The years haven’t been gentle. Benjamin’s legs don’t move as quickly as they once did, and his gait falters more often than he cares to admit. He pauses just before the glass front of Déjà Brew to straighten his cinnamon cardigan and comb his fingers through—
“Damn it!” Benjamin grimaces at the smart of his old shoulder injury from when—he can’t drown in the helplessness and dejection that paralyzed him for months after the collision again. At least, not right now. His shaggy, white hair will just have to remain wind-tousled.
As usual, Ryan is perched in the far-corner booth when Benjamin enters the retro café. Benjamin likes this place, with its archaic flat-screen televisions and authentic pu’erh in genuine teabags—he refuses to call them sachets, even when the barista on duty corrects him. It’s certainly better than that insult to coffeehouses down the street boasting the latest holographic entertainment and engineered, counterfeit drinks. Déjà Brew is worth the eventual throbbing in his joints from walking the extra block to get here.
Ryan slides out of the seat with agile grace as Benjamin approaches. Ryan’s long, black hair and bright green eyes give his pallid complexion a youthful glow.
“There you are, beautiful.” Ryan’s voice melts years from Benjamin’s spirit. “I’ve been waiting so long, I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
Benjamin smiles widely despite the need to embrace Ryan setting his chest aflame. “Never. I’ll always come. I don’t get to see you near enough as it is. Have you ordered?” Benjamin motions toward the counter.
Eyes steadfast on Benjamin, Ryan shakes his head. “Not yet. I wasn’t sure what to get you.”
“The same thing I always get,” Benjamin answers, approaching the register. The cashier greets them, and Benjamin orders, “Pu’erh with honey please.” He turns to Ryan. “Let me guess. Tall Colombian coffee, black?”
“If it ain’t broke…” Ryan quips.
Benjamin looks back to the cashier, who glances up from the touchscreen with a cocked eyebrow before asking, “So, a pu’erh and a large coffee?”
“Yes.” Benjamin waves his paychip over the RF console, not waiting for the total, and collects the number marker for their order.
“How are things? You doing good?” Ryan asks once they’re back at the corner table.
“I can’t complain, I guess.” Benjamin scratches his jaw. “Some days are better than others.”
The sweet aroma of fresh-baked pastries wafts throughout the café, and Benjamin smiles to himself. “Do you remember that little bakery we stumbled across? The one just outside Paris?”
Ryan nods and brushes a finger over his lips. “I gave you a bite of whatever-it-was and then kissed you for the first time.”
Warmth rises in Benjamin’s cheeks. “A pistachio macaron.” Benjamin can almost taste it now. “That was definitely one of my better days.”
Ryan props his elbows on the table. “Is today better or worse?”
Benjamin studies Ryan’s navy, velvet sports coat and matching silk tie; the smoothness of his clean-shaven, boyish face; the curve of his upturned lips; and the heavy makeup around Ryan’s eyes. “Better now. I’ve found myself missing you more than usual recently.”
An androgynous server places the two drinks on the table in front of Benjamin. He nods at them—Their whole life is still ahead of them, Benjamin thinks—and slides the coffee across the varnished surface.
Ryan doesn’t move to pick it up but instead leans in toward Benjamin. “Well, I think you look as good as always.”
Benjamin stifles a scoff. “I look old. I am old.”
“You can’t be that old, Benji.” Ryan glances around the coffee shop and furrows his brows. “The world hasn’t changed enough for you to be that old.”
“Ryan, I’m almost 75. It’s been 51 years since you—” The words stick in Benjamin’s throat, and despite the decades, his soul still bears the open wound as if it just happened yesterday. Benjamin takes a long sip of tea and settles the cup on the table with a shaky hand. “… since you joined the 27 Club.”
Ryan lowers his head, and Benjamin draws a deep breath, preparing for the inevitable conversation that’s repeated nearly verbatim every visit.
“What happened? How did I—” Ryan never finishes that question.
Benjamin usually does it for him and then gives Ryan a soft version. They revisit the past, talking and laughing like nothing’s changed. But this time, Benjamin can’t. Half a century of running from the ghosts that haunt him—all the pills and bad decisions, all the sleepless nights and anonymous sex, all the songs he wrote and the ones he couldn’t get out—has weighed him down and exhausted him.
Benjamin’s eyes sting with tears, and a quiet “intentional overdose” is all he can muster. The words are heavy on his tongue. But to finally voice them lightens the burden on his soul, if only by a dandelion seed.
A chair scraping across the tile floor fractures the café’s repose, quickly followed by the echoing footfall of a young, sobbing lover fleeing. Benjamin's been there with Ryan. Both the one running away and the one being run away from. For as much as they loved each other, together they were fire and ice. That made them electric, but it would have eventually been their fatal flaw. If Ryan hadn’t… Tragic, really, that the thing Benjamin loved most about them was the one thing that could destroy them.
The commotion seems to go unnoticed by Ryan. He sits gazing into the unknown, his thumb of one hand rubbing his palm of the other. “But we’re going on tour in a few weeks.”
“When we—I found you…” The entire scene is seared into Benjamin’s senses. The crunch of pills under foot. The sour stench of vomit. The absolute stillness of Ryan’s body and vacant eyes. The chill of Ryan’s flesh as Benjamin clutched him to his chest, screaming for help. Benjamin grips the edge of the table, his fingers blanching. “The tour was canceled, Ry. We tried to make things work, but without you, the band fell apart.”
The intensity of Ryan’s gaze rips away large swaths of what little fortitude Benjamin has built up over the years to withstand his guilt, flooding him with nausea and an overwhelming need for physical punishment. He looks away to catch his breath.
A woman three tables over sips her drink as she watches him, and Benjamin remembers that Ryan isn’t visible to anyone but him. But he can’t bring himself to care that he appears to be a senile has-been conversing with himself.
“What about you? What happened to you?” Ryan’s voice trembles, and Benjamin turns his attention back to him.
“I kept making records and touring. It’s all I knew how to do, the only way I knew how to be close to you. A bad accident messed up my shoulder, but I still kept playing. I played until I couldn’t strum a guitar.” Benjamin massages his old injury. “That’s when you came to me the first time. As I sat in this very booth.”
The bell over the door jingles as a young man in dark sunglasses enters the coffee shop, digging his hands deep in his pockets. His shoulders hunch forward, and his face tightens in delayed reactions to the bustling sounds of the café. He’s clearly hungover.
How many times was Ryan that guy? How many times did Benjamin sleep off a night of partying, leaving Ryan to deal with his dark thoughts sleepless and alone? Ryan’s drinking was out of control and his drug use the only thing keeping him on what could hardly be called a sleep schedule. His mood jumped from one extreme to another with no predictability. The strain and anxiety of being thrust into the limelight frayed Ryan to his breaking point. In retrospect, it's painfully obvious Ryan was barely holding himself together.
What a self-absorbed asshole Benjamin had been. Benjamin parts his lips, uncertain of what to say or if he can even speak through the thickness in his throat. “Ryan, I—”
“Will you dance with me?” Benjamin meets Ryan’s eyes and realizes Ryan has been watching him fight his demons. “I never asked you to dance with me, but I should’ve, every chance I had.”
Benjamin lifts his cup a short distance and sets it down several times. His arm, his whole body feels weak, heavy. His thoughts swirl in his mind, making him lightheaded. Not once, in the many times he’s visited with Ryan here, has Ryan ever asked him to dance. Benjamin stares at Ryan, blinking slowly.
“Yes,” he finally manages to whisper.
Ryan stands and offers his hand. Benjamin tries to take it, but his fingers pass through Ryan’s. He drops a loose fist on the table as his heart drops. Benjamin crushes his eyes shut and shakes his head. Of course he can’t dance with Ryan.
Something brushes the back of his fingers, tickling his skin. The memory of Ryan taking his hand rises in Benjamin’s consciousness. Except it’s real. Ryan pulls Benjamin up and leads him to an open space just big enough for the two of them.
Benjamin settles into the hazy comfort of Ryan’s embrace, more than a recollection yet not quite tangible. Just barely there. Ryan hums in Benjamin’s ear, rocking Benjamin with slow, tender movements.
“I’m tired, Ry.” The words slip from Benjamin’s mouth unknowingly. “I’m tired of fighting my memories, my pain, my guilt. I’m tired of being alone, of being lonely.” Benjamin raises his head from Ryan’s shoulder, and Ryan caresses his cheek. “I’d give anything to go back and be with you. To be the man I once was.”
Ryan smiles at him. “Let me take you home, Benji.”
Silent tears stream down Benjamin’s face, and he simply nods his head yes. The press of Ryan’s lips against his own is akin to static. But as the kiss deepens and the ardency builds, Ryan becomes warmer, more incarnate. The ache in Benjamin’s joints fades, and Benjamin stands taller, running his hand into Ryan’s hair. He clings to Ryan with all his strength, his very being. Until all that remains is the life they never shared.
Ryan cups Benjamin face and kisses his forehead. “I missed you,” Ryan murmurs, taking Benjamin’s hand in his and guiding him out.
Benjamin steps around the crumpled shell of a timeworn man lying on the floor, hoping he never becomes such a heartbreaking picture of loneliness.