Todd Anderson’s roommate made him nervous.
It’s not that there was anything wrong with Neil Perry. On the contrary, in the hour Todd had known him, he’d already revealed himself to be friendly, polite, and well-spoken. Everything a young man at Welton Academy should be. The banner Neil held during the opening ceremony had boasted Excellence , and the description was apt. There was something unusual about Neil though, just beneath his handsome prep school charm. The other guys noticed too, that much was obvious. Todd had hardly been in the room for five minutes before Neil’s friends flooded in as easily as if they were coming home.
They squabbled and buzzed and Todd let himself fade into the cramped corners of his new bedroom to unpack. He barely looked up when Neil’s father came in to snap at him, or when the other guys wandered out to check on him. He couldn’t blame them, Todd would have died where he stood if his own father had scolded him like that in front of his friends. Well, he certainly would have if he’d had friends like Neil’s. When Neil popped his head back in to invite Todd to walk to class with the group, his eyes were bright again. Todd would go, of course.
Not that it really mattered. He wasn’t exactly planning on making roots at Welton. A roommate like Neil would be out all the time with his friends, leading study groups and winning soccer matches. Not babysitting his silent roommate. Good , Todd thought as he straightened the ugly, nondescript pens in his desk set. It would be easier this way.
Though presumably bright, your son is worryingly prone to distraction , a professor at Balincrest wrote to Todd’s father. That comment was probably the reason he was at Welton now, with its family legacy, reputation of strict discipline, and insistence on excellence .
That professor wasn’t necessarily wrong. At the end of the first day of classes, while Todd should have been showering like all of his classmates, his mind was still stuck back in Mr. Keating’s strange class. Carpe diem , Keating had said. Seize the day. Neil had talked about it all the way back to the dorm. He’d almost tripped over himself in excitement. Todd nodded as he babbled, sneaking looks at Neil’s face all the while. He really had a striking face, all sharp lines. But then his eyes were so warm and bright. It was confusing, but he couldn’t look away. Todd almost wished Neil had gone to Welton 50 years ago, so his class photo would be hung in the hall too. Then Todd could look at him as long as he needed to and figure him out. Strange .
Someone snapped in Todd’s face and brought him out of his fog. He looked up quickly, startled to see Neil right in front of him.
“Coming to the study group tonight?” He asked, slicking back his hair.
Todd stammered out some weak excuse. As Neil walked away, Todd couldn’t stop his eyes from following. A smattering of freckles on his smooth Neoclassical shoulder was the only proof he was even human. Todd stood up suddenly and headed into the shower.
Carpe diem. Seize the day, seize the day, seize the day . He thought the words like a prayer as the hot water prickled his skin. But he couldn’t help thinking of smooth skin, and freckles, and a playful grin. He twisted the shower knob all the way to the right, as ice cold as it would go.
Worryingly prone to distraction.
It was easy to be friends with Neil. Well, Neil made it easy. By the second week of classes, Neil had adopted Todd into his study group, whispering about a Dead Poets Society. Even though Todd hadn’t wanted to go, Neil had found a way to convince him. As the meeting time grew closer, Todd was starting to doubt his own resolve. He laid silently on his bed as Neil flipped through the pages of Five Centuries of Verse , cupping the flashlight with his hand to keep the glare from shining beneath the door. Suddenly, the rustling stopped and the light clicked off.
His voice came soft in the dark. “Is it time?”
Todd leaned over the end of his bed and grabbed the little golden clock on his desk. The moonlight from their open window glinted on the glass face.
“It’s 11:54. No, 55,” he whispered back. “Hey Neil...”
But he was already up, his black Welton coat billowing around him like a ceremonial robe. He grabbed his book and his light and walked to the door. He turned back expectantly.
“Well, come on then, get ready. Don’t want to keep them waiting.” Todd felt , more than saw, his smile. It hung there for a second. Neil asked, “Aren’t you coming?”
“I don’t think so.” Todd said so quietly he wasn’t sure Neil would be able to hear him.
But he did, and walked to stand beside the bed, picking Todd’s coat up from the back of his desk chair. “Listen Todd, I’m not going to make you come if you don’t want to. But I think you do want to. And I want you to, too.” Todd felt Neil’s hand on his shoulder. Despite the sudden warmth, he shivered. “Okay?”
Neil said it like a question, but it only gave him the illusion of free will. Todd’s eyes were already adjusting to the dark, and he could just barely make out the little moles that danced across pocket knife cheekbones. Did Neil know how much easier he made it for Todd by letting him pretend that following was a choice? He made it seem like something less dangerous than what it actually was.
Todd grabbed his coat and got up. “Okay.”
For a long time now, Todd had known life wasn’t going to be easy for him. Part of this came from knowing exactly who he was.
Todd had always known he was like...this. He’d come to terms with that long before Hell-ton. He didn’t even hate himself for it—it was so predictable it almost made him laugh. Of course, of course, the failed copy of Jeffrey Anderson was so broken he fantasized about other guys. And of course, he’d been paired with Neil. Eloquent, passionate, Neil, who felt so loudly his emotions seemed contagious. Neil, who dreamed the Romantics into the present day. It was so pathetic it was almost poetic. It was such a cruel joke that he had to laugh.
Todd would never say it out loud, but he fell in love with society meetings. He fell in love with ghost stories and contraband snacks and cigarette smoke and stupid banter and dripping cave rocks and Walt Whitman. In the dim blue midnight light, he just about fell in love with Neil Perry, too.
But that was ridiculous, of course. In the morning, that was clear enough. Todd would watch Neil breeze through a debate or a difficult question in lecture and remember that Neil wasn’t like him. Todd would be lucky to make it through a mediocre college and suffer through a dull job, till he keeled over in 50 years. But Neil was a guy with potential. Real potential, the kind you’d have to be out of your mind to miss. He would change the world, and might not even realize he was doing it.
By some dumb stroke of luck, Todd had become Neil’s best friend. And that was great! He couldn’t ask for anything more, and he never would. The End. Fine by Todd. Really, it was. It was easier this way.
The day Neil brought back the flyer for the play, they had their first real fight. Todd felt helpless as Neil’s disappointment at Todd’s hesitation turned combative. And he was even more shocked to see just how patronizing Neil could be. Where did he get off, demanding Todd to be more like him, more “stirred up”? For a moment, Todd was legitimately annoyed. It was as if he’d been looking at Neil through blurry, rose-tinted glasses and suddenly he’d gotten the right prescription. The Neil he saw now was naive, pushy, condescending. He wasn’t a Neoclassical statue at all. He was just a boy.
The kind of boy who wouldn’t butt out of Todd’s business, no matter how much he insisted he could take care of himself. The kind of boy who would smile, snatch his terrible rough draft, and run around the room teasing him until the whole dorm came bursting in, cheering and singing and full belly laughing. A boy who was selfish and compassionate and complex, and insistent that Todd's story could be just as interesting as his own.
When the others had gone and Todd laid on his bed, eyes puffy and stomach aching from laughing himself to tears, he looked over at Neil. He’d pulled a book off the shelf that he’d presumably gotten from Keating, a mammoth collection called Great Shakespearean Plays . He glanced up at Todd, raised his eyebrows, and grinned.
It’s hopeless , Todd thought with a start. Now that Todd had seen both sides of Neil, it wasn’t a matter of how easy it could be to fall in love with Neil. He was already there.
It was him getting the part.
And it was him laughing as he forged a letter from his father.
And it was the way he looked at him when Keating finally got him to write a poem.
And it was leaping into each other's arms on the soccer field.
And it was being the first person to say “hello” to him and the last one to say “good night.”
Todd was getting careless. He was starting to forget where he ended and where Neil began. He was starting to forget to even care. Because being with Neil was so perfect, so easy.
Kissing Neil would be easy too , Todd thought sometimes, surprising himself. Terribly easy. Todd knew he wasn’t creative, couldn’t even fathom having that infectious breed of imagination guys like Keating and Neil had. But god , could he imagine kissing Neil. He could picture Neil all over him, raking desperate, burning lips down his neck, always too passionate for his own good. He could picture those long fingers leaving golden prints on every square inch of his body.
Neil was turning Todd into a poet. He didn’t care if it was an illusion, a stupid fantasy. He could survive on this feeling of sheer wanting. Sometimes it didn’t even hurt.
It felt so good to send the desk set flying off over the edge, with reckless abandon, to see the papers settling on the ground like feathers. To laugh, a real laugh, and hear Neil laughing too. Earnest, hopeless, wonderful Neil who always knew just what to do and exactly what to say to gently pull Todd back. Todd glanced over at him. Neil smiled softly, glancing down at the ink blackened snow. If only Todd could freeze this moment, trap the feeling in his chest on film, he would.
“I would have gotten you something.” Neil said, breaking the silence.
“I didn’t want you to.”
“Jesus, Todd,” Neil turned to face him, and Todd was surprised to see his smile painted with surprising melancholy. “You don’t make anything easy, do you?” Neil reached out a hand, and brushed Todd’s cheek with his thumb. Todd shivered in spite of himself, but didn’t pull his eyes away from Neil’s. In the evening shadow, they were so dark they matched the sky.
Kiss me , Todd thought, desperately. Let this moment be your excuse, let the night take away any consequence, pretend you dreamed it tomorrow, just kiss me now.
And like that, the touch was gone. Neil raised his thumb to reveal the spoils of this intimacy--a single blond eyelash. His dimple deepened perfectly, like a thumbprint in the flesh of a ripe peach. “It’s no flying desk set, but it’ll do in a pinch. Make a good wish, alright?” Todd wanted to pull Neil’s beating heart straight from his chest, read it raw. He closed his eyes and blew the eyelash into the night.
They walked home from the society meeting in silence. The atmosphere had been off from the first moment Charlie (Nuwanda?) had brought in the girls, and it had only gone downhill once he announced the article he’d published in the Dead Poets Society’s name. It wasn’t that Todd didn’t think girls should be allowed at club meetings, or even at Hell-ton. On the contrary, he’d always thought it would be nice to go to a co-ed school. Neil had kept his cool during the meeting, but now he seemed devastated.
When they’d gotten into the room, he’d ripped off his coat and kicked off his shoes, barely bothering to keep quiet at all. Todd kept checking to see if there was a light under the door, the telltale sign they’d woken someone.
“It’s not going to get back to us. The Dead Poets Society is going to be fine,” Todd said. He wanted to say something to soothe Neil, but he didn’t even know if he believed that. He wanted so badly to touch Neil, to make him feel as secure and held as Todd had felt the night of his birthday. Todd stayed still on his side of the room.
Neil rambled in a frantic whisper, yanking his shirt off over his head. “It’s like he doesn’t care about us at all! If he wants to spend all his time butchering Byron for a date he can be my guest, I just wish he’d leave us out of it.”
A thought suddenly popped into Todd’s mind. He wasn’t sure what the answer would mean, or if he even wanted to know it. He asked anyway. “Are you jealous?”
Neil scoffed and dropped the flannel pajama top he was holding on the desk table. “Yeah right. No .” He looked at Todd, who stood still, holding his breath. “I’m not, Todd! Jesus!” He slumped into his desk chair and put his head in his hands. Todd checked under the door. Still dark.
After a moment, Neil turned back around to Todd. He looked tired. Defeated. “Look, I’ve known Charlie since we were 14 years old. He’s my best friend. Nothing he does ever surprises me, because that’s just Charlie. And I love him for that.”
Todd suddenly felt very warm. The dark room was stifling. He had to get out. He’d been so naive, so stupid. So Neil could have feelings for a guy, strong enough he would admit them without hesitation. Of course those feelings were never going to be for Todd. How could they be? Todd wished he could just drop dead, right there.
“I thought it was enough to just have passion for the club,” Neil continued, “But it’s not enough if it’s misdirected. I really thought he loved the poetry, Todd. I thought he would do something important with it. But maybe all we’re really good for is seducing girls, and I’ve just been fooling myself.” Neil shook his head sadly. “Ah well. It was a nice dream while it lasted.”
Todd found himself stepping closer, until he was kneeling right beside Neil’s chair. The heat radiating from Neil’s bare skin was so warm that Todd had to take his coat off. It crumpled loosely around his legs.
Neil looked at Todd sideways, and his face softened when he saw him kneeling there. His anger seemed to have evaporated, leaving only that tinge of melancholy Todd had been noticing more and more. Neil laid his head on the desk, resting his cheek on his arms. With a half-hearted smile, he said, “I suppose you’ll be glad to see the school go co-ed. That redhead, Gloria, is great-looking, isn’t she? I bet Charlie’d set you up if you’re interested.”
“Well...” Todd smiled as if considering it. It’s not like they’d never joked about girls before. But for some reason, after the meeting, it didn’t seem funny anymore. Here in the dark, with the moonlight streaking Neil’s hair silver, Todd had trouble remembering what anyone else had ever looked like. Todd shook his head. “She’s really not my type.”
“Oh?” Neil sat up abruptly and turned to face him. “Too bad for Gloria.” Although his tone was quiet and casual as ever, he suddenly seemed...nervous? Todd hadn’t seen him look like that since that day of his audition. “So, what is your type? I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he whispered.
For once in his life, Todd knew exactly what he wanted to say. “Walt Whitman.”
Neil stared at him. For once in his life, he seemed to be at a loss for words. But as always, he was a man of action. Neil grabbed Todd’s face in his hands and kissed him. Todd responded immediately, pulling Neil down to meet him on the ground. He kissed Neil so desperately he thought he might pass out, running his hands through his hair and down his smooth back. Todd deepened the kiss and felt Neil sigh beneath his fingers. Todd wasn’t used to being good at anything. Anything . This was almost too much for him to take. He pulled back suddenly to take a breath. Neil’s eyes were still closed, his dark lashes casting shadows on his cheek. He smiled and his dimple appeared. Todd couldn’t help himself. He kissed the dimple, and then the little mole on Neil’s jaw that he’d always been in love with, just for good measure.
Neil opened his eyes and rubbed his chin. “You think I could grow a beard like his?”
Todd laughed, louder than he meant to. “ No .” They both looked at the door to see if anyone had heard. All was silent. They grinned back at each other. “Are you...surprised?”
Neil gently brushed the hair out of Todd’s eyes and smiled sheepishly. “Yes, actually.” He leaned forward to kiss Todd’s neck and Todd held him closer, almost faint with bliss. “But you always surprise me.” His voice was muffled. “How long have you known you wanted to?”
He had no idea how to pinpoint it. Had it been since they’d met? Or only after they’d become friends? Or maybe…
“Um, the day you told me you wanted to audition for the play. Maybe earlier. But that’s when I knew for sure.”
Neil smiled into his neck, teeth grazing his skin. Todd realized with a blush he would absolutely be wearing a turtleneck tomorrow. “I’ve got you beat there.” Neil laughed. “I’ve wanted to kiss you since you shook my hand at orientation. You’ve got one hell of a grip.”
Todd rolled his eyes. “You’re full of it. You barely gave me a second look the first week we were roommates. Why would you? Even I couldn’t stand myself.”
“You dummy.” Neil pulled back to look Todd dead in the eyes, as warm and sincere as he’d ever been, and somehow so filled with want. To think, he’d made Neil Perry look like that . “I’ve always believed in you. From day one.”
It was too easy for Todd to lean in to kiss him again. But when Neil leaned in? That was poetry.