“Be not angered, Mademoiselle; this will be the last of my importunities.
When I began to love you, how far was I from foreseeing all the afflictions I was storing up for myself! At the outset the only one I felt was that of a love without hope, which reason given time can overcome; next I learned of a greater one in the pangs of your displeasure; and now I am experiencing the cruellest of all, in the sentiment of your own sufferings. O Julie! I observe with bitterness that my complaints trouble your peace of mind. You maintain an invincible silence, but everything discloses your hidden agitations to my observant heart. Your eyes become somber, distracted, downcast; occasional wandering glances alight on me; your bright color fades; an unwonted pallor comes over your cheeks; gaiety abandons you; a mortal sadness overwhelms you; and only the unfailing gentleness of your soul shields you from a touch of ill temper.” – from Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jaques Rousseau.
It was during their usual meetings that Meeks read this passage from Julie, or the new Heloise: the poets wondered why he had decided to read this passage, which, not being part of Neil's anthology, must have taken it by himself; could it be possible that Meeks was suffering for a heartache?
They all asked, everyone except Todd. Fatigue had clouded his vision, and the soft tone of voice in which Meeks had read the excerpt from the letter had made all his tightest muscles relax, as if he were meditating. Charlie, sitting in front of him, had noticed that his introverted friend was falling asleep and sent confused eye signals to Neil, who – now used to seeing him fuss that way – quickly understood and turned to Todd. He moved so that, if he wanted, Todd could lean on his shoulder comfortably.
"Oh Julia!", Meeks said, raising his voice, adapting it better to the light drama of the words, and stimulating Todd's brain a moment before it shut down. He just the time to see where he was and what was happening, before his eye noticed that Neil was closer, and his tiredness noticed that he was the ideal distance to sleep on. Todd would have hesitated to use it as a mattress, his tiredness, however, didn’t, and at the moment it was it who had the upper hand. He leaned back, and Todd felt his senses being invaded by his scent and warmth. It didn't take long for his eyelids to finally close – Meeks didn't have time to finish reading, that Todd was already gone in the realm of dreams.
Neil was used to seeing him tired, half asleep; for the others it was the first time. Todd had never fallen asleep there with them in the cave. Initially, they weren't sure he was actually sleeping, and said nothing, only focusing on Meeks' piece, covering him with questions from head to toe. After a few minutes, Todd was still asleep.
“But is he really sleeping?” Meeks asked. "Or is he feeling sick?".
“No, no. He’s sleeping”, Neil replied.
“Wow. That's why he didn't ask any questions”.
"His face is so relaxed, how cute", Charlie commented. "If only Cameron was that adorable while he sleeps, but no, he always has his mouth half open as if his jaw was dislocated".
Normally Neil would have laughed and then scolded Charlie a little, perhaps pointing out that in the night he could turn his bed into a full-fledged battlefield – he wasn't an angel either. But something stopped him, a feeling he couldn’t name. He gave a fleeting glance at Todd. He wasn't used to others seeing him sleeping; the vision of him asleep, so peaceful and innocent, was only his. Because of practical reasons: they shared a room. But Neil loved those moments. Todd always fell asleep first, he used to go to bed quite early, when Neil was still studying – he needed to rest more than he needed to study, he had a good memory. In those moments, Neil felt like he could have looked at him forever. He was satiated with those moments, satiated that desire which – he thought – would remain unexpressed for the rest of his life.
Recently, however, he had noticed a change in Todd. He knew that he was the only one who noticed it, behind the wall of his silence. Only he could’ve seen that Todd was hiding an agitation during the day. He had spent so many nights watching him that every single muscle was engraved into his memory, and he noticed when they were relaxed or when they were in tension. Todd had always been introverted and tense around other people, but with the poets he had learned to relax. It was only recently, though, that Neil felt he was moving backwards; after all the effort he had made to open up to them, he was retracing his steps, and Neil couldn’t figure out why. What was troubling him? Was it something they said? Did something happen that he was unaware of?
It didn't take long for Neil to notice that Todd wasn't going back to his hole at all. He kept being a little more at ease with the others, falling asleep in the cave was a univocal sign. If this lightened Neil's mind, it didn't do it for long. The latent tension that Neil had felt, and which he had later denied the existence of, had grown; anyone with an enough keen eye could have confirmed that Todd couldn't relax around him.
The more Neil tried to drive away these haunting thoughts, believing that they were dictated by the combination of his insecurities and his desire, the more they grew tangible – as if more Neil avoided them, the more the crack widened.
This tension between the two was very fluctuating. Sometimes, it grew so sour that Todd couldn’t look at him in the eyes, while Neil held his breath under the weight of the air becoming thick and breathable; other times, on the other hand, it loosened until it disappeared, and the air between the two returned to be as light as it once was. It was in a moment of light-heartedness like this that Neil, directed to rehearsals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, asked Todd to walk with him. He immediately noticed the mistake: he felt in Todd's eyes the tension that would’ve followed them along the journey, and he quickly had a first taste of it in the cautious and fearful way in which he accepted the invitation.
The journey was a disaster: they were unable to start any genuine conversation, everything became forced and woody, and any contact – physical or not – was a source of extreme embarrassment. Neil immediately regretted making such a risky move, and was completely terrified by the thought that Todd might have stop at the theatre to watch him acting.
Once they arrived at the theatre, both relieved by the idea of having to part ways, Neil's fellow actors, as soon as they spotted Todd, invited him to stay behind the scenes, and for a few moments, they both believed to be living in a nightmare.
Todd reluctantly surrendered to his friends' insistence, even though Neil tried to provide him excuses not to stay; in the end, he pleasantly discovered that it wasn’t a bad choice. Neil did his best to forget that Todd was watching him, and Todd kept himself busy by helping out behind the scenes, quickly becoming helpful and likeable to everyone. He was silent, as everyone had to be behind the scenes, but there was a certain dexterity in his silence, dictated by habit, that made him more expressive. He knew how to communicate without words clearly and was very good at reassuring and encouraging. Neil, on the other hand, on the stage, shone with a new, intense, overwhelming light; he was a rising star; his passion overwhelmed the rest of the actors, and not just them: even Todd, like a satellite, was forced to reflect his light. While seeing him shine like that, Todd's agitation calmed down; at the end of the rehearsals, the two had found their balance again; and went back to the Welton Academy.
Todd's participation in rehearsals for the show became habitual and soon those moments became therapeutic sessions for them. Their tension had faded to the point where it was almost entirely gone: they seemed, if possible, closer than they had ever been.
“I don’t want to go back to Hellton now,” Neil said, after one of the sessions was over.
“Yeah, me neither. Have you ever been to that lake near the highway’s forest? ".
“Oh, then we could go there! It’s a bit far away, but it’s peaceful and pleasant. And during this season it's gorgeous!” Todd suggested, with a bright light shining in his eyes.
Neil felt his chest swell with enthusiasm, his face lit up by the light in Todd's eyes.
"Sure", he replied with an uncertainty that took away all meaning of the word, but it didn't matter. Todd already heard the answer in his expression. They went to the small lake, and calling it that was perhaps excessive: it was just a pond, but it was almost completely surrounded by the woods, except for a small crack that allowed you to see a small sneak of the view from a few meters away. Todd moved around with a certain security, as if he had gone in that remote place several times in the past; he seemed to recognize the trees, as if they were his map; he moved naturally, devoid of any awkwardness, despite the inclination and the imperfections of the ground. Neil was absorbed by the multitude of colours: intense yellows; greens, some magnetic, others dull and sick; deep reds; an incredible variety of oranges, of all shades. The light that filtered from the branches of the tall trees created pleasant contrasts: the bright colours of the leaves predominated on the sky and on the ground, interrupted only by the dark bodies of the trees. Some lucky sunrays managed to find an outlet among the leaves, gently moved by the barely perceptible wind, and made every surface, every texture of nature, visible: the dark columns of the trunks looked like they were embroidered, painted with an expressive trait from the capable Artists; the random splashes of colour of the leaves now revealed their maniacal attention to detail; every tiny rib, like the thread of a needle, created intricate chiaroscuro patterns that Neil's eye could have observed all day long, if he hadn't had to catch up with Todd's sure-footed step, gently squeezing dry leaves and twigs on the ground, reminding him with their sounds of how fast he needed to be – and that he was in danger of being left behind. When Todd reached the point where the topsoil dissolved to make way to hard rock, he slowed down. Neil looked around in amazement: the small crack from which he previously peeked had opened, like a curtain, on the spectacle of the thousand colours reflected on the mirror of the water below, made even more intense by the strong, warm light that was no longer filtered by the trees and that, on the other hand, was reflected onto them from the pond, perfectly still. The game of light and colour absorbed him so much that he didn’t notice to be standing on a rock that elevated them from the water level, until Todd, after checking that the friend had followed him, sat down and jumped off, falling on his feet on the damp soil near the edge of the pond. Neil followed him and did the same, falling next to his friend who immediately offered him his support. The fresh smell of the trees, the air humid and stagnant, the scent of the dry leaves mixed with each other, intoxicating his senses with the smell of autumn that, at that magical place, was so intense that any other perfume wouldn’t be able to counter it, and would be forced to take part in it, contributing with its uniqueness. For a second, this was his only thought: Neil was so close to him that he could feel the delicate, almost imperceptible, fragrance of Todd blending with the one of the environment. Even his body, from that distance, merged with the place surrounding him; his hair seemed to be lighter, tinged with all the colourful hues of the leaves, and water illuminated him from the bottom giving his skin an intense and orange reflection, mitigated from the usual, soft skin colour. In that moment, all the sounds Neil had heard up until then – the leaves and twigs crunching, the different animals with their singing and croaking, the trees blowing in the wind, which, in turn, hissed steadily and serene – they seemed to have stopped, as if waiting for something big, something like an event of enormous impact that could be able to change the whole world.
Neil, still very close to Todd, was completely absorbed by his pale eyes, as if they casted a spell on him. They were the colour of the water and seemed to share with it the property: like mirrors, they reflected the surroundings, but eyes – the “mirrors of the soul” – made the world seem shallow, almost fictional. It hides the mysteries, the secrets of life itself, you see its complexity and its incredible harmony; but there was a greater depth in Todd's eyes, they seemed to contain a truth that didn’t belong to this confused, noisy universe. Like a black hole, he was at his mercy. If there was peace for a moment, it didn't take long before Neil's world started stirring in front of such depth, as if he were in the abyss, crushed by the pressure of the water above him. And within him there was chaos: the feelings of inadequacy before such perfection twisted his intestines and mixed themselves with the desire that was growing in his chest. At the same time, he felt good and bad, hungry and full, light and heavy.
Both leaned imperceptibly toward the other. In the art history, only few of the greatest masters were able to express that absence that expressed so much, that emptiness capable of containing everything – Michelangelo in The Creation of Adam, Canova in Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss. But none of them had managed to instil, in their figures and their absences, the tension of that moment. The loves of art are meant to be seen, because art is expression, it is a feeling that takes shape: none of this could express the silence, the “whisper” that characterized their feeling. Theirs was a kingdom – in the words of Giovanni Dall'Orto – that there is and there is not, that does not exist, because it does not have the right to surface in reality: it is the kingdom of the unspoken, of euphemisms, of mince words, of hidden faces.
Maybe it was good, after all, that a noisy bug had passed by, causing them to snap back. Both immediately acted as if that brief moment, which seemed to have lasted an eternity, hadn't happened. They engaged in a light conversation and pledged to pretend it was genuine until the lie become the truth, and they both went back to chatting like the two good friends they were.
So, after the habit of going together to rehearsals, Neil and Todd started spending an hour together at the pond. They brought things to do for the moments when they run out of things to talk about, and when the due date for a test was near, they brought the same books to study together. When they started to get the hang of it, Todd began to take his writings with him – poems, short prose stories, occasionally a few songs, and a few sketches here and there between pages and pages of words. Neil was dying to read everything, but he never talked about it, for fear that, by putting too much pressure, they might revive the tension that had existed between them until recently. Todd trusted him enough to have brought him to a remote and peaceful place, and let himself be watched as he composed his verses. Neil understood that this was an enormous level of intimacy for him; whatever curiosity he would have had, he would have ignored it and suppressed it for fear of losing everything.
The more time passed, the more they got used to their silence. If there was nothing to say to each other, it didn't matter: they didn't go to the pond to chat, to study or to compose, they went there to enjoy their company, silence was fine too. As much as Neil was used to seeing him sleep, the Welton Academy, with its swarming of boys and young men, wasn’t quiet enough for Neil to hear his breath. There, in that silent place, he had learned to pay attention to it. Their frequent silences, with time, began taking different connotations: the irregular breaths were the thoughtful and busy silences, the deep ones were a signal of recharge, the barely perceptible ones were those of tiredness, and so on. The more time they spent there, silent, the more their communication grew. To disturb the quiet of nature seemed, to them, an insult to it, now that their language was composed of glances, breathes and – if words were necessary – thin whispers.
The other poets had noticed that their relationship swung from pole to pole; from strong and sincere friendship to tension and discomfort, and then back to a relationship that didn't even need language to communicate. Was language not born to conquer women?
Some were tempted to ask questions, but in the end they opted to ignore it – they were glad they were close again now, the tension that was between them was strong enough to be felt by everyone in the group.
Charlie occasionally dared to ask Neil a few questions – generic things, like “what's up with Todd?”, or “did you do something interesting lately?”. Neil, however, revealed nothing of those afternoons, as if sharing them with someone could break the spell of their moments.
After having a busy week and tiring rehearsals, Neil took the opportunity of the afternoons to doze off. He laid down, unmade, and with one foot in the realm of dreams, next to Todd, who had already pulled out a piece of paper to write on. Seeing that his friend was about to fall asleep, he began to whisper some tunes he was working on, but Neil – who would have gladly appreciated the act, and desperately wanted to hear him sing something – was now too sleepy to notice.
“I don’t trust it all the way and I get confused / lost in your world, I drown / like a ship into the hurricane / like a fakir with a spike in the hand / make me play and I’ll forget everything / and if the night will come, give me a baba ganoush”.
When Neil woke up, about an hour later, Todd was still trying to fix his song. He stood still: Todd hadn't noticed him and was still whispering sweet words, trying to make them resonate with each other. He could see his back, hunched over the paper, and he could barely see his face. He decided to sit up, being careful not to make sudden movements or noises that would have distracted him. He leaned forward, hoping to see his face and the paper he was working on, with a slowness and care that revealed his fear of breaking the spell of the moment. Todd had to finish humming a line before he realized that Neil had woken up and was listening to him; he whirled around, like a child caught while disobeying an order, but he miscalculated distances. Their faces got so close that their noses could almost touch, and Todd found himself hoping he hadn't turned around, or that he hit his head by mistake – that would be awkward but funny, they would’ve laughed and then chatted. The same old story. But Todd felt that this time, that feeling would not be resolved as usual, repressed with the same intensity in which protests are suppressed in authoritarian regimes, drowned in the depths of the abyss of themselves, in the hope that it would never reappear to the surface. No, Todd knew that this time he was going to be overwhelmed, like a ship in the storm. He looked into Neil's eyes, hoping they would stop, but when he met his gaze, his desire prevailed over his preservation instinct, and he waited for him. Neil kissed him, and the moment he felt his lips pressing gently against his, Todd stopped thinking and doubting, his brain inebriated by the heat that had filled his chest, and threw his arms around Neil's neck, who wrapped him in his in return. As they laid on the ground, Todd made his arms slip between their chests, running his fingers through his hair and gently grabbing his neck. As if he caught the signal, Neil began kissing his neck. The moment he kissed him, Neil touched that part of Todd that had remained closed, like a mussel in its shell, but that he longed for someone to open it; now, like a starfish, made hungry by his desire, Neil had carried him out of his shell and consumed him, his voracity restrained only by fear and inexperience.
Todd let out a sudden moan, which brought him back from heaven to earth. Neil laid down next to him, and Todd was assaulted by terror. In such a vulnerable moment, he couldn't avoid that feeling – he tried to drown it inside him and lay down next to Neil, hugging him, hoping that he could bring him back to the moment before, free of any worries. In the breathless and awkward silence, his attempts to suppress that feeling had failed, causing him to cry and sob over Neil's body, who in response felt the world collapse on him.
He had it all wrong, he had ruined everything. He didn't know what Todd was crying for but, whatever the reason, he thought it was his fault. He had gone too far and he knew it, it was the thought that had stopped him for so long, but he did it anyway, trusting in the hope that, deep down, one can never know. In regard to the future one can only speculate, or fantasize. Neil had decided to seize the moment when Todd looked at him, as if waiting for him, thinking that his hopes and prayers they found the blessing of someone up there. What he had not been able to imagine before was that he could’ve lost him after realizing how much he truly wanted him.
Suddenly he understood how the Greeks could have believed in spoiled and revengeful gods. Fate’s cruel irony had just strongly punched him in the stomach.
“It feels wrong”, Todd mumbled between sobs. He could hear the absolute terror in his voice, which shattered it and made it fall on him like glass, in a thousand sharp pieces.
He opened his mouth and said nothing. His words hurt him deeply, but the way he had said them calmed him. He knew the feeling. He knew his fear. He said nothing, despite wanting to say words of comfort, because nothing came to his mind. He knew Todd, he knew that it was hard for him to go out against the world – he was more anxious than him for the fake letter that he had sent to Nolan himself. He just hugged him and sobbed, and held him tightly, as if to protect him from the world for a few minutes.
Only time, perhaps, could erode their pain.
“I-If I-I hadn't met you, I’d be...”, Todd tried to say between the sobs.
“You’d be happy?”
“No, but I’d b-believe I was”.
Back at Welton, they said nothing, and decided to pretend nothing had happened. But amidst the fear, the guilt and the pain, they couldn't. Todd stopped accompanying him to rehearsals and, of course, they stopped going to the pond.
The poets couldn't help but notice that something had happened, but no one had the courage to ask, for fear of making the situation worse. It was Charlie, alone – as always, after all – who took the initiative. He hunted down Neil as soon as he saw him alone, and tried to make him talk. After some blatant lies and denials, he honestly told him he couldn't talk about it.
“It's a private thing between me and him. I can't tell you, Charlie, it wouldn't be fair. Sorry”. Neil was his best friend, getting out of the conversation with just that wasn’t enough for him. He saw that his friend was broken in pieces, and that something inside him was eating him alive.
Charlie persisted a little longer, and Neil collapsed in tears under the pressure, saying nothing.
It took some time, but they managed to find a new balance. It was like Arthur Schopenhauer's hedgehog’s dilemma: “One cold winter's day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another.”.
Todd laughed, a little bitter, when he read this extract of Parerga und Paralipomena. For Schopenhauer, the right distance lies in good manners.
Was that their new balance? Courtesy, manners and white lies intertwined with a myriad of little distractions, to limit the huge amount of time they had, living in the same room?
After all, it's not a great idea to read philosophy books for a light distraction, Todd thought, avoiding answering his questions.
The day of Neil's debut came, slower than expected, and Keating took the poets and Chris to the theatre.
Todd was forced to see again the brilliant light that Neil emanated on the stage, and it overwhelmed him, along with all the emotions that he had felt the first time he had seen him acting on the stage. He couldn't take his eyes off of him, despite having seen the scene a million times. Initially, a sense of tranquillity pervaded him, the same one that had eased their tension months before. But the more Neil shone, the more people felt the need to highlight it, and noticing the people around, Todd became more aware of his pain. He felt a void pushing against his ribs, and that feelings of fear and desire that mingled together, and that at night made his inside twist.
When Neil got off the stage, between the compliments of the crowd, he looked for him. Todd had taken his eyes off him. When their eyes met again, Todd realized that something was wrong – he leaned to reach him, instinctively, but was pushed away by people's attentions. Moving with the group, he got closer, but didn’t have time to do anything before his father's hand, with a firm, violent grip, took him away from him. Neil didn’t return to Welton that night.
He hoped he would see him again in the morning, but he didn't come. Todd was at the mercy of unwarranted anxiety. He told himself that everything was okay and, tired of waiting for him, in the afternoon he headed to the lake, with his poetries.
It wasn’t autumn anymore: the smell of dry leaves, the noise of the branches, the weak light that leaked from the leaves had given way to the scent of snow, the silence of nature hibernating, the cold but intense light that equally illuminated the whole landscape. Todd loved winter; he liked the new, different spectacle he had before him.
He had always considered himself a cold person, due to his shyness. He didn't talk much to people; it was closed, sealed. His hard and unshakable coldness was like winter cold, like death. With these thoughts in mind, jumping down from the elevation with the familiarity that had characterized his relationship with that place, he found himself in front of Neil.
Neil was like spring. He was the only one who knew how to end his cold, bringing back heat, light, life. Every time he found it in front of him, he remembered how nothing is permanent: cold alternates with warmth, darkness can’t exist without light, death always corresponds to a life.
A weight was lifted from his heart.
Neil looked at him with surprise, he didn't expect to find him there, much less with that expression of relief on his face. He stood there for a moment, motionless in front of him – something about winter made him look even more beautiful; his eyes were filled with a other-worldly blue, that even the iced water of the pond could achieve while reflecting the sky; his nose and cheeks, red from the cold, were witnesses of his life, of his warmth. He stood out in harmony with the place, but at the same time it seemed like he could not come from there, from a place that, however enchanted, was cold and desolate. Neil was more concerned with admiring him than greeting him with their polite manners, and he remained in a trance until Todd threw his arms around his neck.
“You were amazing yesterday”, he said in a barely audible whisper. He was born to hear his low frequency. He smiled and wrapped his arms around his body, hoping not to make him uncomfortable. “Are you okay?”.
Neil loosened his hug.
“Yes, why?”, he replied.
Todd felt stupid for asking it. After all, he hadn't said anything to him the night before, it took only a glance and one of his habitual quarrels with his father to alarm him. However, he looked him in the eye, looking for a sign that it was the honest answer. Neil's lips tightened because of the lie as he was forced to face his gaze. He laughed a little to ease the conversation.
“It's okay, Todd, really. I was bothered by the discussion with my father yesterday, that's all”.
“Do you want to talk about it?”.
“No, it's okay. I don't care. He has nothing to tell me, either new or valuable”, he replied.
“You really don’t care about what your father orders you?”.
“I should be in school now”.
“What's that got to do with it? Did your father order it to you?”.
“Yes, but as you can see, I'm here anyway. Isn't that much better?” He said with a chuckle. Todd smiled.
He wanted to be like him, capable of rowing against the current, serene and smiling, as bright as the first spring sun. “Don’t you think you could be?”, echoed in his mind.
“Yes”, he replied. He couldn't say what question he answered. Maybe both.
He looked at Neil in the eyes, a little unsure. Neil stretched out like a rope. He approached him, and Neil followed him, trembling like a leaf, between cold and fear. They both kissed like two wounded animals, the pain of their first time still fresh in their memory. But this time, Todd knew it would be different, he wouldn't make the same mistake again, he wouldn't hurt Neil a second time. He would make his own the courage and strength with which Neil faced his own fears, and he would have overcame his insurmountable cliffs. Todd grabbed his face in one hand. Neil, however, took it and put it down, interrupting the moment. Todd's eyes widened as he felt the same terror that Neil had felt when he heard him crying, but he looked him and, in seeing the same pain he had felt before in Todd’s eyes, he smiled cautiously, aware that he could have relieved it.
“Does it still feel wrong?”, he asked in a trembling voice.
“I'm still scared”, Todd said in a whisper.
Neil smiled. “I didn't ask you that”.
“No. It doesn’t. But I'm still scared, so hold me tighter”.