” Eliot ventured, walking to the top. It was the first he had spoken since they had left the trailhead and his mouth was dry. He drank some water and stopped to look. Beside him Quentin said nothing but he too stilled.
They had come to a ruin: some building once hidden as a sanctuary in the heart of this abundance now hollowed out and overgrown. The undecorated concrete facade loomed in front of them with its rows of domed windows peering only into its own abandonment like a shattered death’s-head grin. They crossed the threshold with the instinctual slowness commonly observed in holy spaces or graveyards and found themselves enclosed by ruins like the ribcage of some mammoth prehistoric beast.
In what had once been the corner of a grand room now carpeted by patchy grass a group of friends was posing for a group picture, taking turns holding the phone. Some inquisitive shading had softened Quentin’s scowl and he ventured away from the path in their general direction, walking as one might along the walls of a museum, hands still gripping the straps of his backpack, chin tilting up and then down to take in the fullness of the scene. Eliot wanted to follow him but felt he had no right and so he turned to wander the other way, trying to shake the unease at the back of his neck.
Either the house had belonged to someone obscenely wealthy or in fact it hadn’t been a house; the weight of the concrete seemed to bore too heavily into the earth even by the standards of eccentric heirs and railroad fortune tycoons. Approaching what he thought was the edge Eliot could see as well that it had extended or intended to extend further than what remained: a staircase nearly invisible now beneath vines and moss descended into nothing and he could glimpse at its bottom a gray outline splitting the air suggesting a space that once had occupied the other side. On instinct he pressed a palm to the rough wall and sent into it a question and the answer came back: yes. This was a place that had burned.
He turned back to the central chamber. He couldn’t see Quentin anymore; likely he had gone to explore the exterior. As though exterior and interior still held meaning for walls crossing the forest floor like fallen branches after a storm. There was no trace of ghostly presence but still Eliot felt it coated with a rime of hauntedness: the underbrush spreading where once it had been cleared and the birch trees leaning across space like skeletal fingers and the sun-bleached concrete fading in streaks of gray and white. Accidental mausoleum of bones unpreserved and yet refusing to decompose. At the center of the back wall the concrete gave way to a triangle of stones which had clearly formed a fireplace. People once had come here for some part of living and now the walls harbored the memory of rooms only they remembered. This place had burned and burned again and when whatever loveliness it had possessed had turned to ash the idea of it had lingered ugly and unalive to scar the terrain. The past impressing itself on travelers not as history but as architecture: the form of what had shaped the mountain once and thus would shape it always. On one of the walls someone had graffitied the outline of a dark messy heart, dripping black spray paint frozen as it oozed beyond its contours like toxins seeping into the earth, which Eliot found frankly a little bit on the nose.
Quentin re-emerged through one of the arches and Eliot thrilled impossibly to watch him scan the view until he caught Eliot’s eye. They met back in the middle and Eliot wondered what Quentin had seen in the ruins. But Quentin only said, “Ready?”
Eliot made himself smile. “As I’ll ever be.”
The trail climbed up a little while further through the trees and then they had reached the summit and the incline settled beneath their feet. They followed a sign as the path veered rightward and walked until suddenly the forest opened out onto a rocky ledge. Eliot paused but Quentin kept walking until he was nearly at the edge and then he sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, looking at the view. After a moment Eliot came to sit beside him.
They were atop a cliff which fell sheerly beneath them. The view filled everything, the view defied capture; beneath them treetops clustering green and green and green tracing the folds of the mountain in rolling textured bands like the discarded robe of some deity and out where the land swooped low the Hudson cut clean and shining through and past that crested mountains bruising into the distance… The sky was endless and endlessly blue and at this elevation even the few scattered clouds seemed only like hovering interruptions of the expanse below and beyond and above them. From here the world looked beyond still; it looked immovable. Even the river at this distance seemed like glass. There was an inhuman indifference to the scale of it. They were looking at a world which existed in geologic time.
Laughter drifted from the trail. The air was still. Sounds seemed to die at their backs because the mountain didn’t care. Its truth was an absolute truth, its memory measured in eons of tectonic shifting and snowmelt erosion which had become its topographical inheritance: the mountains and the valley and the river spread as if arranged in offering at the altar of the sky. Eliot thought that if he were a better person he might feel humbled or awestruck or granted certain perspective but instead he felt unworthy. How small his life was, and how weak its bounds. And yet how powerless he was to cross into new territory. Fearful of shadows in the night. A lifetime spent craving exactly this scope and binding himself always in the same barren place. Trusting by now not his fear nor his desire. Everything in him insubstantial and false. Except. Except for the hunger he could not deny or feed. Except for the place his rotten heart had beat in tandem with another. Everything in him like mist dispersed in the wind and when it was gone only this: once he had felt the rays of a sweet golden light and in the dark ever after he never forgot that he had wanted to feel it again.
Quentin was so still. That unyielding stillness that was not at all like peace. His shirt was stuck with sweat to his back and his face had the faintest sheen of rosiness from the sun. The lines of dissatisfaction at the corners of his mouth. His sharp questing eyes. There had been in Eliot’s life one truth excavated from the place of its burial and when he had retrieved it with knuckles bleeding and dirt beneath his nails it could not ever again be unlearned.
Eliot said, “I’m in love with you, you know.”
“Oh, fuck you,” said Quentin. He sounded exhausted.
He hadn’t moved and for a long moment Eliot thought that might be it: his words dropped off the cliff like an oblation to the mountain itself, truth meeting truth and in it laid to rest, and perhaps a simplification now between the two of them having vocalized together a definitive end. Then Quentin stood up and brushed off the backs of his jeans and began walking back to the trail. “Find your own ride back,” he called without bothering to turn around.
Eliot sat long enough to let Quentin put distance between them. After everything it seemed somehow like both the least and the most he could do.
He paced the edge of the parking lot half-dazed with exhaustion and the heat and the fog of regret through which he had walked all the way down the trail until a tanned and happy couple took pity on him and his incoherent story about a friend who had left to tend to a sick kid. They introduced themselves as something other than Heather and Brad but Eliot refused to conceptualize them any other way. Sticky with sweat and stewing in bitterness which had no target except his own failings he allowed himself not only to hate them but to really relish it. He hated them and their healthful glow and their laughter and their neon patterned workout gear and their enormous translucent water bottles and their visors and their bug spray and their many white teeth and their sensible gray Volvo and the cartoonishly large golden retriever with whom he shared the backseat hanging its disgusting tongue stupidly out the window. After a few minutes on the road his phone buzzed as they passed back into range. He picked it up to see several texts from Margo populating his notifications and without reading any turned the device off with the same clarity which always accompanied the conscious choice to make a bad decision almost like a sick relief.
When Heather and Brad dropped him off at the house with inane waves and sing-song good cheer which he ignored, he sped up the driveway and through the door which he had to unlock with magic and into the kitchen where he grabbed reflexively the neck of the first wine bottle he saw, intending to take it to his room and spend the rest of the day nursing it in bed. He paused for a moment to open the cabinet of mugs, wondering whether it would be some fatal blow to what was left of his dignity to skip this step entirely or whether instead embracing the pathetic grandeur of drinking straight from the bottle might paradoxically grant him some sense of liberation. The release of abandoning any pretense about who exactly he was.
“I thought I was watching you die.”
Reluctantly Eliot closed the cabinet and set the bottle on the counter and turned around. Quentin was staring at him from the other side of the island with arms folded across his chest and his features arranged into a facsimile of calm which could not hide the anger rising beneath. “Quentin.” The name in his mouth tasted like ash.
“You know, Margo hit you in the stomach with those axes,” Quentin went on, “and I thought, I thought this is it. There’s no way he comes back from this.” His eyes narrowed. His chin was tilted at a dangerous angle. “And you know what kept going through my mind, while you were bleeding out on the ground?”
Eliot had to work to force out the words. “I can’t even imagine.”
“This makes sense,” Quentin said. Eliot felt something cold churn inside his guts. “You were dying in front of me and my brain kept saying: this makes sense. Yeah — yeah, this seems right. This is how this story is supposed to go.” He stepped closer and around the edge of the island until there was nothing anymore between them. Eliot felt the edge of the refrigerator jut into his shoulder and realized he had unconsciously been backing away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. It came out nearly voiceless.
“I thought over and over,” Quentin continued as though he hadn’t spoken, “why did we have these memories?” Eliot’s heart throbbed in his ears. “I mean, it made no sense, right? We shouldn’t have remembered it, because it never actually happened. There should have been nothing to remember. So I figured, it had to be the quest. The quest had given us these memories. And I just had to figure out — why?”
Quentin’s lips had begun to curl into an unhappy smile. Eliot could barely breathe. He did not want Quentin to keep going but he was afraid to move.
“Why would the quest,” and his voice dug horribly into that word, “give me these memories of this other life that didn’t exist, this life that — this life where I was —” His mask of stillness fractured with pain and Eliot watched his throat work to steady itself. “Obviously, it wasn’t so that I could hold on to it. I mean, because you sure as hell didn’t want to, right?” He spread his palms sardonically. Eliot wanted to die.
“Quentin,” he tried, “I —”
“You,” Quentin spoke over him, “didn’t give a shit about — whatever the fuck it was we brought back with us. So obviously — obviously — the quest didn’t want me to think that it mattered, that I grieved my wife and had a son and fucking buried you.”
“I didn’t —”
“I mean I was really wracking my brain about this,” Quentin said, growing louder now. “We were getting to the end, and I was pulling my fucking hair out, because I just knew that it had to mean something, and what if it was like, important? Not to us, of course. But to the quest. What if there was some, some clue or some hint that we needed to turn magic back on, and I missed it and then we failed and it was my fault? So I had to figure it out. Because what else was —” He stopped and laughed, a hollow, bitter sound. “What else was it all for? If it didn’t actually mean anything that it happened, or almost happened, or whatever — what else could it have been for, if not to get us to the end?”
Eliot was trembling such that he thought his knees might give out from under him. “It wasn’t —”
“So it finally hit me,” Quentin said, eyes glittering, “when I was trying to decide if saving magic was worth giving my dad brain cancer. The quest had given me this other life — this other family, this other person I became — to teach me that I had to learn to let go. That was the person the quest needed me to be. Not the guy who figured out how to be Teddy’s dad, or Arielle’s husband, and definitely not the guy who was your —” His face wrenched. Eliot opened his mouth but could not find any words that would fill that emptiness. “Not him. I needed to be the guy who could live with those memories like they never happened. Someone — cold, and hard, who didn’t hold on too long to every fucking thing. That was the guy who made it to the end of the book.”
Eliot shook his head and couldn’t stop shaking it. “Quentin I — I should’ve —”
“I was so proud of myself, you know?” He stepped minutely closer and Eliot tensed as if waiting to be struck. “I’d done it. I’d solved the puzzle. And when I realized what I would need to do to get us in, it all clicked. I didn’t just have to let go of — of my dad dying, and Julia off to immortality, and — you — I had to let go of everything. Of all of it. And it stung, but I was ready. I was, I was making the tough decision. I had made the choice the quest needed me to make. I was finally fucking growing up. And then we get there, and I’m doing it, and suddenly — suddenly, you’re the one who’s fucking holding on.”
“I always — should have,” Eliot said, hearing a whimpering note seep into his voice, “Quentin, I swear, I wanted, I always wanted —”
“And then —” He uncrossed his arms and began to gesticulate wildly. “Then you got yourself possessed. And I knew I should — we needed to — I mean people were fucking dying, Eliot. But I couldn’t —” Quentin shook his head, eyes filling. Eliot didn’t want to hear this, didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to live knowing. “After everything I’d given up and everything you’d done and everything I thought I’d learned, I couldn’t fucking let you go.”
He had seen it in his dreams: Quentin’s stubborn reckless courage up against that creature of violence. All for him, all for nothing…
“So then you were dying.” Quentin took a long shuddering inhale as he blinked his eyes dry. “You were dying, and I was watching you die, and I was thinking: okay. Okay, here’s where it was going all along. I just, I just had the timing wrong. And then Everett showed up at the Seam and it was like — all the pieces came together and all at once I could see the big picture, finally — I could see that this was where it had all been leading, the whole time. From the moment I got to Brakebills, even. It was all building to this moment where I saved everyone by casting the spell that would kill me.”
This was the part he had tried hardest not to imagine. Quentin poised for that hideous finality, preparing to cast, calling fatal magic into his hands, his hands… What had he done, Eliot thought in despair, what the fuck had he done to Quentin and how could he ever explain—
“Except,” Quentin said, eyebrows shooting up with false brightness, “except you’re alive. And I’m alive. So actually, none of it meant fucking anything, except that now when I think that dying would be the best thing I could do with my life, it’s not a fucking hypothetical anymore! And now —” he had raised his voice to a shout which resonated in the space between them like an earthquake “— now you have the nerve to talk to me about fucking love?”
“I know,” Eliot said miserably, “I know, I have no right, I’m not —”
“I loved you then, asshole,” Quentin spat like it was torn from his throat. “And you couldn’t trust that.”
God by this point the past tense of it should not have cut Eliot like a knife through his ribs and yet — “I know,” he pleaded again, “look I know I fucked up, I’ve never fucked up worse and I have fucked up a lot, but this — it wasn’t you, it wasn’t even us, okay? You — you have to understand, you have to believe me, it wasn’t — I did love you and I, I trust you, of course I trust you, but I was scared, I’d never —”
“Oh and I have no idea what that’s like, right?” Quentin laughed disbelievingly. “I don’t know shit about what it’s like to be scared to goddamn death of my own fucking feelings.”
“That’s not —” Need was roiling through him like a storm. “Of course I wasn’t saying that, but, listen — not everyone is brave like you, Quentin —”
Quentin slammed a fist on the counter. “If one more fucking person calls me brave —”
“I just meant,” Eliot tried again, feeling everything unspooling and the ground giving way, “look, it was — fifty years all at once, I mean, there’s not a fucking manual for how to process that in like thirty seconds or less —”
“Fuck fifty years,” Quentin cried, and Eliot flinched like he’d been hit. “This was me, El.” Something ruptured across his face like for a moment all he felt was hurt. Eyes wide and shining and beautiful even now. “This was the person you knew in this lifetime, talking to you the way I had always talked to you. I didn’t bullshit you and I didn’t — say shit just for the hell of it, or —”
“I know,” Eliot said again because he did know, because all he did anymore was know and burn with the knowing, “and — that’s me, that was me just — projecting, I’m the one who bullshits people and hides and lies and makes up this whole — story of himself, and I know — I know you, Quentin, I know you’re real and, and honest, and you don’t do that —”
“No see that’s the thing, Eliot.” Quentin’s voice went suddenly hard and flat. “The thing is that I do. My whole fucking life is and always fucking has been just me — hiding and running and bullshitting and lying to myself and lying to everyone around me, lying to my parents and my teachers and Julia and every fucking therapist I’ve ever had, and there was — one person I didn’t do that to. One person I couldn’t do that to, really. And then I tried to tell that person what it meant to me, that there was someone out there who had only ever seen the real me, someone I couldn’t ever hide from or pretend around, and he said—” His voice broke as his mouth twisted around the words. “He basically told me I was being crazy.”
He would never escape, Eliot was realizing; he would spend eternity in the throne room watching himself ruin their lives and this time no door would appear. “What do you want from me,” he begged in desperation, “I don’t — I’m sorry, I’ve never been sorrier for anything in my life, and I know I can’t fix it but just, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, anything —”
“You know what?” Quentin said, backing off. “Maybe I don’t want anything from you.” Eliot recoiled from this worst possible answer, something crumbling inside him at the thought. “Maybe what I want is for you to get the fuck out of my stupid wasted life, because every time I look at you all I can see is every time you’ve been an asshole and I’ve been the idiot dumb enough to think I believed in someone I never fucking mattered to —”
“So then why’d you break up with Alice?” Eliot shot back before he could think better of it. Grasping at the end of everything for whatever he could take in his needy hands.
Quentin’s mouth snapped shut. “I never said I was the one who broke up with Alice.”
“But you did, didn’t you?” Eliot demanded. He knew now from Quentin’s reaction if he hadn’t known already, and he felt suddenly sure that in fact he had known somewhere he hadn’t let himself look. Heart in his throat and hands shaking with nerves. Stupid, stupid, he was being stupid but it was as ever too late now to stop. “So why’d you do it? If I’m so — fucking repugnant to you, if you can’t even fucking look at me — why did you dump your girlfriend and then come hide in the fucking woods with me?”
Quentin regarded him in mute fury, lips pressed into a tight white line. For a moment Eliot thought they might have an honest-to-God fistfight or else unleash some further excavation of every dagger of betrayal until they had emptied themselves or destroyed each other at last.
In a voice low and fighting itself for control Quentin said, “I’m going for a walk. Don’t follow me out.” Without waiting for Eliot’s reaction he turned and left the room. Some seconds later Eliot heard the slamming of the front door.
Alone he said to the empty kitchen, “Well that went well.” A canned line for the imagined studio audience of his life. Lacking any better ideas he went to his room and downed the entire Ziploc bag of weed gummies which turned out to taste like cherry licorice before the skunky aftertaste and subsequently opened up a bottle of wine.
Some indeterminate period of time and a great quantity of wine later, as he was lying on his back on the rough woven rug with its spew of color and above him the white ceiling spread unchanging like a dismal afterlife vision, it occurred to Eliot that the issue was really very simple and it was only this: that other people were people, and Eliot was something else. An unperson in an unconvincing people suit. Other people, the people who were people, they were houses. They had windows which let in light and air and kept out cold and rain; they had points of egress out of which they could wander or through which others could enter. They had light switches and pantries and drawers in the kitchen which held flashlights and rubber bands and old twist-ties. Eliot had none of that. He had crumbling stone which stood as a monument to imperial hopes long since demolished; he had concrete uselessly affixed to land which could neither reject nor revive the life it had been meant to harbor. Lungs like abandoned catacombs cycling through the same decaying air. Behind his eyes a hall of mirrors angled to capture the reflecting glow of who he wanted to pretend to be. He had wanted to be beautiful and so he had loved Margo who was beautiful; he had wanted to be good and so he had loved Quentin who was good. He had sheltered in the warmth of their rightness and their strength and in return he had given them only weak imitations of themselves. In return he had worked to disguise the hollowness behind his ribs; in return he had dragged them ever closer to the void which did not threaten to consume him entirely so much as it constituted his whole self. A creature that could only want. Surely in selecting him the monster had seen not only revenge but some affinity, a recognition of kinship in the ruthlessness of their appetites and the barrenness of their hearts...
Noises vibrated at his edges and he peered at the air convinced he could see the soundwaves or at least divine what their colors would be if he had eyes which could read them: dirty gray of ocean under a clouded sky for the pebbled rainfall of sifting gravel; deep blue thudding rounded and thick as an underwater blast; a bloodied scratch across the skin and afterwards liquid red flashes approaching or circling like carrion birds which Eliot wanted to laugh at because there was no meat here for them to swallow, only bones and illusion —
“Jesus, Eliot. What did you do?”
Belatedly Eliot’s brain reassembled recent sensory input to understand that Quentin had returned to the house. In fact Quentin was here, standing over him looking annoyed with his arms crossed disapprovingly, mouth a tense line of judgment and eyes impossibly weary. He looked so tired, always. Like he had lived a hundred lives and died a hundred deaths and could not believe his rotten luck that at the end of it here again was Eliot on the floor. Eliot felt similarly and as such could not blame him. “It’s fine,” Eliot said. He was attempting to sound reassuring but his lips seemed not quite connected to his face in the normal way and so he thought he may have failed. “Just —” He waved a hand in the air either dismissively or else like a beached fish. “Josh’s spiders.”
In his face which Eliot felt was being presented now with the angular precision of a wood carving as though all its familiar and far-off lines had been etched a little deeper Quentin’s eyes widened while his eyebrows knit together in alarm. He dropped to crouch at Eliot’s side like some fairytale princeling and the motion of his body in such proximity seemed like a splinter some future Eliot would uncover in his heel. Quentin’s hands began scrambling at the floor, eyes searching animatedly — looking, Eliot realized, for the presumed telltale bottle or similar waste.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. He closed his eyes to focus as he tried again. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth. “I ate Josh’s spiders,” he enunciated carefully, before he noticed that it did not solve the problem. “They’re not — they’re just weed gummies.” He opened his eyes and turned his head in Quentin’s direction. “For Halloween,” he added, nodding for emphasis.
Quentin had stilled and was studying him, worrying at his bottom lip. The very loveliest bottom lip, Eliot thought inanely, in all the land. In this state he could think such a thing without immediately wanting to self-immolate which had of course been the plan. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he said firmly and with more than the usual number of s’s at the end. “I mean — a lot of them. But it’s just weed. Well and some wine. Well a lot of wine maybe. But. Just that. Not —” What he wanted badly to say was I wouldn’t do that to you but the words were caught in some cobweb on the roof of his mouth and anyway he wasn’t sure Quentin would believe him or even that it was true. It seemed like something a person would be able to say. “It’s fine,” he said instead. “I promise. I’m just — I’m just gonna stay here for a little bit and it’s fine.” He tried to make it sound like an informed decision instead of a reflection of the fact that he did not think he could stand up unassisted now or in the medium-term future. Quentin did not look wholly appeased and so he said, “I just need to nap a little and I’ll be tip top daisy.” He made his face into what he hoped was a smile like that was a thing that people said.
Quentin scrubbed at his face. Eliot wanted to take his irritation and melt it into a votive candle and burn himself on the wax. Scrape it clean off him and fix it into candies and eat them until he was sick. “Okay,” he said finally, muffled behind his hands, “can you just, like, get on your side so you don’t — choke in your sleep, or whatever?”
“Are you my R. A.,” Eliot said, and then he began to laugh. He laughed very hard and very high and he did not feel amused but he did not feel much of anything else either which was at the moment ideal except that his abdomen began to hurt. When eventually it left him it had been somewhere between thirty seconds and several hours and Quentin was rolling his eyes. “I’ll try,” he said, abashed, but the coordination of so many body parts proved elusive.
“Here,” Quentin said, “just —” He shoved at Eliot’s shoulder ungently and shockingly the touch did not electrocute Eliot’s remaining brain cells and the momentum was enough to get him shifted in the right direction. Once he was on his side he curled up fetally and closed his eyes and felt suddenly gravity covering him like grave dirt and sleep tugging him down.
At his back he could hear a rustling that indicated Quentin was standing up. Wait, he tried to say, and then “Wait,” he said. He forced his eyes back open and turned to look up at Quentin looming above him and huffing an impatient sigh.
“What is it,” Quentin said, eyes turned heavenwards as if in prayer.
Eliot marshaled his every inner resource to uncovering what it was that nagged at his tongue like sand or a knocked-out tooth before Quentin walked away. “There’s spaghetti in the fridge,” he managed at last. “With meatballs.”
Quentin took a deep aggrieved inhale. “Alright, you want me to heat it up or just bring it to you cold?”
“No,” Eliot said.
“I mean, it’s one or the other, Eliot, there’s not really a third —”
“No I mean,” Eliot said, fumbling, “I’m not hungry.” Attempting to be helpful he added, “I’m asleep, remember?”
Quentin did not move but his gaze shifted down to look towards Eliot without meeting his eyes. “No offense but I’m not sure I really trust anything you made while you were too stoned to see straight.”
“No,” Eliot said again, shaking his head. “It was — before, it — they take like a half hour to kick in because, like, intestines — so —”
It was frustrating because in his head the scene was suddenly replaying with vibrant clarity: he had dug out of his suitcase the Ziploc bag given to him by Josh and he had eaten the candy and marched back to the counter and opened at last his bottle of wine and taken a drink without bothering to pour it anywhere and quickly set it down as if thunderstruck with urgency and actually said out loud “Shit I have to make dinner” and shuddered with a kind of hysterical laugh at the image of himself panicking in the kitchen as though he were playing a mentally deranged sex-starved pill-popping housewife in some avant-garde gender-flipped casting of a melancholy period piece about like America and the nuclear family and then knowing he had imposed on himself a strict biological deadline he had set salted water to boil with just a smidge of magic to move it along and begun to gather the ingredients before him for something he could whip together quick.
“I didn’t clean up,” he remembered suddenly. “Sorry.”
Quentin didn’t respond. He was looking at Eliot properly now and his brows were tight and Eliot could not read his eyes. Beautiful, stupidly beautiful, unforgivably beautiful, beauty imposing itself on Eliot on the cellular level like radiation. Disintegrating the code of who he was. Eventually after a static cocoon of time Eliot turned against it and shut his eyes and let sleep begin to creep over him.
He heard Quentin’s footsteps walking away and felt relief and a numbed out grief like the distant idea of loss. In the dark he had made for himself he would not have to touch the edge of it hopefully for a long time. Then he heard footsteps retracing themselves louder bit by bit and for a second he wondered if he had accidentally instigated a time loop and the minutes behind him were winding themselves back onto the spool in which case he was really fucked.
“Eliot. Eliot. Hey.”
Quentin nudged his side with a foot and Eliot performed a long slow breath to indicate that he was both alive and unconscious. Quentin clucked his tongue and then his hands were in Eliot’s hair and Eliot wanted to cry but fortunately did not remember how. Only incidentally were Quentin’s hands in his hair — not interested in the touch of it but pulling instead at Eliot’s head, lifting it roughly off the ground and pushing something against it and then suddenly he released his hold and Eliot felt his head fall back onto a pillow which Quentin had slid into place beneath him.
Eliot tried very hard to keep his breath steady so as not to give himself away. Behind him Quentin did not touch him or speak again or begin to walk. He had not left by the time Eliot drifted off to sleep.
Something was pushing at his shoulder. Eliot lay carefully still in the hopes it would lose interest and wander off. Instead it began to tug at his arm and he squinched his eyes tight as though to burrow back into the sweet obliteration of sleep through sheer force of will.
“Eliot. Come on, it’s time to get up.”
It most certainly is not, said Eliot’s brain, but the words stumbled on the line to his mouth until they had fallen flat on their faces and the officer had taken them away in the car with the little blinky light for being above the legal limit. “No.”
“Yeah” — still with the yanking; didn’t Quentin know that was terrible for the shirt? — “yes, it is, come on, you can’t sleep here, you’ll fuck up your back. Let’s go.”
In the end it seemed more effort to resist than to let himself be dragged to bed and so he cooperated insofar as he hurled body parts vaguely in the direction Quentin was indicating and eventually as a result found himself on his feet.
Quentin was eyeing him up and down doubtfully. “You good to make it up?”
“Sure,” Eliot said. He took a step forward but the floor was not precisely where he remembered the floor being and gravity too seemed to have changed the rules while he slept and he wound up careening forward for a second until Quentin caught his weight.
“Dumbass,” Quentin said, with which Eliot could not argue. He could imagine the irritated little flick upwards Quentin’s eyes were making. He maneuvered them until Eliot’s arm was draped around his shoulders and his back and knees bent so that he was leaning forward with Quentin supporting his weight as they faced roughly the same direction. “Think you can manage this till we get to your room?”
Eliot nodded his chin against the crook of Quentin’s neck and they began to walk.
It was dark outside the windows now, and Eliot could tell by Quentin’s breath that he had been drinking too. As they passed the kitchen he caught a glimpse of several cans of beer open on the counter. Reality had knitted itself back into something approximating coherence while he was out but the world had begun spinning violently such that walking up the stairs and through the hall and into the room where his suitcase was still open on the floor where he’d left it so that Quentin had to kick it to open the door for both of them to fit felt not unlike one of those carnival attractions at the end of Grease. I got chills, he thought, they’re multiplying…. Laughter shook through him sending his legs off-balance and with them Quentin and then they were both tumbling over each other onto the bed.
“Shit,” Quentin said, and Eliot said “Sorry” and hoisted his legs up just as Quentin was shifting so that he caught some part of Quentin beneath him at which point Quentin cursed again and Eliot apologized again and rolled over to let Quentin extricate himself until he was sitting up at the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, abashed. It seemed suddenly a despicable act to have knocked Quentin over with his own idiocy.
Quentin shook himself a little as if to gather his bearings, looking down at his lap. “It’s fine. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Eliot whispered, and then, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry —”
“Eliot, really, it’s fine —”
“No,” Eliot shook his head, “no, it’s not fine, none of it is fine, I’m sorry —”
Quentin ran his fingers through his hair. “You’re drunk.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry —” He couldn’t stop now, every miserable truth held at bay by the drugs and the wine and the fog of sleep crashing back into his body like poison and he couldn’t stop feeling the ghost of Quentin’s body against his which he could now only have as impersonal necessity and he couldn’t stop thinking about Quentin at the Seam poised to die and Quentin in the kitchen remembering and he couldn’t stop shaking his head and saying it over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry —”
“Seriously, can you not —”
“I’m sorry, Q, I’m so fucking sorry —”
“I don’t —” Quentin held a hand up and froze as though finding his next words. Eliot dug his teeth into his lip, fighting himself back. “— want to talk about it… like this,” he said finally. He lifted his face to fix Eliot with some unreadable look. “Okay?”
Eliot swallowed. He nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.
For a long moment it felt like time had stopped. Then the line of Quentin’s shoulders eased minutely. Eliot let out a breath. The window and the bookshelves and the line above where the wall met the ceiling tilted and wavered in his vision.
“The pasta was good,” Quentin said.
“Oh,” Eliot said, confused. “I’m glad.”
“The meatballs, too.” He frowned, looking kind of annoyed. “Like, really good, actually.”
At his hip Eliot could feel the mattress curving towards where it sagged under Quentin’s weight. He said, “It’s the garlic.”
“Yeah,” Quentin said. He was still looking at Eliot. He had not looked away.
Nothing moved but everything changed. The moment became a different moment. A moment Eliot recognized. Electricity humming invisibly in the air before a storm. Moonlight faint at the edges of the window and the room was hot. The unmistakable realignment of a particular gravity like the shifting of the tides. Eliot was lying very still and his internal compass felt that his body was at the very start of rolling down some infinite cliff. He was impossibly aware of the uncanny regularity of Quentin’s breathing and of his own heartbeat monstrously loud and of something churning in his stomach beyond alcohol and acid. Every inch of skin newly alert.
In an instant he knew that Quentin still wanted him and that if Eliot pulled even just slightly Quentin would collapse against him and be glad to do it. Beneath his marrow he knew it. As sure as animals know rain. He could sit up or say Quentin’s name or reach his hand out to rest on his wrist or his thigh or his shoulder next to the curve where his neck was exposed and Quentin’s resolve would shatter and Eliot could have it one more time. The salt taste of the skin below his navel slick with sweat. That back-of-the-throat noise that meant Eliot had touched him so as to dislodge his perennial tense accumulation of concerns. His fingers tracing paths of heat and desire along Eliot’s side. Thighs trembling while his stomach rose and fell wildly with his breath. The way he called out Eliot’s name.
One more night. He could give Quentin permission and in the midnight swirling of nostalgia and regret and the excuse of the booze and the ghosts of their lost closeness crowding the room they could pretend that what lay between them was something more than ash. One final stolen memory for this self in this lifetime, like a tattoo. Boring into flesh the knowledge of what they could do to each other. Bodies remembering what they could never again say: that something was here which once had been good. And neither would ever be unmarked for it. One last time Eliot could remind Quentin: No one has ever known how to touch you like I do. And all he had to do was choose it. As certain as diving into the riptide. Embers rekindling until they burned down the house.
Quentin leaned forward. Slowly, so slowly, he reached forward to find a strand of Eliot’s hair and tuck it behind his ear. His hand paused where it had landed. The suggestion of his warmth on Eliot’s skin.
Eliot lay his own hand over Quentin’s at the side of his face.
Quentin’s lips fell barely open.
His back arching while he gripped the sheets. His voice issuing wrecked and grateful into the night. His mouth capturing the sounds of Eliot’s desire. His hands — his hands.
Eliot said, “You should probably drink some water before you go to bed.” He moved his hand back to his side.
Quentin nodded, looking dazed. “Yeah.” He retracted his hand and sat up straight. Closed his eyes while he drew a shuddering breath. “Yeah, I’m gonna — yeah.” He stood up and paused, then seemed to change his mind and walked out of the room without another word.
The room felt over-large now, and cold. The walls refused to stay in place. Eliot closed his eyes.
In what was no longer the morning by the time he woke up there was a large blue mug which looked from its inexpert polka dots to have been painted by hand perhaps at a child’s birthday party and two Advil on his nightstand. The sight of them made Eliot’s throat go tight.
Downstairs Quentin was standing in the kitchen chopping vegetables at the island. His nose and cheeks were sunburned just slightly pink. Quentin paused at his approach and Eliot gave an awkward little wave. “Hey.”
Quentin nodded in acknowledgement. “How’s your head?”
“Better than I would have expected,” Eliot said honestly.
Quentin resumed his task with the knife. “Yeah, you didn’t actually drink that much. I put the rest of the bottle in the fridge.”
“Thanks.” In retrospect Eliot could deduce how it had gone: by the time he’d finished cooking the high had kicked in strong enough to waylay his plan unnoticed. “I’m feeling that hike in my quads, though. Guess I should start doing some lunges, or whatever.” Quentin huffed something which was not quite a laugh. “What are you making?”
“Just a stir-fry.”
Eliot watched him work for a minute: the tension of his fingers holding a carrot in place, the motion of his wrist as he cut through it at an angle. “Can I help?”
Quentin looked up. There was a carefulness in his face that made the hesitation seem heavy and Eliot felt a sudden lurch of despair. But when he answered his tone was neutral. “I think there’s another cutting board in the cabinet above the stove.”
Eliot retrieved the cutting board and poured into his mug the coffee Quentin had mercifully brewed and held up the pot in a silent question. “Thanks,” Quentin said, indicating his mug half-empty beside him. Eliot poured until it was nearly full and fetched from the refrigerator the soy milk to give Quentin just a splash. Then he grabbed a knife from the wooden block by the coffeemaker and set his board beside Quentin’s.
They stood next to each other, working. Outside occasionally the swell of a passing car reached them and if Eliot listened for it he could hear birdsong in the trees. Through the window Quentin must have opened drifted clean air and sometimes a gentle breeze. And Eliot thought: this. Just this. The creaking of a blade slicing through a carrot, the soft slide through mushroom flesh. The plastic bag in the steel trash can which Quentin had moved to place between them rustling when they swept in discarded ends. Just this: the green of the trees in the window under the sun and the butter-yellow of the kitchen walls and Quentin beside him in his socks with sleeves rolled to his elbows and the muscles of his forearm shifting as he worked and his hands as they lifted the cutting board to scrape broccoli into the big blue mixing bowl. The smooth bright skin of a bell pepper. Its textured innards and the clean lines of Eliot’s cuts across them. The dry seeds bunched at its core rough against Eliot’s palm as he threw it out. Thin red slices added to the pile. Just this, only this: the thunk of their knives against the boards in unmatched rhythms. Quentin pausing to sip his coffee and start the water heating for the rice. The crack of the pilot light catching and the blue-orange circle of flame and the steel pot. Skin of an onion crinkling. The weight of his wrist bearing down through the purple-white layers and the aroma drifting out, released. Prickling at the backs of his eyes but even that, if. If this. If he could just. Just this and even the sting blurring his vision as he tried to blink through the tears. He set down the knife and wiped at his eye with the back of his hand.
Quentin glanced over at him. “You know there’s a spell for that, right?”
Eliot waved him off. “It’s fine.”
“I think you were the one who taught it to me, actually,” Quentin said, frowning.
Eliot picked the knife back up and made another cut. “Not a big deal, seriously.”
“Well but there’s a simple solution —”
“It’s fine,” Eliot insisted, “I mean it’s annoying but people have been dealing with it for like thousands of years, and I’m almost done anyway, and it’s your stir-fry and you’ve got your whole —” he gestured loosely with the knife in the air “— magic hiatus thing going, and I want to respect that, and —”
“What — no, El, come on —” And Quentin set down his knife and wiped his hands on a dish towel and arranged his fingers, index and third back-crossed, thumb anchoring a tripod hold with fourth and fifth, and brought his hand to Eliot’s forehead, two clockwise twists of the wrist, and the pain was gone.
Eliot hadn’t really missed smoking since some months into his first long stay in Fillory; even in the mix of substances with which the monster had experimented it seemed from his dreamed fragments he had considered cigarettes mostly for eating. But he missed the excuses smoking had provided. Without it he was left to admit to himself the undignified truth that on occasion he felt as though he would collapse under the sudden weight of a building’s familiar air if he did not exit until whatever malfunction recalibrated itself. Stepping onto the porch he brought with him The Great Gatsby so that at least he would not have to endure alongside this humiliation the horror of his own company. He sat at the top of the steps and began to read: This is the valley of ashes….
He had managed actually another few chapters by the time he heard the door opening and shutting behind him. At the sound his eyes stopped processing the text but he forced himself not to turn pathetically around as Quentin walked forward.
“What are you reading?”
At that Eliot shut the book to show the front cover and let himself glance up at where Quentin was standing beside him with hands in his pockets. He registered the title and then resumed watching the road. As archly as he could manage Eliot said, “This Fitzgerald guy is pretty good. You ever tried him?”
“I prefer Tender is the Night.”
“Never heard of it,” Eliot said. “So of course you do.”
Quentin moved down to sit back beside Eliot on the porch steps, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Eliot scooted to the side to make room. “It doesn’t have the impeccable structure that Gatsby’s famous for, and it’s not as tight, or I guess as — I mean the big national themes aren’t there. He got a lot of shit actually for writing a book about ex-pats on the Riviera during the Depression. But in its way I think it’s actually the more ambitious novel, and it doesn’t quite land everything it’s trying but its failures are interesting. And there’s something more — humane about it. At least that’s how I remember it. I haven’t read it since college.”
“Mmm.” In spite of himself Eliot had started to smile. “So does Nick want to fuck Gatsby, or what?”
“That’s a topic of some scholarly contention.” Quentin was looking at the ground; the bridge of his nose had started to peel. A soft breeze lifted briefly the heat of the day and then stilled. “Look I’m sorry about yesterday.”
Eliot shrugged, aiming for lightness. “You didn’t say anything I didn’t deserve.”
“That’s not —” Quentin made a little tch noise, fingers splaying in a quick irritated motion. Eliot felt a pang of fondness in his chest. “I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean. But it’s… easier, or not even easier but simpler, when I can pretend you’re the only one I’m mad at. And I can just — not look at all the stupid shit I did or thought, or everything I could’ve….So that part, you didn’t deserve. Taking — all of it, and aiming it at you.”
“Oh.” Eliot had nothing to say to that. He wondered if he should apologize too.
“You know I woke up,” Quentin went on, “and people were falling over themselves to tell me how fucking brave I was. I was getting postcards from people I’d had like, one lab with first year. People I barely knew. I mean fucking Fogg came to the penthouse to, like, shake my hand in respect. It was like, I’d finally pulled off the big hero thing. But —” He shook his head. “I’ve gone back over and over to that moment in the mirror realm, and I can’t — it’s like I can’t touch it, or like it was someone else, I don’t — I don’t know what I was thinking, when I — when it happened. And I don’t know… like when I think about right before, and how I was — I don’t know that I really wanted to make it out alive.”
“Jesus,” Eliot breathed. “Because — I mean not because —” He bit his lip to forcibly prevent whatever idiocy was brewing in him from coming out.
Quentin looked at him sidelong. “What, you want me to pinky promise I didn’t kill myself because of you?”
“Of course not,” Eliot said even though horribly he sort of did.
Quentin shook his head, eyes rolling up. “It doesn’t work like that, Eliot.”
“No I know,” Eliot said even though he was not sure he did. He stared down at his hands holding the book in his lap.
“Eliot,” Quentin said. “El.” Finally Eliot conceded to meet his gaze and Quentin’s eyes softened. “It really doesn’t work like that.” Eliot nodded. His throat was tight. Quentin studied his face, then let out a slow breath. With the smallest rueful smile like a question he offered out his pinky.
Eliot laughed because otherwise he thought he might cry. “Well if you insist.” He hooked his own pinky around Quentin’s. “Okay.” When they let go he could feel like a scrape the place their hands had touched.
“Listen, uh.” Quentin ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t tell Julia about that, okay? What I said about — the Seam, and everything.”
“Of course,” Eliot said. “I wouldn’t.”
“I know,” Quentin said. “Just — don’t.”
“I won’t. I promise.” Eliot allowed himself one breath in and out to enjoy uncomplicatedly the fact of having been entrusted with this. “But, um. Not to be the biggest hypocrite on earth, but you should probably tell her at some point.”
“I know,” Quentin said as he hung his head. “And I will. It’s not — she’s already so worried about me, and I don’t want — she just worries, you know? But I will. When it’s — so. Thanks.”
Quentin raised an eyebrow. “You should probably text Margo back.”
Eliot buried his face in his hands and groaned. “Oh god. Have you been like, bombarded?”
“No,” Quentin said. “But I have fielded several secondhand inquiries via Julia.” He frowned. “I guess they’re like, friends now?”
“Something like that.”
“That seems… dangerous.”
“Don’t get me started.” Eliot tried to give Quentin a look of long-suffering and greatly put-upon aggravation but neither of them could keep from smiling with affection for their absent counterparts and so the effort resulted instead in both of them breaking into something like actual laughter. Clumsy with disuse in its motions but welcome nonetheless. Like air at the ocean’s surface after having been submerged. “God,” Eliot said, “what are they going to do with us?”
Quentin shook his head. “I have no fucking idea.”
The hum of a motor approached from down the road and a car drove by, stirring the branches at the edge of the road as it passed. Birds nearby chattered in their squeaking pitch punctuated occasionally by a dissonant trill. Quentin was watching Eliot and his expression had turned serious again. He said, “I was going to leave.”
Eliot’s stomach twisted. “Oh.”
“Last night,” Quentin went on. “When I got back to the house, after everything, I was going to take the car and let you figure it out from there. I was that done.”
“I’m sorry you found me —” Eliot searched for the appropriate euphemism. “In need of supervision.”
Quentin picked at a hangnail on his thumb. “What you said, about me and Alice — why we broke up —”
Eliot winced. “I really shouldn’t have —”
“You were right,” Quentin said. Eliot held his breath and tried very very hard not to feel good about this. “I couldn’t let you go. Still can’t. And I don’t — I don’t even think I actually want to, but it’s like…” He shook out the hand he’d been fidgeting with. “If I could — go back in time, to you and me in the throne room at Whitespire with Margo’s fucking wedding presents again, and we could have a — a do-over, from there, and just erase all the shit that’s happened since — god, if I could just be that person again, and feel the way he felt in that moment… but I can’t. That guy died, El. And I don’t know who came back, or what’s left of what was there before. I wish I could — point to something and say, This is it, this is me now, but — I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Sadness slid through Eliot’s limbs. Sadness and something else. “Don’t be sorry. I mean I — I get it. Not all of it, obviously, I wouldn’t pretend like… but.” He breathed in the air. Warm and clean. Light smell of earth. “As much as anyone can. I get it.”
Quentin nodded. Then he stood up. “For dinner I was thinking we could start to use some of that chicken. Maybe roasted? With the potatoes?”
“Sounds good,” Eliot said.
Quentin tilted his head expectantly. “You coming in?”
“Yeah,” Eliot said. “In a minute.” He gave a smile to show he meant it and Quentin nodded and went back inside.
Alone again on the porch under the sun, in the shadow of everything, Eliot watched for some moments the empty road. Then he took his phone out from where he had shoved it guiltily in his pocket and turned it back on.
It took a while with the lousy service but eventually the screen revealed as he knew it would a double-digit number of notifications from Margo as well as inexplicably one from Josh. Eliot hoped he hadn’t told Margo about the spiders. He didn’t bother to read the texts; instead he deliberated for a moment before sending hey.
hey yourself she sent almost immediately; then: you okay?
Some drifting cloud cooled a bit the glare of the sun. The birds were still chirping their tuneless notes. Inside the house Eliot could hear that Quentin had put on music: something dreary and self-serious, with guitars. Later maybe they would fight about who controlled the playlist, while the oven heated up. Eliot read Margo’s texts again: hey yourself. you okay? Most people wouldn’t have known how gentle she was being, but Eliot did.
He sent back: probably not, but i think i will be. And then: maybe we can talk about it when I get back? And the reply came —
anything, anytime. hasn’t changed, never will
— and Eliot remembered for the first time in longer than he could count that whatever else he was, he was lucky, too.
That night when Eliot came into the kitchen he wasn’t surprised to find Quentin already there. “Hey,” he said. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” Quentin didn’t seem surprised to see him, either. “I was having trouble sleeping, is all.”
“Something like that,” said Quentin. He was still dressed in the jeans and dark button-down he’d been wearing earlier. Without waiting for Eliot to ask he filled a mug with water and handed it to him (CHOOSE KINDNESS, skinny capital levels, surrounded by a starburst design). Eliot took it with a thanks and they stood for a few moments drinking water in the white-noise quiet of the refrigerator hum. The clock above the stove flickered from 12:47 to 12:48.
“There’s a ladder at the end of the hall by my room,” Quentin said. “I think it goes up to the roof, if you wanted to get some air. Maybe see some stars, if the weather’s right for it.”
“Oh,” said Eliot. “Yeah, sure.” He took another sip and set his mug in the dishwasher.
Upstairs Eliot watched Quentin climb the rungs and open the hatch at the top. “Oh,” he said from above. “Yeah, there’s stars.” There was a subtle brightness in his tone that stung for how rare it had lately been even as it made Eliot smile. Quentin poked his head back over the opening and called down, “Eliot?”
“Coming,” he said, and made his way up and into the air.
The night was clear and still and above them spread a backdrop of pure ungraspable blackness smudged with streaks of light, not just the pinprick rhinestones of the familiar stars but faint clusters scattered between like glittering dust, swirls of illumination spilled across the ether. In the dark the summer air was cool. The sky was the sky of antiquity, of storm-tossed mariners navigating across the sea. It was the sky of his childhood, the sky you could only see now far from the all-night radiance of cities or even the orderly streetlamp glow of suburbia. His first year in New York Eliot had found himself trying to explain to one of his roommates, a lifelong Manhattanite, why the Greeks had called it the Milky Way: the thickness of it, how on a cloudless night it looked like something you could dip your finger into if only you could reach. The stars didn’t do that in Fillory; Eliot didn’t know why. Perhaps there the sky really was an upside-down bowl with holes poked in. Quentin could probably tell him. Maybe someday Eliot would ask him to.
A secret for a secret, Eliot recalled. And how it had felt, after: how everything had hurt, and then they had begun to fly.
“When I was a kid,” he began, “I used to sneak out, sometimes, at night, if it was nice out, and just — walk, out back. Wander out to the edge of the fucking — cornfields, and look up at the sky. And I’d think — I mean this was when I was really young, you know, like six, seven, eight — I’d think like.” He swallowed. The pearly crescent of the moon hung like a ghostly smile. “Like, when are you coming? You know? Like, hello, I’m waiting here, anytime.” He laughed a little, feeling unmoored. “Like I’d been left here by mistake, and my real family was up — there somewhere, on some other planet, or in a spaceship zipping around shooting — pink laserbeams, and one of these days they were going to come take me back — home.” His voice quavered on the word and he worked to get his throat under control. “Uh, and it was like — you know when you’re a little kid, and you like, don’t believe in fairies anymore but also you kind of do? The way kids can kind of — trick themselves into believing something. Like remember being in like, first grade, and someone said they saw a ghost, and you went along with it because it seemed fun, only you got so into it you forgot you made it up? Or you know you made it up, but you’re still kind of — wondering. Like it was all a game except now you need a nightlight, just in case.” Quentin nodded; of course he remembered. “Yeah, so, it was one of those things, where like — in my head I had this picture of like, there would be this total Close Encounters landing, and then the door would open and it would be like, fucking Gonzo from the Muppet Show, and he’s telling me that he’s my real dad. And I was — it didn’t feel like a game, when I was out there waiting. By the time I came back in I’d be actually disappointed, that’s how real it was. But deep down — you know, somewhere in there I knew it was a story I’d made up. No matter how badly I wanted it true — and I mean sometimes I really, really wanted it — I knew no one was coming.”
He had been dreaming, he remembered, of his father. His first and maybe only monster. Contamination in the soil. What shapes you once shapes you always: carves the path which all other wounds will trace. Fitting themselves to its contours, every new rainfall flowing through the same riverbed curves. Years behind you and yet in every dark corner there he is with stooped shoulders and raised fists and that edge in his voice that meant no escape.
“Sometimes I think —” Eliot said, and had to stop. “Sometimes I think my whole life has been like that. Like —” He looked down at his bare feet. The roof was rough beneath them. “You know I talk this big game to myself about — reinvention, like I’m Madonna dancing in front of the burning crosses, about how I — I made myself, I turned myself into this other person like, like renovating a house. Like it’s just some fun creative project I could…. But it’s never going to work because I’ll always know who I was. So —”
You grow up, you run away. You barricade yourself with miles and magic and things he’ll never know and people he’ll never meet. You learn to pair wine with dinner and your tie with your cufflinks and hallucinogens with sex. You find a new city and a new life and a new self and somehow still there’s that scared little kid, shaking in the house he can’t stay in or leave. The house filled always with the echoes of an anger that left no room for anything but itself to grow.
“So,” he said. He had started to cry; when had he started to cry? “So maybe I’m just fooling myself. Maybe I’ve just been — playing pretend, at this other Eliot, and inside I’ve always known that’s not who I really am.” He wiped awkwardly at his eyes, trying to steady himself. From below he could hear a car driving by on the road.
Softly Quentin said, “I know who you are, El.”
The stars blurred into a single spiked luminous mass. Eliot blinked hard and blinked again and breathed in arrhythmic gulps of air like someone drowning and tried again to clean his face. When he could look at Quentin again he thought that he should say something but his heart was so full he could nearly feel it in his mouth like a fruit. Pressing behind his teeth and ready to spill over.
Quentin had come nearer to him and was looking up into his face as though into a divining pool. Eliot wondered what answer he was looking for and found to his surprise that the question did not much bother him. Unconsciously he had turned to face Quentin. His outline dim in the moonlight and yet it seemed perfectly clear.
“I lied earlier,” Quentin said. He stepped forward. Close enough that Eliot thought he could almost feel the halo of his warmth.
“Oh,” Eliot said. His heartbeat had picked up its pace.
“I didn’t have trouble sleeping.” Quentin’s tone was very careful. Like he wanted to get the words exactly right.
Quentin shook his head. “I was waiting for you.”
Eliot didn’t understand. He couldn’t speak. This could not be happening. Not after everything. He had to know better by now. He had to tamp down the stupid flutter of his pulse. It could not be that — it couldn’t. That wasn’t his life. It wasn’t him.
Then Quentin reached up to curl his hands around the back of Eliot’s neck and pulled him in for a long, deep kiss.
God — god, how badly he had wanted this — the taste of Quentin’s mouth and his tongue reaching behind Eliot’s teeth and his lips soft and open and hot and pushing hard, harder every moment as they found a rhythm. Eliot felt weak-kneed with how good it was. Quentin was kissing him like a wild thing, hunger radiating through every movement: fisting into Eliot’s hair, letting go to drag his hands past Eliot’s neck, down his chest, grabbing at the bottom of his shirt to pull Eliot’s hips into him like kindling shooting sparks catching on every one of Eliot’s nerves… Eliot’s arms were still floating uselessly at his sides, he realized. He didn’t remember how to do this, he couldn’t believe this was happening — they kissed and kissed and kissed and he felt it in his entire body. He moved finally his hands to cradle Quentin’s face, tracing his jaw with his thumb, and Quentin made a noise in the back of his throat like a furious soft collapse which reverberated deep in Eliot’s body.
Quentin slid his hands up under Eliot’s shirt and Eliot shivered at the touch and made a low caught sound of his own when Quentin dragged his nails down, around at the curve of his waist, digging in at the edge of his hips below his waistband. Feeling clumsy and trying to follow his lead Eliot attempted to unbutton Quentin’s shirt starting from the top but Quentin swatted his hands away and broke the kiss. Opening his eyes — Quentin’s lips were wet and open, breath coming hard because Eliot had touched him, eyes wide and alert, beautiful, beauty Eliot could almost drink — Eliot feared he had done something wrong but Quentin just said “You’re too fucking tall —” and got on his knees, tugging Eliot’s shirt. “Get down, get down here, come here —”
“Should we go inside,” Eliot said, even as he was already lowering himself to the ground, “like what if someone drives by — or the neighbors —”
Quentin launched himself into Eliot’s lap and his leg muscles still sore from the fucking hike protested briefly but Eliot forgot about that as Quentin brought his mouth against the crook of his neck and laughed warm against his shoulder, making him sway with the sensation. “El — we’re fucking magicians —” And with a swift and lovely sequence of tuts he threw a set of wards around them to hide them from sight, the air crackling with his funny bent magic.
Then he was kissing that same spot, biting it, sucking viciously and long enough that Eliot knew the skin there would purple overnight and he gave a strangled curse and jerked his hips forward on pure instinct. There were other things, he thought, that he should be doing, but he was well past half-hard and he could feel as Quentin took his movement as cue to start grinding against him that Quentin was too and it was difficult to think beyond the ache coiling in him and the proof of Quentin’s desire in the quick desperate friction between them and Quentin kissing him breathless and pulling at his hair harder this time and licking at the shell of his ear.
“Off,” Quentin demanded, grabbing gracelessly at his shirt, “hurry up, get this off,” and the rough edge of impatience in his voice made Eliot go frankly stupid as jellyfish-brained he tried to obey. When he’d managed to toss it to the side he tried again to get at Quentin’s clothes, fumbling briefly with his belt buckle, but once more Quentin batted his hands away and Eliot settled for laying his palms on Quentin’s thighs, pulse speeding at the thought of the curve of muscle beneath the denim. Then he looked up.
Quentin was eyeing him with rank approval, scanning hungrily across his shoulders and arms and the line of his naked chest. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed, and placed a hand beneath Eliot’s collarbone to push him back until he was leaning on his elbows, then sat up to admire the improved view, tracing a hand along the dark line of Eliot’s hair until he rested it just above his hips. Eliot’s breathing was shallow, his mouth slack. He felt sunburned by Quentin’s gaze. Pinned under it and afraid of how he loved to be looked at like this and afraid to turn away. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Quentin repeated, and leaned down to kiss Eliot from above.
“He had a girlfriend,” Eliot blurted out.
Quentin froze, inches away from Eliot’s face. “What?”
“The drummer,” Eliot explained inanely, having by now fully lost control of his faculties. “The first time we hooked up, at the house party — they were together still. They didn’t break up till later.”
Quentin squinted at him, blinking in unmistakable and complete exasperation. Eliot loved him so much he could throw up. “Okay?”
“I just — like it just seemed important that you know that suddenly,” Eliot said, barely aware of the words, “like in the interests of transparency, or —”
“I don’t — care?” Quentin kissed him greedily, groaning into his mouth, and kissed frantically across his chest and down his sides and Eliot twisted with pleasure, and then Quentin lifted his head and looking pained, rolling his eyes at his own inability not to clarify, said, “I mean, like, I care, in like, the broad human sense of who you are as like a person, but — not now, Eliot, I don’t care now —”
Quentin kissed him again and it would have amazed Eliot that no amount of kissing seemed tonight to satiate Quentin or calm him down or do anything except further whip him into frenzy like a wildfire of need except that of course his own want felt similarly bottomless. Quentin bit into his bottom lip and Eliot sagged beneath him and Quentin gripped his shoulders breathtakingly tight and guided him down until he was flat on the rough surface of the roof. With his hands freed from holding himself up Eliot reached up to touch Quentin’s arms, tensed as he supported his weight, appreciating the unexpected coiled force there, and Quentin let him for a moment before he sat up and caught Eliot’s hands and pinned his wrists to the ground above his head, circling them tightly with his thumbs.
“Fuck,” Eliot tried to say, although it came out rather less coherent. At this rate he was going to come in his fucking pants while Quentin was still fully dressed and he could tell he was beyond far gone because even that image made him squirm. He couldn’t remember the last time sex had made him this fucking discombobulated — not in years, it must be, years and years — and a delirious laugh escaped him as in his head he heard the old voice: I made it through the wilderness / somehow I made it through….
“What the fuck,” Quentin said. He looked almost enraged except that in his soft mouth and eyes boring down Eliot could see the nakedness of his desire.
Eliot shook his head, trying with little success to clear it. “Nothing, it’s — stupid, I’ll tell you later —”
Quentin rolled his eyes and Eliot could not keep a grin from spreading across his face. “You can be,” Quentin said, tightening his grip just enough to make Eliot freshly lightheaded, “just impossible, do you know that?” He kissed Eliot again, pressing the full weight of his marvelous compact body against him, all that hidden strength and unleashed ferocity rendering Eliot helpless, pushing his hips inelegantly upwards. Then he rose again and fixed Eliot with a look of deep vexation. “I mean — on top of a fucking mountain, Eliot?”
“Um,” Eliot tried, “it seemed like a good idea at the time?”
Quentin’s brows knit together in an upward slope of incredulity. “Okay but like. Really? Like did it really?”
Eliot laughed, shaking his head. “No, not at all.”
“God, you —” Quentin stopped to give him a messy kiss, like he would die of prolonged exposure to not kissing Eliot, which was wonderful to consider. “It was fucking — infuriating,” he said, “even when I was mad at you, and I was — so mad, Eliot, I was so fucking mad, like I could have killed you myself some days, I could have wrung your fucking neck for it — even then I wanted you — I couldn’t stop fucking — wanting you, God, Eliot —”
He let go of Eliot’s right wrist to shove two fingers into Eliot’s mouth and Eliot moaned against them, tilting his head back, incapable of anything except tonguing Quentin’s fingers as they pushed against his teeth and watching Quentin watch him with dark eyes, looking agonized by how much he liked it. Eliot felt drugged with his own arousal. Quentin dragged his fingers roughly out between Eliot’s lips and down his neck and kissed him again with that raw hunger and moved his hands to rest at the waistband of Eliot’s sweats and somewhere through the heady fog shone the thought like a beacon — they had never done this before. There was nothing familiar in the way they had crashed against each other tonight, nothing worn and well-trod in this tempest of desire or the sharpness where they met or Quentin’s brutal untamed yearning or Eliot fragile and undone. Even with his scant memories he felt sure that not once had it ever been like this — not once in fifty years. And then another thought rising out of the depths like laughter, like bubbles in champagne — fuck fifty years — impossible, miraculous, his whole body felt light with joy — fuck fifty years —
He would trade every one of them for this.
Without warning Quentin had shifted back and was pulling Eliot’s sweatpants down and Eliot had barely managed to lift his hips to help Quentin slide them down and set his bare ass back down before Quentin had gripped the base of his cock and taken the rest of it deep enough that Eliot could feel against the head the back of the roof of Quentin’s mouth, a tremor shooting through him instantly at the contact. Quentin made a muffled grateful sound that should have been illegal and then his sinful mouth was working with spine-melting enthusiasm, firm strokes of the tongue and steady tight drags of his lips and his hands twisting beneath and Eliot could not believe the wordless animal things coming from his own throat. Then Quentin stopped and Eliot was briefly aching and bereft until Quentin said “I want to watch, I want to see it” — wrapping his strong and brilliant fingers around Eliot’s dick wet with his spit and a little wetter now with Quentin’s magic as he paused also to toss into the air a little glowing orb — “I want to see you, I thought” — his face opening like a faultline in the earth — “I thought I was never going to fucking see you again —”
“I’m here,” Eliot said, “Q, I’m here,” and he said it again as Quentin started pumping and gripping and twisting with his hands, his fucking hands, every perfect gesture of his wrist sending shockwaves across Eliot’s every muscle, and kept saying it — “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here” — feeling it truer each time, like he was summoning himself back into his own skin, becoming more solid as the pressure intensified nearly to the point of pain and he trembled and tightened and finally came all over himself with one last full-body burst.
For several moments he lay flattened, trying to catch his breath, while Quentin held his cock through the aftershocks and his brain remembered how to reattach itself to his body. Gingerly he sat up, still breathing hard and realizing belatedly that he was damp with sweat. He tried to shape words in his mouth but all that came out was a light little laugh. Looking down at himself he positioned his left hand for a quick clean-up spell but Quentin caught his wrist to stop him. Like he wanted to see it, still. Like he wanted Eliot to carry a little longer the proof of what he had done.
Eliot could give him that. Eliot would give him anything he wanted.
Quentin dropped his hand like it had burned and looked down and away, eyes wide and darting wildly, mouth tight, a faint blush creeping on his face in the pale magic light, as though he couldn’t believe himself. He seemed shy suddenly; still dressed, he’d edged off and slightly away, sitting hunched in on himself leaning back on his hands with his knees bent up in front of him even though by now his jeans had to be uncomfortably tight. That was okay; Eliot could be easy with him. He felt exorcised, rinsed clean. He started to hoist his sweatpants back up, then changed his mind and took them off entirely, setting them by his shirt. He could give Quentin his unhidden body, used and soft, filthy with the evidence of how well Quentin had touched him and how fiercely Quentin had been wanted. Every dirty piece of him, if Quentin would have it. On his knees he made his way over to Quentin who was eyeing him now warily with longing locked up behind his eyes. That was okay too. Eliot would show him it was safe; he would show him how good he could feel. Over and over he would show him, if he had to. He could do that. He could coax Quentin into loosening until he let himself remember the best parts of having a body. He could give Quentin proof — not fifty years but here, now. He could be the person who proved to Quentin that a moment only needed to be reason enough for itself.
He could be anyone.
Eliot nudged Quentin’s knees apart, gently, and moved himself between them. He took Quentin’s face in his hands and smiled. Then he placed a soft kiss on his forehead — at each temple — on his chin and his cheeks — on the tip of his sunburned nose. He brushed his hair back — how funny that it didn’t stay anymore behind his ears — and traced the perimeter of his ear between his thumb and index finger, resting on the lobe, before sliding his hand back around his neck and drawing their foreheads together to touch. Breathing in only closeness. Quentin inhaled like he was breathing in some sweet smell and lifted his face to give Eliot a short close-mouthed kiss, then drew back. Eliot brought just one finger to angle his chin upwards to kiss Quentin back, soft, slow, until Quentin opened to him, tension seeping out of him as he allowed himself to sink back into his own wanting. Like that, Eliot thought, a little self-satisfied; just like that. You’ll see. It’s good here. We made it good. I don’t know how, but we did.
With his hand Eliot pressed on Quentin’s legs and he took the suggestion to bring them down, letting Eliot move to straddle him above his hips. He sat back and brought his hands to the top of Quentin’s shirt, pausing this time with a silent question, and after a short hesitation Quentin nodded. Eliot kissed him while he undid the first button; then he followed his hands with his mouth, kissing at the hollow of Quentin’s neck; at his sternum, beneath his heart; under his ribcage, scooting back so he could angle himself down, above his navel and below it, pressing his face there to feel the quick breath in and out, the muscle tense with anticipation; at the very edge of his exposed skin, lingering with tongue and teeth, close to but not yet touching Quentin’s erection warm and bound beneath.
Quentin was making these soft fluttering noises. Dandelion seeds carrying wishes in the wind. When Eliot straightened up to ease his shirt off his shoulders his eyes looked hazy beneath his thick lashes. “El,” he said. There was something pained in it, like he was seeing him for the first time all night.
Eliot picked up his hand and pressed a kiss to each knuckle. He ran his fingers through Quentin’s hair and gave him a deep, luxurious kiss, pressing himself against Quentin, chest to chest, stomach to stomach, letting Quentin feel the remains there on his own skin and being rewarded with a low guttural sound he wanted to spend his life pulling out of him again. Quentin started to rock his hips experimentally upward. Eliot broke the kiss to say, “Do you want to lie down?”
Quentin nodded and began to tilt back but Eliot said, “Wait. Just a second.”
He hopped up and grabbed his clothes and brought them back to fold them together with Quentin’s shirt as a makeshift pillow which he deposited behind Quentin with a flourish. Quentin’s face did something complicated at this as he lay on his back with his head cushioned. That was okay. Eliot could show him over and over: I’m going to take care of you now. Now that I’m allowed, I’m never going to do anything else.
He kissed his way down Quentin’s chest again, past his stomach, this time moving slowly to undo Quentin’s belt as he did; to slide it out from the buckle; to open the button of his jeans. He palmed Quentin’s groin for a moment, enjoying the strained arc in his hand, the way Quentin was biting his lip as he watched Eliot work. “You can ask, you know,” Eliot said. “You can ask for anything you want.”
“Please,” Quentin said, a tremulous hitching thing. Gorgeous, he was gorgeous like this: eager and nervous but still bold enough to want.
“Yes,” Eliot said. He drew the zipper down, keeping his eyes on Quentin’s face as he swallowed. Then he pressed his face against Quentin’s cock, still in his boxers. Only closeness, for one more moment. Only how lucky he was to be here.
Eliot lifted Quentin’s boxers up and over and down, clearing space at the top of Quentin’s legs. He touched his nose to the dark curling hairs, inhaling the musky smell there, before slipping into his mouth just the head, listening to Quentin’s breath catch. Stayed there a bit, hands on the creases of Quentin’s hips. Then he began to move his mouth slowly down and up, down and up, inching slightly further each time, relishing the salt taste on his tongue and how Quentin with each turn failed a little more at staying quiet and unsure. So that by the time he took him in full Quentin cried out, thighs twitching against Eliot holding them in place.
He began to work in earnest now, running his tongue in steady strokes along with the rim of his lips, loving the fullness of Quentin in his mouth. With his left hand he cupped the soft parts beneath, pulling gently down; with his right hand he cast the spell to slick himself up and maneuvered behind, stopping just at the edge of going in.
He stayed there for a while, sucking Quentin off and hearing him make these incredible broken sounds like Eliot was cracking him open with pleasure. Making him forget every other thing. If he hadn’t just gotten off this alone would have been enough to get him going or even nearly there. As it was fully nude with his back hunched over and his spit dripping down Quentin’s dick and Quentin’s hips bucking up irregularly Eliot felt drunk with power to have brought Quentin here. Baring his need to the open sky. No more hiding, Eliot thought. Neither of us anymore is going to hide.
“El,” Quentin said, reverent and breathless in a way that was going to make Eliot shiver when he remembered it later, “El please — yes, please —”
Eliot had almost forgotten. He slid a finger in, just the one but deep, so that they were each inside each other now, and Quentin cursed and arched his back and and dug his wrists into the ground and Eliot wanted to keep forever what it was to make Quentin feel this good. He sped up to match the way Quentin’s body was moving to find what he needed and finally stilled as Quentin getting close brought a hand to the back of his neck and started fucking into his face and when he came with a shout Eliot swallowed neat, bitter and warm and welcome down his throat.
When he extricated himself Quentin was staring at him in exhausted amazement. His hair was a mess. He sat up to give Eliot a kiss and Eliot shivered a little to think of Quentin tasting himself in his mouth.
Suddenly it was Eliot’s turn to feel shy. “Um,” he said. “Should we, like. Talk about it? I mean — we probably should, right? That’s like. What people do?” He was nodding as though to make himself seem on firmer ground but in all likelihood it came across as it was which was to say pathological.
Quentin gave him a lopsided grin, tired but real. Eliot wanted to frame it. “We should talk. But — tomorrow, maybe?”
“Sure,” Eliot said. He fought down the gladness rising in his chest and then realized possibly he didn’t need to. “Right, it’s late. We should probably get some sleep.”
Quentin kissed him lightly on the cheek and cast to clean him up. His magic tickled a little running against Eliot’s skin. “Yeah, El. Let’s go to bed.”
They dressed and extinguished their light and took down their wards. At the bottom of the ladder Eliot hesitated, unsure whether Quentin would come down and head straight to his room and if so whether Eliot should join him or go to bed alone so that they woke up clear-headed. But Quentin shut the hatch and climbed down and as soon as his feet were on the wooden floor he took Eliot by the hand and led him down the hall, past their doors, and into the master bedroom.
The room was stuffy and hot from disuse. Quentin flicked on the ceiling fan and Eliot opened a window with a torn screen to let in fresh air. Standing by the bed again Eliot felt an inexplicable awkwardness as though the decision of whether to undress before sleep was somehow more intimate than the vigorous orgasmic sex acts they had committed on the roof. Maybe it was. Quentin stripped to his boxers and lay down and after a moment Eliot who had a policy against underwear in bed climbed in naked beside him.
They curled into each other; that felt easy, at least. Eliot pressed his nose to the back of Quentin’s neck and breathed in the scent of his skin and his sweat and his cheap drugstore shampoo. His arm was draped around the curve of Quentin’s waist like it belonged there. This he knew they had done, thousands of times: sheltering against each other, their bodies soft and warm and near. Heartbeats counting together the hours until morning. But it didn’t feel like slotting back into a familiar shape. It didn’t feel like anything Eliot had ever known.
When Eliot had nearly drifted off to sleep and thought Quentin had done so long ago Quentin said, “You made dinner.”
“What?” He opened his eyes in the dark, uncomprehending.
Quentin shifted so Eliot could see his face. “Yesterday. You made dinner.”
“Oh,” Eliot said.
“That’s why,” said Quentin. “Not — the other stuff.”
“Why I didn’t leave.”
Eliot opened his mouth; closed it again; swallowed. Quentin didn’t wait for a response; he turned back over and lifted Eliot’s hand to his mouth for a quick kiss. After that as far as Eliot could tell he fell asleep. Eventually Eliot did too.
In the dream Eliot was standing on the sidewalk outside an apartment complex. It was his old building, the place on Dykeman. The sky was silvered with dense clouds.
He was meeting someone downtown. It had rained recently and none of the trains were running this far up. He stepped onto the curb and raised his hand high, scanning the street.
A yellow taxi drove up and slowed to a stop in front of him. The cabbie lowered the window and leaned his head out.
Going down? said the driver.
Get in, said the driver. He gestured towards the backseat and rolled the window back up. Eliot let himself into the back and shut the door behind him. He reached for his seatbelt and fastened it across himself. The video announcements began and he pressed the corner of the screen to shut them off. They began to drive.
His father was in the backseat of the cab, on the other side. He was sitting hunched over with his elbow hanging out the open window.
You again, said his father.
Eliot stiffened. His stomach hurt. I could say the same, he thought. But he didn’t say it.
You think you’re fucking better than me? said his father. With that tie.
I know I’m fucking better than you, Eliot thought. For many reasons. But he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything. It was irritating that his father should be here. But it was only a cab ride. He decided he would not engage. Instead he would sit very straight with the excellent posture he had taught himself. Like on top of his head he was balancing a book.
They were moving slowly. Their cab was locked in traffic with a sea of other cabs. Yellow and chrome as far as he could see through the windshield. Apparently everyone in Manhattan had had the same idea. Eliot watched out the window as pedestrians heading to the bodega for coffee with milk and too much sugar outpaced them.
His father was talking to him. Deep and unpleasant waves of sound. It sounded like a series of complaints. Eliot was trying not to listen. He wanted to say, Why did you even come here? But he didn’t. It was only a cab ride, he reminded himself. He adjusted his collar in the rearview mirror.
The driver was listening to 1010 WINS. On the radio the traffic announcer was saying that the subways were down across the city. Fucking Cuomo, Eliot thought. He had made his hands into fists. Carefully he unwound them and set them in his lap. His teeth had clenched too. He tried to relax his jaw.
His father was still talking. He was talking about Eliot. The words were familiar. The words didn’t matter. The words had never really mattered. They had always been the same words. He reminded himself: There is nothing you can say to win. It was only a cab ride. He checked his cufflinks and his hair and that his socks had not slouched. He wanted to look good when he got to where he was going.
Other drivers had begun to honk. Eliot found this annoying. As though people could have gone faster but had chosen not to because the street was not filled with ear-splitting blasts. He leaned his forehead against the window. The video announcements had turned back on. His legs were cramped in the space below the seat.
His father kept saying words. They sounded like different words from the words before, but that was a trick. The words were always the same words. His father had only ever had very few words. Eliot didn’t think he knew any others.
They were approaching a corner. Eliot ducked his head to read the street number. The green sign had faded, but Eliot could tell they were still in the 180s. They had not gone five blocks. Eliot began to despair. Horns continued to blare. His father continued to talk. I don’t have to listen to this, he told himself. But the noise was inescapable. And they were going so slowly. It began to seem as though they would never make it downtown. They weren’t even moving anymore. They hadn’t moved in a long time. Eliot began to panic. Minutes and hours and days and years would pass and here he would be in the backseat of this cab in Inwood and the radio would be playing 1010 WINS and his father would still be talking. I would have been better off walking downtown, Eliot thought. Fucking de Blasio. And then it occurred to him that he still could.
He placed his hand on the plastic handle below the window.
His father said something. It sounded like Where do you think you’re going? And it sounded like I’m not done with you. But it couldn’t have been either of those things. Those would have been new words. The words were always the same words, and the words always said one thing. The words said: You are not loved.
Eliot opened the door and stepped out of the car.
He opened his eyes. It was dark still in the room in the Hudson Valley and he was lying on his back, looking at the blurred circle of the ceiling fan. By the particular color of the sky through the window Eliot could tell that dawn had begun its approach but the sun had some time yet before it peeked over the horizon. Next to him in the bed Quentin stirred in his sleep. For a second Eliot feared he’d woken him with some unconscious agitation. But without opening his eyes Quentin just shifted towards him until his forehead was nestled against Eliot’s shoulder and his arm was draped heavily across Eliot’s chest. His breaths were deep and smooth.
A firefly had come into the room through the gash in the screen while he slept and for some minutes he watched its green light trace wobbling arcs above him. On and off, back and forth. Each time the light turned off Eliot felt sure that was the last time he would see it. But it never was.
Quentin’s face looked so peaceful. Gently, so as not to disturb him, Eliot placed a hand on Quentin’s hand, near his own heart. As he steadied his breathing he felt the weight of Quentin’s arm on top of him and he watched the firefly float through its private dance and he thought about the apartment in Inwood. He hadn’t seen those guys in years. He wondered who they had found to tolerate their company after he’d left, and how long the one who worked for a non-profit had lasted. He wondered if any of them were still there. He thought about what you understood when you came from a place where the nights were still dark enough to see a sky that looked like a galaxy: the cosmic alchemy through which ancient light and empty space came together to create something real enough to guide sailors home. He thought about the ruins on the mountain, and the grass amid the ruins. What shaped the land once and always, and what later there learned how to grow. New life reaching for the sun.
In the morning he would make Quentin an omelette, he thought. Something with protein, and vitamins. For himself, too, while he was at it. They would eat and drink coffee looking out at the woods and if during breakfast Eliot wanted to kick out his leg to press it against Quentin’s ankle or lean across the table to touch Quentin’s hand he would. Maybe Quentin would smile at the touch. In the shower he could run soapy hands along the plane of Quentin’s back or go down on his knees on the hard floor and take Quentin in his mouth until he could barely stand. Maybe they would have sex before getting dressed or maybe he would ride Quentin on the woven rug downstairs and watch him watching Eliot touch himself or maybe Eliot would fuck him with his face pressed into the couch cushions or maybe they would sit and read on opposite ends of the sectional facing each other so that their legs were tangled together. They would talk; they would talk until they grew tired of talking and later they would talk more. They would talk tomorrow and the day after and even after that.
They still had much of Julia’s email to get through; they could go to an orchard, or some historical manor. Maybe Eliot would call Margo now that they had something other than dismay to discuss; he would tell her he loved her and he would tell her he was in love and he would ask if when he got back she would come with him to Soho. They would roam the shops pretending to be uncomfortably close half-siblings descended from a Canadian fur trading estate and Eliot would look for pieces that clarified the image starting to take shape in his mind: yellow accents, delicately patterned blues. Something soft in a rich, deep green. Maybe he could get Quentin to join them and shift his weight while looking bemused; maybe Julia would come to keep him company. Maybe afterwards the four of them could go somewhere to drink and eat and make each other laugh and talk aimlessly about the future and on the way back to the penthouse Quentin would lean tipsily into Eliot’s side and in the room with the lights off they would talk. Maybe next summer the house in Dutchess County would be empty again and they could come back, and maybe this time their friends would join them. Ribs on the grill, wine in the living room. Stories around the fire. He would watch Quentin in the flickering light, hands moving through the air as he carried on conversation with someone else, and he would smile and turn back to Margo to plot the next day’s escapades and in the morning he would make an omelette. For Quentin and for himself and for anyone else who wanted one. Cutting peppers in the kitchen. Birdsong in the trees. Windows open to let in the clean soft breeze. Eliot closed his eyes and went back to sleep.