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Willing to Be a Stranger

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Bunny arrived late to class. Not an uncommon occurrence, normal really. The days he showed early concerned all of us more.

Last time he had been early he spent the whole time pestering Camillia into letting him copy her homework, the time before that he had wasted the extra ten minutes prodding at Francis. So, when Bunny came tripping into class twenty minutes late, blond hair in a messy, shower-damp mop, no one batted an eye. Some of the droplets had slid their way down wet tendrils and frozen on his face. The first freeze of winter had hit hard this year. Francis bemoaned this fact all morning, refusing to move his long coat even once class began. The general feeling in the room upon seeing ice dappled Bunny was of slight pity.

“God Bunny, if you needed a coat-- if you need one now” Francis drawled from a seat at the table, currently adorned with China teacups and various tarts. His comment, of course, was in reference to the chill in the high-ceilinged room. Despite the cheery appearance of the flowers Julian kept dutifully in good health year-round, the balmy appearance did little to eschew the bite of the air. The summery fragrance mislead.

Really, the only surprise regarding Bunny was that he had walked so far without a jacket.

No, what truly shocked the class and silenced Julain in the middle his dictation of Orestes--so completely so that he set the book down, letting the page slip away unmarked--was Henry, silent, flushed from the cold, slipping into the room a few moments after Bunny.

I glanced back at Julian and took careful notice of his slow, cautious appraisal of the two. Henry kept his eyes down as he swiped at the snow on his lapel. I couldn’t help but notice the snowflakes that had caught on his lashes, melting now. Despite his brutish frame and harsh jaw, the light dusting softened his hardest edges.

The racket of a chair scraping the wood floor drew my attention from Henry. Bunny tossed his worn bag against the leg of the table and slapped his notebook down on the surface before him, reaching for the communal pot of black tea. To me, it seemed he was trying to make as much noise as humanly possible. I feared for the china pot’s well being.

Charles pushed a teacup in bunny’s direction. Bunny upset the table reaching for the teacup, poured with too much vigor, and ended up spilling. Camillia handed Charles a napkin, which Charles in turn handed to Bunny.

Julian appeared not to notice this whole scene and neither did Henry.

Bunny bubbled with apologies, all the while rubbing violently at his neck and coughing up a fit. Despite the fact it made him wince every time he dragged that punishing hand across the skin of his throat, he couldn’t seem to still himself.

Francis and I exchanged looks. He matched my quirked eyebrow with one of his much more elegant one's--more a flick than a raise.

“Thank you for joining us,” Julian addressed the two of them, glancing at Bunny and his racket, but his cool eyes settled on Henry. Julian’s trailed the slow methodical movements of Henry’s hands as he ran careful fingers through his uncannily perfect hair. The two of them were holding a conversation in the silence, one that I suspected they normally saved for when the two of them were alone.

I always wondered what the two of them did when the rest of the class part took in the lesser staples of college life. I imagined that on Friday nights--while I drank shit beer, while Francis slid through writhing crowds searching for a like soul, while the twins played house--they drank port and mused about our shortcomings in Greek, Latin, and Arabic.

“Ah, sorry about this whole being late business, I kept your best student. I swear he was absolutely kicking and struggling the whole time! He tells me, ‘Bunny we are going to be late’”— Here he did an awful impression of Henry’s stilted speech— “It’s a wonder you all get on without Henry here.” He paused and gave an awkward little chuckle when no one responded to his words, “I practically stole him away, promise on my mother's grave he was dying to get here, right Henry. You feel bad don’t you,” but he didn’t pause long enough for Henry to interject. His hands jumped from his neck to his lap where he wrung them. “you see Henry and I-”

“He hadn’t finished his composition. I stayed to help him. Allá ti ēi moi taúta perí drunē perí pétrēn.” Henry gave a little half-smile so forced it looked little more than a slight parting of his lips. He did not meet Julain’s eyes.

Henry sat down and settled his bag gently at his feet. He reached down to rifle through the bag, Bunny, continuing to shuffle about his belongings across the table, covered up Henry’s much softer sounds.

“So, you two were in the library?” Charles, twisting slightly in his seat, couldn’t seem to make up his mind about who exactly he was directing the question to.

They both answered at once. “Yes,” said Henry. “No,” said Bunny.

A flock of birds outside the windows took flight and sounded a call that filled the silence that descended upon the classroom. The birds were long out of sight and the echoes of the fluttering wings and their ominous shout had all but rippled into nothingness before Julain spoke again.

“I believe I have lost my previous train of thought” he glanced down, “and page too, so it appears.” He clapped his hands together, and, though I am sure I am misremembering, chalk dust appeared to fly from his fingertips in the wake of his clap.

“Eros,” he began and I watched Henry, who had just looked up from his belongings, glance back down at his feet pointedly.

“Explain to me Eros, Charles.” Julian reached for Henry’s cup, pulled it to himself, and cradled the side of the porcelain with one hand as he poured with the other. Honey, a slice of lemon; Julian didn’t have to ask. He passed the cup to Henry who accepted it but seemed unable to lift it to his lips.

“Sexual love,”

“Desire you mean, not love.” Camillia jumped in, sitting somewhat more upright in her chair as she spoke the words. Her boyish slouching and throaty voice thrilled me then as it had a thousand times before.

“It can be love, but yes, I find I agree with Camillia. Although, you all have taken this line of thought to the abstract immediately. Tell me, who was Eros? Bunny, who was Eros’ mother? No, better yet, his father”

“He had no father.”

I listened to Bunny, yet my eyes remained glued to Henry’s eerily still features, his glasses slipping slowly down his perspiration slicked skin.

“Ouranos.” Henry cut Bunny off, dragging a finger along the edge of the table before him, He still hadn’t looked up, but knowing Henry, it must have pained him to hear Bunny get so far into an incorrect answer without Julian interrupting. The word must have pried itself out of his mouth without any thought on Henry’s part; at least, his clenched jaw led me to believe so.

“Yes, and he was?”

“Primordial. The sky.” Henry was, as a principle, of few words until you got him a bottle or two of port, but these acrid, clipped words came out even more severe than usual. Not to mention they were directed at Julian.

Henry’s features soured. His left foot gently tapping against the exposed ankle of his right struck me as odd. He fidgeted as if Julain forcibly pried these answers from him; as if Henry had no control over the words that he tugged from him.

“Yes, Eros’ father was primordial. Henry, since you seem so keen on Eros this morning, why do you think I invoke his parentage?”

“Eros is disobedient. As was his father. Ouranos had to be kept from Giea, he wanted to have her- to have her despite the fact that if he stayed with her perpetually, as he wanted to, it would be night always. Like the night, Eros blinds, and as Shakespeare so playfully reminds us, is painted blind himself.”

Julian continued to direct his pedagogical efforts wholly towards Henry, “Correct. Eros—sexual desire—seems to be one who spreads his blindness. And who is most often blinded in our little stories, our ἀπόλογος?”

“Monsters.”

“And?”

Henry met Julian’s gaze, “Those deserving punishment.”

“Such as?” Julian asked, leaning in ever so slightly.

“Metope, Argos, Polymestor, Erymanthos”

“Henry, I’m surprised, you left out the most obvious link between Eros and blindness.”

“Oedipus.”

Julian nodded, passed Henry one of the many pastries laid out for us, “Ηδονήν, μέγιστον κακού δέλεαρ.”

Henry shoved off his jacket as Julian turned his attention from him. I noticed, then, his disheveled shirt: two buttons off. He noticed at precisely the same time. Not long after, he began to unbutton his shirt with trembling fingers, in class, in the middle of Jullian’s brilliant, brilliant lecture.

We all knew that Henry was less than well versed in social norms of the last few centuries, but, even in Athens, disrobing in such a manner would have been considered odd. Still, no one commented, despite the fact that the whole room had stilled--even the wayward dust particles halted in their gentle descent down to earth.

Bunny pretended not to see. The rest of us were too shocked to look away.

There was something thrilling about the sight of his skin, I had never seen more than his wrists—his chest was just as smooth and pale. The feeling that followed next—the shuddering in my gut, the urge to touch, wasn’t quite sexual. Appraising the flash of Henry’s skin before he refastened the silver buttons felt like staring at a statue; part of you wants to run your hands along its curves, however, another part of you, just as strong, knows it would be profane; sacrosanct.

He finished with the rebuttoning and continued to stare blankly on in the general direction of Julian.
______________________________________________________________________________

After class, we filed out awkwardly and the silence followed us down the hall, heavy and oppressive. I stopped beside a window and gazed out the frosted panes. Bunny was already crossing the snowy lawn, having practically sprinted out of the room. I could see from my vantage point the stain of wet crawling up the hem of his pants from where the bottoms met the snow. I watched him trudge on, no real reason for my staying beyond that.

I am not a prying person. I am honest and have always considered myself so. Truly, I was in the process of turning on my heel, but, when I heard the harsh whisper, of, “erastês.” I stilled.

Oh…

Henry and Julian have always functioned as a pair in my mind. I passed them together in public (they frequented little cafes in the area), they used the same sort of pens (Bunny always claimed Henry had stolen them and that Julian was just too kind to ask for them back), Henry spoke of Julain with reverence (it was one of the few topics he would expound upon without being asked to), Henry always turned up for office hours (despite being the best in class). I suppose I had seen Henry kiss Julain on the cheek, and at the time I had found it bizarre—I had just not inferred the truly classical nature of their relationship.

I still stood in the middle of the hall, I could hear the muttering in greek, but they spoke too low for me to be able to construct the melodic sounds into recognizable language.

Silent and half paralyzed, I stalked back to the door of the classroom.

“Mea Stella,” Julian hushed.

“Non puella sum,” Henry corrected, the words were hardly above a whisper. They carried well enough nonetheless. And, just like that, they were back to complicated, rapid-fire Greek.

I made my way back to the door. Julian left it ajar. Through the space I was able to make out the two of them. Julian leaned back against his desk bracing himself with his arms. Henry stood in the middle of the room, his bookbag sat at his feet. He looked stranded.

A few more lines in Greek spoken by Julian to which Henry made no response rung out in the still air. Julian dropped his chin and gave a light chuckle. To my surprised delight, he switched back to English.

“I suppose I shouldn’t expect your total piety. Edmund and yourself, you have been close since your first year here, yes?”

Silence wrong out, the silence in the wake of a bullet.

I watched as Henry closed the space between the two of them and took Julian’s hand in his own. He hesitated—something so unlike him I wondered if I had imagined it—before kissing the man’s knuckles. With a second hand, Henry unfurled Julian’s fists to press his lips to the center of the man’s palm, and then the exposed skin of his vein latticed wrists. The gesture, in its tenderness, stilled my lungs. I blinked hard, unsure if what I was seeing was real; was of this age.

“You are angry with me, I see that,” Henry muttered, bringing Julian’s hand up to cup his own cheek; he leaned into it. Henry with his hard planes and hard looks hardly seemed capable of such a fragile display. I suppose Julian had a knack for drawing out the more secret parts of a soul.
Julian watched Henry silently for a moment and his face softened, that guard mischievous something he always wore before the rest of the Greek class fell away. Henry, with such a simple touch, had unraveled that superior art of Julian’s personality; made him human.

“Are you and Edmund-” Julian began, freeing his hand from Henry’s grasp and moving it to tuck a strand of hair behind Henry’s ear.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Julian reached out to remove Henry’s glasses. The boy closed his eyes a moment as Julian continued to fuss with his hair, brushed it out of his face and revealed his scar, “have I ever told you how very much I prefer your hair like this?” Julian leaned forward to press his lips, feather-light, to Henry’s forehead.

“Ita.”

And like that, they kissed. I had to muffle my own gasp. I knew it had to be coming, but still, it shocked me.

I watched as Henry allowed himself to be turned and pushed up onto the desk, the wood protesting his weight. He came alive, became fluid, under Julian’s touch.

Though I peered only through a crack in the door, I could make out Henry’s flush. Shame washed over me at that, a queasy feeling filled my gut and I leaned away from the door and slumped down on the cold floor.

I don’t exactly share those inclinations, and until that snowy day, I hadn’t thought Henry did either. I thought back to that business-like kiss; the chaste nature of it had reassured me. It was cool, dry, like chalk. This, whatever was happening just a wall away, was not that.

I meant to leave right then, I really did, but from within the room I heard the softest little keening sound. It reminded me of the sounds those boney girls that followed me home from parties and felt like air underhand would make when I first pressed into them; like I was affirming their fragility.

Henry, Henry who knocked out men at parties, made that sound.

I leaned toward the door once more, pressing my head back against the rough stone wall and waited for that sound again, a repeat performance. Something within me twisted dangerously.

What they said to each other I couldn’t make out. It was undeniably Greek—the rough halting antique tongue alive between the two of them—but the vocabulary escaped me. Whatever words they spoke, what Julian had thought to teach Henry, he had decided was not meant for my mind to parse.

At the sound of Julian's first moan, a slow langerous thing, I thought it best to make my exit. I slipped off my shoes, walking barefoot down the lyceum's hallway and staircase. Only once I had stepped out onto the frozen stone steps and met the biting wind did I truly feel safe shoving my numb feet back into my shoes.

I glanced back up at the window of our little classroom, wondering if—were the weather kinder— I could make out Henry and Julian’s unorthodox foray into the classical world.