The day I met you, I thought you were the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Sadly, I never told you.
When you pushed open the door of the café and I glanced up, my heart skipped a beat. Round glasses, green sweater, black pants, backpack slung on one shoulder and, in your grasp, two thick books that made me shudder. I watched as you placed your belongings on a table, took some deep breaths, and immediately looked away when you stepped forward.
“Black coffee, please,” you said, low and dejected.
I wanted to ask why black coffee and crack a joke, but when I met your eyes, I saw their numbness and dark eyebags. Then, as I was about to utter a word, a tear fell on your face and, after discreetly wiping it with your sleeves, you croaked out, “I’m sorry, but could you please bring it to my table when it’s done? I need to study.” I nodded, eyeing your retreating figure as you brought your hand up a few more times to your face.
When I brought the cup to your table, I didn’t say anything because you seemed engrossed. Before leaving, I tried to take a peek, but I didn’t have much time as you flipped to the next page. I was never a fast reader or, really, much of a reader at all. I made my way back as the door rang open for another customer.
As the hour of my break began, I took one last look and saw you frantically pulling out napkins from your backpack and wiping the spilled coffee on the table and floor. Snatching a towel from a drawer, I bolted towards you and instantly wiped the drenched surfaces, ignoring your pleas that it should’ve been you.
When I finished and threw the towel over my shoulder, you sat back down, sent an apologetic smile, and placed your attention back to your book. I was about to leave when, suddenly, I heard muffled whimpers and saw how you brought your hand up to conceal the waterfall flooding your face.
I pulled up a chair from the nearest table and calmly asked, “Are you alright, sir?”
When you heard my voice, you looked at me and my heart skipped a beat again. I took in the sight of your chocolate brown eyes, the hints of ash highlights on your dark brown locks, your dry lips, the little mole on the bridge of your nose, and your freckles. As we stared at each other in icy silence, you said with your voice breaking, “I’m fine.”
I didn’t know what got into me. I was the kind of person that got the hints and left. The kind of person that avoided complicated situations and lived in ignorance, if only it meant I could have bliss and tranquility. But, as I looked at you, your teardrops spilling on the page, I remarked, “No, you’re not.”
I will never forget the look on your face. Fascination, confusion, and disbelief all at once and, for a second, I wished I didn’t say anything, understood the hint, and left as fast as I had come. But, before I could say a sincere apology, you questioned, “Who are you?”
“Just the guy that made your coffee,” I shrugged, followed by an innocent smile. I didn’t know why I had the audacity to smile. After all, you were looking at me as a snake would with a prey. Then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, I blurted out, “Black coffee. That’s cool.”
I half-expected you to leap up and stomp out fuming with rage, but then your voice, soft and delicate albeit nonchalant, reverberates in my ears, “Yeah, well, it’s like my soul. Dark, cryptic, and bitter.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I see. Do you even like black coffee?”
I nodded. “I could make you a different coffee next time. You know, with more flavor.” I didn’t know how I seemed so sure that there’d be a next time, especially since I’d never seen you before.
“Thanks, but I don’t know about that. I’ll probably just lock myself up in my apartment and cry,” You stared pensively into the distance.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to comfort people because I’ve never had to do it. When you grow up in a household as an only child and your parents were always busy with their jobs and you barely had any chances to make friends because you always got injured, you don’t learn the mechanics of comforting others. Instead, you acquire the knowledge of how to be comforted. Yet somehow, as I traced your features and the tears brimming in your eyes, I knew I had to try.
Brainstorming the right thing to say without rendering you leaving in disgust, I went with the only thing I knew how to do. Trying to be funny. “Well, that doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your days.”
“What would you suggest I do then?”
Go on a date with me, I wanted to say. But, I realized it wasn’t the right time. Besides, I didn’t just go on dates with random people. I knew better than that, even if they were adorable, had great fashion sense, and seemed like the muse I could write poems about. I didn’t know anything about writing poems, though. But, maybe, I could learn.
Then, you elaborated after another sigh, “Besides, I gotta force myself to read this,” You spun the book around and pointed. The Iliad by Homer. “It’s just so draining. I can’t do it. I’d rather rot.”
I shook my head. “Well, now now, don’t say that. I’ll help you. I mean, I don’t know anything about The Iliad, but I can try.”
It was true. I remembered reading it and discussing it, but I never paid much attention in school. In fact, I mostly graduated because of luck.
As I read the paragraph, slowly and deliberately, an abrupt burst of melodious laughter erupted and I turned my attention towards you. There you were, your numb eyes into lovely crescents and, in the rhythm of your laughter, the sensation of listening to my favorite song. Your laughter was music and I wanted to wake up to it everyday.
“What’s so funny?” I laughed. I didn’t know how you felt about my laugh. Some people said it sounded diabolical as if I’m conjuring up world domination; some that it sounded fake, like I’m trying too hard. But, at that moment, I didn’t care. I couldn’t help it.
“That you think I wanted help with reading. I mean, I appreciate it, I really do. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just ― that’s not the hard part. I can read it in Greek even. But, it’s just,” You paused and I thought you’d start crying again. “...Achilles and Patroclus, you know?”
My brain fumbled for an answer. I didn’t know if the question was rhetorical or not. With caution, I said, “What about them? Weren’t they, like, companions in the Trojan War or something? Best friends, I think. Sorry, I don’t remember much.”
I couldn’t erase the look of horror on your face as if you’d just heard me chant blasphemy. Gasping, you hissed, “How dare you say that?”
Baffled, I stammered, “Oh, I’m sorry?”
“Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Historians deny it because it wasn’t explicitly stated, but us in the gay community know better,” Oh, you’re gay too, I thought. “I mean, they literally wanted to mingle their ashes together. You can’t get more romantic than that.”
“That is quite romantic,” I affirmed, intrigued by the glow of passion in your eyes as you spoke. “But what’s your deal with them? I don’t understand.”
“It’s a long story.”
I didn’t know what got into me. I knew I only had five minutes of my break left, but with you, I felt like breaking all the rules in the world. I felt like a different person. A better one.
As you let out another sigh, eyes downcast and drifting to the distance and curls entangled wildly, I said, “I’m on break. Tell me everything.”
And that was how you became my best friend.
Over time, we became inseparable. You were the light of my days. I loved when I’d ask you out and you’d blush as I tried not to use the word, how you’d visit my apartment in your lonely days and came close to asking you to move in, and the feeling of you nuzzled up on my chest when you fell asleep in the middle of the movie. The warmth of your skin, the gentle rhythms of your breath, and how I’d play with your hair, twirling the curls. They were my favorite moments, yet also the ones I loathed, because it was in those moments that I wanted to kiss you, but I was too scared.
And so, like a mindless fool, I read between the lines. I sought the reciprocity of your affection in moments. Whenever I’d ask you for a dance in the living room when you were reading and I was cleaning and you’d roll your eyes at me then do it anyways, it ticked off a check. Whenever you caught a fever, I’d make you soup and read your favorite poems in bed and you said I had a pleasant voice, another checkmark. And, when you said that you wanted a boyfriend who’d write you love letters and I wrote you some anonymously, with the help of a friend, and you had the biggest smile opening them, a checkmark.
We were madly in love with each other. I was living in the clouds and, in every moment with you, in every accidental brush of our fingertips, and in every touch of our skin as we slept on the sofa together, I felt like I could taste the heavens. Everything was beautiful. I had no bad days because, every time I caught a glimpse of you, even for a second when you passed by the café on the way to class and waved, I knew that the day was good.
What I failed to remember, however, was that I’ve been wrong a lot in my life.
One morning, I didn’t see you next to me. I texted you good morning, but you didn’t respond. I called you, even though you hated it, but it went straight to voicemail in all the five attempts. Finally, when I went to your apartment, panting like crazy and bathed in my own sweat, you weren’t there. Then, I saw your note saying you’d be back. I didn’t hear from you for a week.
When I opened the door of your apartment after disappearing without a word, I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to see you wearing a white tunic, a blonde, wavy wig that fell to your shoulders, and brandishing a counterfeit sword in your right hand and a helmet on the left and your bare feet. No, I really couldn’t imagine that, yet there you were, dressing as someone who definitely didn’t live in the same century as I.
“So, what do you think?” Your voice felt strange and far away. It wasn’t the same anymore.
“I don’t get it,” I gestured at the outfit.
“It’s Achilles!” You cheered. “Well, I mean, younger Achilles, like before he fought in the war. When he was still having fun with Patroclus and they loved each other.”
“Right. And, why do you have that? Why are you wearing it?”
“I bought it last week. I’ve been wearing it since. I was gonna get the Patroclus one because I thought it’d help me with The Iliad. Then, Lorenzo, you know, my ex of three years, texted me that he’s getting married. It turns out, while dating me, he also had a girlfriend on the side and she’s pregnant. He’s bisexual, so I’m not surprised he likes girls, but I guess I just feel like chopped liver or something,” You were crying and I wanted to run and hug you, but I didn’t. I wished I did, but pride got in the way. “But yeah, at the last minute, I ordered the Achilles one. He always said that I was Patroclus, but he can’t control me anymore. I may be weak,” You’re not weak, I wanted to say. “And stupid when it comes to love,” You’re not. “And don’t have value,” You’re more valuable than gold. “But I can be Achilles too. I am Achilles.”
I love you, those were the words on the tip of my tongue, but instead it came out as, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Matteo. I didn’t invite you to pity me, don’t worry,” A forced smile. “Actually, I wanted to tell you that I’m leaving. For good. I don’t know where, but I’d like to go and find myself. You’ve done so much for me and I’ll forever be indebted to you. Thank you, seriously.”
I stood there, mouth gaped open, and wanted to say something―anything―but, when you grabbed your filled suitcases on the side and I looked around and realized your apartment was bare and empty, I knew it was too late. You’ve made up your mind and nothing I’ll ever say or do could change it.
Between us, there seemed an endless ocean and you were on a different island, far and unreachable. Even though you hadn’t left yet, it already felt like you were gone.
“How long will you be wearing that?” I didn’t know why I asked; perhaps, I just wanted to hear your voice one last time.
“Until I can learn to live without it.”
It has been five years since we’ve last seen each other. I’ve moved on from you, but sometimes there’s little things that bring you back. Someone ordering black coffee, someone laughing, the aroma of blossoming flowers, and watching The Notebook. There are days when I want to reach out and tell you that I’ve read all your books and that they’re beautiful. You’ve always had a way with words. I think the idea of retelling the stories of queer couples in ancient history is fantastic and, whenever I watch videos of you, I see that same old spark from when we first met. And I don’t see you wearing the Achilles costume anymore. Good. You’re perfect as you are.
Sometimes, I think about your stories. I think about us and drown my head in the what-ifs. In another life, we’re not like your characters. We’re not Apollo and Hyacinthus who were careless with each other’s hearts, Nisus and Euryalus whose devotion ended in such brutality, or even Alexander and Hephaestion whose love seemed an eternal flame yet, in the end, still bounded by mortality. In another life, we’re together and happy. We’ll be the kind of lovers people don’t write stories about. Or, maybe, they will, but a happy one. In another life, we’re making history.
Not in this life. In this life, you ran away and I didn’t chase after you.
If you must know, there are times when I think of you, wonder what you’re doing, and reminisce about our time together. Your hair is longer now with more curls, your eyes fiery and passionate, your voice deeper but still gentle, and your laugh still sounds like music. Sometimes, in my dreams, I run into your arms, lay next to you and listen to your heartbeat, and we laugh together. In these dreams, I’m spending the rest of my waking days with you.
But reality is different, because in reality, we’re not Achilles and Patroclus. We don’t chase after each other. Maybe, five years ago, we could’ve. But not anymore. Because now, I’m getting married to the love of my life and, as I walk down the aisle, I see his smile and remember, once again, why I fell in love with him. He stayed. On the days where it’s bleak and dark, on the days when I don’t feel like a human being, he’s there. He’s always there. I don’t even need to ask him or seek him out.
In another time, in another place, you and I could’ve been together. It could be you walking down the aisle and I’m the one with the warm smile, excited for the future we’ll build together. It’ll be you I’ll cuddle with, who I’ll kiss a million times and more, and have a family with. But not in this life; not today, not ever. Because, my dear, you were Achilles looking for your Patroclus, but it wasn’t me. I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t.
No, because I’m just an ordinary guy who wants ordinary things. An ordinary man who once loved another, a man who couldn’t stay. A man who wasn’t meant to stay. I don’t wish to sacrifice my life, I don’t wish to chase a person who doesn’t want to stay, and I don’t wish to perish and have our ashes mixed together. I’m not complicated. I want simplicity. It’s all I’ve ever wanted; a life where I can love and be loved.
But, Adrian, you were born a star. You put ordinary and simplicity to shame. You were a star and I, a rock on the ground admiring your luminosity. And that was why, when I fell in love with you, I knew you wouldn’t stay, for wanting you would’ve only been a dream. You were, you are, exquisite―you are Achilles―and Achilles was everything and more.
It wasn’t the outfit that made you him; it was in the way you struck a decision, got up to your feet, and ran, never looking back even for a second.
Someday, if we meet again, I still hope I can make you the coffee we promised because I have a feeling, this time, you won’t be ordering the same.