“We are gathered today to witness the legal marriage of…”
Planning and executing the entire event in just the span of two months had probably been the most monumental undertaking Charles had ever attempted. When Martin first suggested it, he had vehemently rejected the idea, but with his grandmother’s condition becoming more uncertain as days went on, he finally agreed, hoping that her dreams of watching her son become a married man would be realized.
But nothing could have prepared him for the unrelenting whirlwind that took place. A tornado of sleepless nights, drawn-out phone calls with planners, photographers, and venue managers. When those two months were over, though, when Charles could look around the small room and the sparse audience, he was only filled with accomplishment. Past all the odds, they had done it. And when he glanced to the back of the room, where his own grandmother sat next to his soon to be grandmother-in-law, he could not keep a smile from his face.
They hadn’t been able to splurge too much, and so they had gone with the cheapest officiator available. The small, bald man stopped speaking for a bit, shuffled a few papers around, took a long sigh, and resumed again, with an emotionless, monotone voice. Charles glanced across and saw Martin’s piercing blue eyes directed at some point in the back of the room.
He followed his gaze and his eyes caught on what had enraptured Martin’s gaze: a small woman, lounging on a foldable plastic chair, scrolling at something on her phone. She took a deep yawn, sat back up a little in her chair, and caught Charles’s eyes. She gave him a wide smile, and something in his heart fell.
Martin looked back at him and there was something in his face, in his eyes, some deep empathy that made his heart even heavier. Charles’s eyes were wet. But he only took a deep breath and gave Martin a small smirk. He gestured with his head to the small woman, who took another large yawn.
“Your mom’s having fun,” he mouthed to Martin.
Martin immediately smiled and nodded, but that darkness in his eyes did not go away. They both glanced at the officiator, but from the large stack of papers on his podium, it seemed like they weren’t even halfway through the uninspired speech. The toneless voice had a strange nostalgic quality on Charles, and regardless of whether he wanted it to or not, his mind began to run through his life, playing it back to him like a movie.
He didn’t remember much of his high school years. Besides the fact that it was when he had first met Martin, it didn’t really mean much. He was timid, he didn’t have many friends, but he was a good student, and he believed that was pretty much all high school was for: being a good student. How they had met wasn’t monumentally interesting, either: one day, in the lunch line, they had both reached for the last slimy hotdog, and their hands had brushed. They had locked eyes then, staring for a few moments, and then Martin annoyingly swatted his hand away and swiped the food before briskly walking away.
And then Charles realized that Martin was actually in almost all of his classes, and so naturally they quickly became close friends. They were strikingly similar, too: neither of them had really had a true friend before, they were both the top of their class, and they both had an uncanny habit of shrinking into a small ball whenever addressed by a teacher.
They began to spend more and more time together, and when the summer months struck, they quickly traded phone numbers and spent countless days at the library studying or just browsing their common interest of old sci-fi novels, and sometimes, when Charles had convinced him to, alternating attending prayer meetings at Charles’ Catholic church and Martin’s Protestant one. And the rest of high school went on, and they became closer and closer until they were nearly inseparable. That kind of inseparable where many days Charles would waltz into Martin’s house unannounced and his mother would call out, “Charles, you’re late for dinner!”
Of course, it was the happiest either of them had ever been.
By sheer and utter coincidence, they ended up attending sister colleges not five miles away from one another. It was the first day of college when Charles realized something was wrong with him.
They had agreed to meet up at a small, crowded coffee shop in the nearby city and recount stories of crazy roommates and unrelenting professors. Charles arrived somewhat early, and so he chose a table outside near the street so Martin couldn’t miss him. He ordered a vanilla cappuccino and lounged back on the folding plastic chair, pulling out his phone and mindlessly scrolling through social media.
Charles glanced up and something in his heart fell. He could feel his heartbeat pump out of his chest, bouncing on the small wooden cross that hung from a thin thread around his neck.
It was Martin, but something about him was different. He wore a loose t-shirt and skinny jeans, and he had let his hair grow out, to the point where the long blonde locks fell over his eyes and obscured part of his face. Something was different.
“Uhhh...man, you good?” Martin sounded worried, and he took a seat beside Charles.
Charles straightened in his chair and put his phone away. “Uh--yea, yea, I’m good. What’s up?”
He did not know what he had felt, but he knew it was not natural. He was glad his skin was dark, or he knew Martin would be able to see the deep blush on his face.
That Christmas, he was home for the holidays, and his emotions were the most tangled they had ever been.
Constantly, whenever he and Martin met up, something about him had always seemed different. Charles could never put a finger on what it was, but it made him intensely aware of his heartbeat and it caused blood to rush up to his cheeks. He knew it was cliche, but he had no other words to describe it besides butterflies in his stomach. But he also knew this wasn’t what he felt. This was something you saw in the countless rom-com animes they loved to watch together, not--well, not in this situation.
But he wasn’t an idiot. He knew there was such a thing as a boy not liking girls, or a boy not just liking girls, but it had been drilled countless times in his childhood that such a thing was merely a farce, such a thing couldn’t actually exist.
But he could not stop himself from wondering.
At the dinner table, a few days before Christmas, he could not stop thinking about it, and his appetite was consequently nonexistent. Of course, his mother noticed.
“Honey, is something wrong?”
“No, no, nothing’s wrong. I’m fine, sorry.” He began to shovel down food. His mother did not press him anymore, and his family continued with their food.
“Well...nothing’s wrong,” he said quietly, nearly a whisper, “but, Ma, I was just wondering what you thought of gay people.”
It seemed like no one had heard his question. His entire family continued with their food, not batting an eye at his question. Well, this was probably better. He hadn’t really meant for that to come out. It just kind of did.
But his mother had heard, and she looked at him with a bite in her mouth, chewing slowly. A strange look had come over her face.
“...gay people, Charles?”
The ends of her mouth had twitched upwards slightly, and she squinted slightly. It was as if the question had slightly amused her, as if it was not worth any thought, as if she was answering a child.
And something deep inside of him fell, and he knew that he had his answer.
They were at the park.
Charles did not know why they were here. Martin had simply called him up, and they had driven here together, and now they were taking a walk by a small pond.
But he was ok with it. He could not explain what he felt, and even if he could, he refused to acknowledge it, but he did acknowledge the fact that standing next to Martin now, something heavy in his chest struggled to burst out. But it felt good. There was a strange warmth to it.
The sun was near setting, and it was at that time when long lines of red and pink stretched across the sky and bounced off of the water. The park was deserted, and the trees swayed in the strong wind that blew across the grass and made little ripples in the lake. It cut through Charles’s thin windbreaker, but he wasn’t that cold.
Martin stopped walking. Charles had been stuck in his own thoughts, and so he didn’t realize until a few steps later. He turned around and looked at Martin.
In the strong wind and the quiet rays of red and orange sun, Martin looked nothing like the timid, shy kid who loved to read sci-fi.
Charles swallowed and did not say a word.
Martin looked towards the cloudless sky and then back at him. The wind tousled his hair and pulled it away from his eyes. His blue irises were clear, and they sharply bore into Charles.
He could feel his heart pumping up through his chest, against the small wooden cross that hung from the thin thread around his neck.
Quickly, without giving Charles a second to think, Martin took a few sharp, balanced strides and closed the distance between them. He was a few inches taller than Charles, and so when he pushed himself up against his chest his nose met Charles’s forehead.
Both of their breaths came in ragged, short puffs. Then, Martin brought up his arms and wrapped them around Charles. He pulled him even closer, and he let his head fall and rest on Charles’s shoulder.
Martin sniffled. Charles could barely breathe.
“You...you good?” Martin asked it hesitantly. His voice sounded pained.
Charles choked and hacked some massless thing out of his throat.
“Yea, yea. Yea. I’m good.”
They spent the rest of the sunset walking the same trail, hand in hand.
But no matter what Charles told himself, whenever Martin would rub his thumb or trace his palm, he felt some deep dark thing in his chest bubble, and it slowly crawled up his spine and into his brain until all of his thoughts were as thick as oil.
They continued to visit the park, and everytime they went Charles became more and more comfortable lacing his fingers with Martin’s and pressing his lips to his and holding him quietly in the grass. They would spend hours just lying on their backs in the long grass, watching the sunset and clutching each other.
And then they began to daydream. They would talk back and forth and build a future, daydream about the house they would live in or the family they would have or how they’d style their bedrooms. They would run through countless iterations of the same scene, Martin mentioning a room he’d like to include and Charles changing it a little, and Martin adding detail until they had imagined every small corner of their reality.
Of course, they both knew it would never be real.
And every time Charles leaned over and whispered into Martin’s ear that he loved him, that black thing would come again, that guilt, and doubt, and fear, and darkness; and it would claw its way up to his chest and envelop the small wooden cross that hung by a thin thread around his neck and scratch at his throat until he could no longer breathe and he felt like he was drowning.
Years passed like this, and every year, Charles would visit home for the holidays, and every time, that darkness would come again.
Most days, at their small homemade altar, he would kneel and pray with his mother, but his prayers took a fervor that they never had before. They became winding mazes, dark tunnels of thought that once his mind had entered he could not leave; and he began to spend more and more time under the large cross that hung on the wall, his hands clasped together and sweat running down his face; and he would raise crazed eyes, as if he could look through the dingy white ceiling, through the night sky and into Heaven itself; and he would plead, he would let that thick dark inside of him grab his heart and wrench its way out, he would let it overcome his thoughts and words until his eyes were wet and his soul was heavy and his breath was ragged and he could do nothing but think about the small wooden cross that hung on the thin thread around his neck and let small tears roll down his face.
Am I a sinner, God? Am I a sinner? Am I going to Hell?
Years went by, and nothing changed.
And Charles did not know if he wanted something to change or not, but he knew that although he had learned to live with the darkness, it never really went away. It was always there, whenever Charles pressed himself to Martin or whenever they did anything as simple as talk.
And then, one day, a year before their eventual wedding, Charles faced it.
He was sitting on a couch in his parents’ house, visiting for the holidays. The TV was on, but he wasn’t really watching. And then his mother walked up to him.
There was a darkness in her eyes.
He stood up and looked at her. In her hands, his phone, and on his phone, a picture.
“Who is this man, Charles?”
He didn’t know how she got to that picture, or even how she got his phone, but he knew there was nothing he could say.
Afterward, he wouldn’t remember exactly what happened next, but his vision became red and his voice took on a tone that he had never used before in his life. His mother began to scream things at him, and he screamed right back, poisonous words that struck burning holes in each other, venom that brought them both down. He did not remember what he said exactly, but it wore him down, it made his eyes wet and his mind cloudy, and though his vision was blurry he could see the look in her eyes clearly, but it was not a look of hate or malice, it was not disdain or rage, it was a guilt, a guilt and a doubt and a oily darkness that overcame her mind and clogged her throat and drowned her and it was a darkness that Charles recognized so easily as something he saw in the mirror.
“You are not my son. You are not my son.”
And when he turned and walked out away, grabbing his car keys as he left, the only thing that he could hear was her thick, racking sobs as she crumpled onto the ground.
He fell into his car and pulled out of her driveway. The small wooden cross that hung on the thin thread around his neck kept bouncing on his chest, hitting his heart.
He stumbled out into the dim apartment complex and stumbled up the unkempt stairs. He made his way to the room number he had memorized so easily and pounded on the door.
Martin soon came to the door. His eyes were tired.
But Charles crumpled into him and began sobbing. Thick, racking sobs that shook his chest and made him weak. Martin held him there, tightly wrapping his arms around him, stroking the back of his neck gently.
“Oh, God. It’s gonna be alright, man. It’s gonna be alright.”
And when Charles closed the distance between them and pressed their chests together, there was not a speck of darkness in his mind when he pressed his lips to Martin’s.
And a year later, they were here. They had made it.
Of course, Charles couldn’t stop glancing to the back of the venue. But the doors did not open. And he knew they would not.
He looked back at Martin. He mouthed one more thing to him.
“I love you.”
Martin began to say something, but Charles did not hear him, for there was a slam near the back of the venue, and he tore his gaze away from Martin’s eyes to see the one small door of the room thrown open, and in the doorframe a figure.
It was her. Standing like she always did, as if she owned the place.
She walked briskly and with a proud face as she made her way to the front, where the small plastic folding chair sat with the yellow tag Reserved for Family. While every eye in the room was on her, she sat down with a graceful flair, swiftly put her purse on the floor in front of her, and folded her hands in her lap, her back completely straight.
Charles stared at her. She did not smile. There was nothing on her face. Instead, she only stared back, her eyes full of some powerful emotion Charles could not put into words. She gave him a curt nod.
He could not breathe. He looked back at Martin, who looked just as taken aback as he was. His eyes immediately went up, as if he could see through the dingy, white rafters and through the cloudless sky above to Heaven itself. His eyes were cloudy, and his hands immediately went to his chest, where the small wooden cross hung by a thin thread around his neck.
Thank you, God. This is more than enough.