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The Lightning In The Collied Night

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You are comforting me again. 

I am curled up in the closet beneath the coats and pants, a pair of boots squashed against my thigh. I don’t know why this small enclosed space feels safer than the world outside (a warm little prison - perhaps it reminds me of you?) but there are times when I cannot think straight, when the memories and the nightmares and the feeling of my own body are so insufferable that the only place I can think to be is somewhere dark and cramped and confined.

You comfort me, and you should not have to.

Once I ruled worlds and now I am (weak weak weak) hiding in this closet because I cannot stand the thing I have become. There is no reason I should feel this way.

“John,” you say, and I -

I detest the way your voice makes me feel, how it curls inside me like evening fire, warm and orange (small and safe and yours, as though I am helpless, as though I am incapable of saving myself).

“John, it’s alright. I’m here.”

You’re here, 

you’re here

I know you’re here. And knowing doesn’t help.

(It’s remembering when you weren’t here that eats away at me, that gnaws at me, that crawls into my dreams insect-like and many-legged, knowing that someday you will be gone, either dead or -

or, more likely, that you have come to your senses and realized that a broken, mutilated shard of an antagonistic god is the most unreasonable thing to try to save, that all I have to give is pain and regret, that I am not worth,

not worth,

not worth you.)

“Get away from me, Arthur.” Why is it when you try to help me I lash out, I stab, I bite and claw and gouge - I cannot stop myself from pushing you away.

“No.”

No. No? No, you ridiculous human, you self-destructive lunatic, you queer little thing - why is it that you cannot resist tempting pain, seeking retribution? It is something I will never understand about you -

(and yet it is the first thing I think when I think about you - your claws and teeth made not out of keratin and bone but mettle and tenacity - the way you do not give up, give in, the way you keep fighting even when there is no hope). 

“Leave me alone. I can deal with this myself.”

“You don’t need to, John.” 

You reach out and pull my hand gently away from the marks I have been scoring into my arms. Sometimes I try to claw my way out of this confusing human body, all its pain and strange thoughts. My mind never used to work this way, simultaneously linear and muddled, unable to grasp one thought from the next.

You prise my clenched fingers with that tender firmness I have come to expect from you. 

“You’re not alone, darling.” 

Maybe there is a word for the way I feel when you say things like that. Maybe someday I’ll read it in a book and think, ah, this is the phrase for the magic you hold over me - but for now it is only a swirling within my stomach, an ache within my chest, a tension within my fingers. 

“When we were young,” you say abruptly, “Peter’s uncle was the only man we knew with a phonograph.” 

This comes out of nowhere, unprompted. I am so caught off guard that my train of thought stutters to a halt. 

“This was long before the days when you could find them in every other home,” you continue. “Peter’s uncle was a strict, austere businessman who you rarely caught smiling, the kind of man who lived his life in a series of checklists and rules. 

“I don’t know if the phonograph was a gift or perhaps some strange impulse-purchase, but one day we came to visit and he insisted on showing it off. I’d never seen him like that before, with this bounce in his step, as though another man had taken his place. He played a record - the sound was scratchy and atrocious, you would not believe - but we were all very taken by it. Marvelous, he kept saying. He even danced a little. It was like seeing a statue come to life. Peter and I kept staring at one another in complete bewilderment.

“After that, we’d run over to his uncle’s home as often as we could - these were the days when very young children ran about the streets without any regard - and he never minded us playing records. I remember sitting inches away as it played the same songs over and over. That was the first time I really understood music in that manner, the way it has its own… well, soul I suppose is the right word, although that’s not what I would have called it.

“Music always helped when… When things were difficult.”

I stare in silent bemusement. You never talk like this without my provocation. (As of late I have tried not to ask these sorts of questions. Too often those discussions have led to the sort of bickering that ends in painful words.) I have no idea why you might bring up the past now, in this dark moment.

You curl your fingers around mine. “Do you trust me?”

I blink. “I - What?”

You tilt your head, waiting. 

“I… Yes, Arthur. Of course.”

“Good. Come on, then.”

“What?”

You stand up, pulling me with you. I’m larger and heavier than you (you never really properly recovered from our isolation in the Dreamlands; even now you struggle to gain weight no matter how often I make you eat), so after a moment I acquiesce.

“Arthur…”

“Just trust me.” 

You pull me from the darkness, pull me from my darkness (the way you always do), and you keep your hand in mine -

(our fingers intertwine, and I try not to think too hard about how right that feels,

the way your bones and my bones thread together,

this simple and beautiful thing). 

Your other hand brushes the doorway, the walls as you guide us down the hallway (keeping your eyes open out of habit), but you’ve memorized every step in this apartment and the touch of your hand is more reflex than necessity.

In the sitting room you tell me to wait. Apprehensive, I watch as you guide yourself to the phonograph, ghosting your fingers along the furniture, and put on a record. I don’t know why we’re listening to music at two in the morning but it’s such a novel experience that I don’t complain. 

Soft, low jazz pours out like liquid silk - I like this genre best -

(although my favorite music is yours, always yours - whenever you play it is as though I am somewhere else, as though I am no longer trapped in this finite body, as though we are beyond all things sublunary and corporeal.) 

You smile, eyes closed, listening - and the way the shadows paint your face - my breath catches. It has been months since we separated from one another and yet your face still catches me off guard, all its nuance and subtlety. 

“Will you dance with me?”

I tense. “Dance? Why?”

You laugh softly. “Trust me,” you repeat. 

I know what dancing is - obviously I know what it is - I’ve seen others do it. I’ve seen you do it, very occasionally, when you think I’m not looking. 

(Sometimes we’ll have a record on while you cook (you’ve been teaching me; I want to learn; I want to make sure you eat enough and that you enjoy it) and you’ll do a little step, or a spin, or move your hands back and forth, just for a moment. I am always entranced by these movements of grace and deftness, as you are otherwise a creature of pragmatism and functionality.)

You’ve never asked me to join. 

“I don’t know how.”

You walk over and take my hand - that perfect thread - and look in my direction. Our eyes don’t meet but I know you can see me, in your own way.

(The way you tilt your head when I walk into a room, the way you know me by the measure of my footsteps, by the cadence of my breath, and how you brush your fingers along my arm and smooth down its fine hairs;

lingering

on the slight raised mole on my left arm, circling, reading the flaws of me)

“Don’t worry, John. I’ve got you.”

And you do. You do.

You lead (the palm of your hand against my lower back, other hand raised, entangled in mine), which might look strange to any outsider (I’m a head taller than you), and perhaps I should find it abhorrent but instead I enjoy the way you direct me, the confidence in your steps.

“I step forward - here - and you step back - there. No, don’t pull back from me, it’s sort of - you push against my hand, not hard. Your body listens to mine, like this -”

I’m clumsy and awkward, and immediate rage wells up within me.

“This is stupid, Arthur.”

Patience, John.”

I glower, not that you can tell. But I don’t pull away. 

“Listen to my body.”

“I don’t know what that means, Arthur.”

You chuckle. “I know. But you will. Just listen.”

I take in a breath the way you’ve shown me, when the rage threatens to overtake me. In, one-two-three, out, four-five-six. In and out until I am not angry anymore.

(It’s getting easier, day by day.)

We go slow. Step by step. After a few minutes the tension begins to leave my back, my arms. I watch your feet, trying to mirror your steps, but I find that it’s easier to respond to the push and pull of your muscles and bones. Is that what you mean by listening? 

(Our bodies so close)

(Our bodies so close; the way we were once together, the way we can never be again)

“Very lovely,” you say, and the approval in your voice sets something simmering inside me. “Just like that.”

(I imagine you saying that in another context, maybe breathless, maybe whispered.)

“Now let’s try a spin.”

“A what?”

“Like this - I’ll lead. Hold your arm up, here.”

You spin under my arm - hands still touching - once and then again. I realize I’m smiling.

“There,” you say. “That wasn’t so hard.”

“I don’t think I’m doing it right.”

“Then perhaps we’d best try again.”

We practice the moves several times, and eventually I am brave enough to spin underneath your arm. My legs tangle and I stumble. You laugh, but the laugh is not cruel. I find myself laughing with you.

The song changes to something faster. You show me how to step in time with the count, how to move in time with the rhythm.

“Don’t hold yourself so stiffly,” you chide. “This isn’t a waltz.”

“What should I be doing, Arthur?” I don’t mean to sound so childishly petulant.

“Loosen your shoulders and knees. Go on, shake it out.”

What?”

“Like this.” You shimmy your body against mine.

“I’m not doing that.”

“Why?”

“It’s… undignified.”

You bark out a surprised laugh. “Who’s going to see you?”

“Well…”

“Come on, John. Trust me.” 

I roll my eyes and growl out a sigh, and god help me, I shimmy.

Your smile is brilliant even in the moonlit apartment. 

“Better,” you say. I wish you could always sound like that, the way happiness spills out of your mouth, the sound of your delight and gaiety.

The speed of the music throws me off but I’m getting better, I think. At least I’m not tripping over your feet as much. 

You spin under my arms, directing me. I find it is not so hard to follow these kinds of directions, because 

we are doing this 

     together, 

we are figuring this out 

     together. 

I’m a little breathless when the song ends. I’d never had to exercise before (the necessary upkeep on these human bodies is ludicrous), never had muscles to maintain, never had joints that crack with disuse, or shoulders that bunch with tension.

Some days we go for long walks in the city; I ask questions and you answer (I have come to enjoy not knowing things, and the way you describe them to me), and I like the way you keep your arm threaded through mine as I guide you (I stare down anyone who seems as though they might say something; they take one look at my face and know that I am not someone to fuck with).

(Sometimes I go walking without you, late at night while you sleep. I find sleep a strange and awful experience; falling unconscious, no control, dreams and (nightmares nightmares nightmares) waking disoriented and afraid. At night in the city I walk and walk until my legs ache with pain and return to collapse on the bed next to you.) 

Other than these excursions I exercise very little.

“Do you want to sit down?”

I’m tired but it’s not worth losing contact with you. We spend so little time touching (after all the time we spent sharing the same body perhaps this makes sense; you need space) but I have come to miss it, miss your proximity. Rarely do you reach out to me -

(When I am brooding and in pain I wonder if you don’t want to touch me, that perhaps you don’t like it. But that...doesn’t sound right.

Perhaps it is that you don’t want to hurt me, or frighten me. And at first it did unnerve me. This body - it hasn’t been how I thought it would be. At first it was so much…)

(But I haven’t felt calm like this in such a long time, and you are, 

you are, 

you are in my arms -)

“I’m alright,” I say instead. 

“Alright,” you agree, and we dance. 

When we dance, I don’t think about my body with anger and frustration. I don’t think about its limitations or its flaws.

No, I am thinking -

I am thinking about the way our bodies fit together. The way my fingers (large, callused, dark) fit around yours (long, thin, strong), your leg pressed against mine (the strength in your quadriceps), your hand on my lower back (warm, solid), and when I breathe the smell of your hair and neck floods me (book leather, the cedarwood of your soap, that musky scent that is yours and yours alone), and you feel, 

you feel, 

you feel right.

The song changes to something slow - a woman croons for her lost lover - and you draw me closer, resting your face against my chest. 

“How’re you feeling?” you ask.

(I am feeling -

I am feeling that I would do this all again, everything, every horrible moment, if it meant it led to this - that perhaps there will come a time when I do not feel trapped within this body, that I even might enjoy it, that I could enjoy it with you - that maybe there is a future beyond this moment that I cannot see, and that perhaps we can find that future together -)

“Fine,” I say instead.

“John.” You grip me tighter, tilting your head up. Your eyes are dark in the shadows of the night. “You don’t have to lie to me.”

“I…” I sigh. “I will be fine. I think.”

“It’s alright if you’re not.”

“I know, Arthur.”

I hesitate, trying to figure out the right way to say this. “Thank you for this - for the… the dancing. And for… everything else.”

“You don’t have to thank me, John. That’s not why I’m doing this.”

“I know, but - I need to say it. For me.”

“Alright. You know I’m here if you need to talk. Always.”

“Always is a long time, Arthur.”

“However long you want me around, then.”

“If anything it’ll be you who tires of me first. I’m not exactly a joy to be around.”

Your tone turns serious, firm. “I thought we agreed you’d stop saying things like that.”

“I… Alright. I’m sorry -”

“You don’t need to apologize. Anyway,” your voice lightens, “I don’t think I could ever get bored of you. It’s much too entertaining teaching you how to do things.”

I laugh. “Ah, so are those the roles we’ve arrived at - teacher and pupil? Seems like a bit of a power imbalance.”

“Well. Perhaps I’m being too arrogant, as if you’ve never taught me anything.  As if there’s nothing you have left to show me.”

“I can think of a few things.” I cannot stop the heat that curls in my voice. 

You make a move and I think for a moment you mean to kiss me, but you hesitate and pull back -

(I haven’t forgotten when you did kiss me once, not so long ago, after dinner when there was wine and I was reading a book out loud to you and you suddenly leaned over and then your lips were on mine (warm and plush and soft) and I froze. I did not know how to react. You pulled back, and I didn’t know your expression well enough - were you hurt? embarrassed? sad? - to interpret how you felt. You cleared your throat and lay back, a little flushed, and downed the rest of your wine before telling me to continue. We did not ever speak of it.)

(And there have been other times, other kisses (not on my mouth) - once on my cheek after I’d gone for a long walk and you’d started to worry, and several times you have brushed my forehead gently before we sleep (and sleep is all we do, and for a time that was all I wanted, but now there is your body and my body and they fit together like this, while we dance), and even once you kissed the knuckles of my hand when I brushed away your nightmare tears.)

“Can I lead?” I didn’t realize I meant to speak before the words are out of my mouth.

You look startled, just for a moment. “Do you want me to show you the steps?”

“I was watching you. I think I can figure it out.”

“It’s not as easy as it looks.”

“I’m not blind, Arthur.” 

Perhaps to someone else that would seem cruel but you give a snort of laughter, and then both of us are laughing, the amusement moving between our bodies. I like the way your ribcage feels under my hand when you gasp. 

“Alright, Anna Pavlova, show me your moves.”

I roll my eyes and take the position you held - hand up, the other on your lower back (your hand on my arm) - and I find the count in the rhythm (one two three four five six) and try the steps you showed (left foot leading this time). 

(It’s harder than it looks, but you don’t need the satisfaction of being right.)

I’m trying not to watch my feet, trying not to trip over you, feeling oddly nervous. Yet still I am smiling. Isn’t that strange?

“You’re not terrible,” you say, teasing. “We haven’t knocked over a lamp yet, in any case. I’d call that a success.”

“It can’t be that hard if -”

“What? If the blind man can do it?”

“Exactly.”

“You are such a prick sometimes.” Only you aren’t upset (I know that grin, mischievous and sly; it is perhaps my favorite expression). I press you closer.

“I think you prefer me that way.”

“A prick?”

“Assertive.”

Imputent is a better word for it.”

I grin, wolfish. “Bringing out the grievous insults tonight, I see. Well, go on. What else have you got for me?”

“Bellicose. Quarrelsome. Disputatious. Imperious, when you’re feeling particularly despotic.”

“Someone’s been reading you too much Shakespeare.”

You’re the one with the fascination with Othello. Didn’t you give a speech the other day about how Iago was really just in love with Othello and hated him for it?”

“Perhaps it’s time to switch to Hemingway. You need a less verbose vocabulary”

“You would like that awful man. Straight and to the point. No nuance, John.”

“I prefer it to all that exhaustive Shakespearean pussyfooting. Just say what you need to say and be done with it.”

Pussyfooting.” You’re laughing. 

“I prefer directness,” I murmur.

Your hips sway, your spine warm with perspiration, your cheeks flushed, and I decide -

I decide -

I decide then.

And I kiss you.

And we are still dancing.

There is no jarring transition, no moment in which everything stops -

There is the smooth feeling of your hand slipping up my arm, holding my face, your breath on my lips, the warm closeness of you, the incline of your spine as you press into me, and you - 

and you make this noise that I’ve never heard before, this soft sound that ripples through every atom in my body, and how (can I make you do that again?) are you made only of flesh and bone, there is so much, so much more, there is poetry in the sound of your voice and the taste of your mouth -

I am quickly losing my train of thought.

(Your hand on my face, 

     your hand, 

     on my face

your hand with its long strong fingers, and yesterday I watched you play piano)

The feeling of your spine curving into me, against me, the way your whole body curves and shapes against me, the tension in your lower back underneath my palm; I slide my hand up and you make that sound again.

(And I want, and I want -

What do I want? 

I’ve never done this before

Not like this

Not in this strange human body

Not in this finite, awkward contraption of flesh and bone and anxiety

I’ve never had to think of sex in a linear way (beginning-middle-end)

(Is that what we’re doing? What we’re going to do?)

Is that what I want to do?

I think so. I think so.)

“John,” you whisper against my lips, and 

god I didn’t know that you could sound like that. 

I didn’t know my name could sound like that. 

I want you to say my name like that over and over and over until it is a litany, a prayer, an incantation, and oh god I am spiraling.

You pull away, just a little.

“John? Are you alright?”

I… Am I? Am I alright?

I realize we are no longer dancing. My hand is tangled in your hair. I am panting and vertiginous (fucking Shakespeare).

“... Yes,” I say slowly. My tongue feels strange. “I think so.”

You look skeptical. “We should stop.”

No. No, I… I’m alright. I promise.”

“If you don’t want -”

Arthur.”

“No, I - you were hiding in the closet an hour ago, this isn’t a good idea -”

“Arthur.” I tilt your head up; I want you to know that I am looking at you. I breathe slowly to steady myself. “You think this is the only time I’ve wanted this?”

“Well I - you didn’t. Before, that night - I shouldn’t have kissed you. I’m sorry, I -”

I kiss you, because you are so maddening and -

I have never been especially good with words. 

(And you taste sweet, which is strange, but it reminds me of the way you smell, something indefinable and yours, and I drag my tongue along the bottom of your teeth, feeling their sharpness, I nip at you and you make that sound (it is quickly becoming my favorite), and then there’s this

shift in your posture

I think you’re finally getting it

that this is not just some moment of weakness,

that while I have nightmares I also have dreams,

and in them it is you I see.)

I break away, panting. “Shall you lead, or I?”

A laugh bursts out of you, surprised and a little hysterical. “Whatever you’d like, darling.”

I hum. “Why do you do that?”

“Do - what?”

“Call me that.”

“Oh. I… I don’t know. It just feels right, I suppose.”

“Feels right,” I echo, and then I kiss you. I like the way you melt, the way you tense in some places, relax in others. There are so many new things to learn about you, to learn about myself, and that is a beautiful thing.

Somewhere far, far away the music still plays, and the night tilts towards dawn, and the shadows move across our entangled bodies. 

 

 

There are a thousand dances we will do -

     this is just one -

Sometimes you might know the steps, or sometimes I.

But I think we can figure it out

    together.

I understand that things won’t always be like this, beautiful and soft. This is just a moment, just a temporary reprieve. I know that I will continue to fight myself - 

No. 

     No, not fight myself, fight for myself, for everything that I am worth. 

Arthur, we have crossed worlds and fought gods, and lost each other and found each other, we have cried and laughed and quarreled and loved, and here we are.

Here we are. 

     So what do you say, Arthur -

     Will you dance with me?