I’ve made thinking about him an art form. I’ve had plenty of time to practice and perfect my craft in the years we’ve been together: I paint his profile into the swirling, maze-like shapes that draw themselves on the backs of my eyelids when I shut them tight; I compose music that sounds like the brown of his eyes, so deep and mesmerising that looking into them can feel like drowning. I’ve written odes to his lips, hymns to his hands, an elegy to the feel of him leaving the bed every morning, the loss of that sacred warmth. I think about him intentionally, when things are slow at work and I’m bored out of my mind. I think about him idly, when I’m on the bus, headed back to him. I think about him when he’s next to me, and when he’s not. I think about him when I’m in the shower and when I can’t fall asleep.
I think about him as a college junior, the first time we met, properly met. How he approached me in the refectory, the confident set of his shoulders completely at odds with the way he walked, as if he was talking himself into every step he took.
I don’t know how much of this first memory is my own recollection. Mark loves this story, loves revisiting it, loves reminiscing about how I was the first guy he’d ever asked out, how he had no clue what he was doing, how he had been scared out of his wits, how the words had just tumbled out.
I always want to tell him that I don’t remember much about our first meeting beyond the seizing in my chest and the pounding in my ears, shocked and horrified and oddly relieved that someone had somehow realised that I was gay despite all the effort I’d put into concealing it. How my brain had yelled at me to turn him down, to get offended and vehemently assert that I was straight and why would he ever think otherwise, or to chuckle and explain that I was flattered but that I wasn’t like that, to do something, anything, whatever would get him away from me the quickest, but instead what came out of my mouth was, “sure.”
I’d pondered my answer as I mechanically finished my dinner and left the dining hall, as I walked back to my dorm, as I tried to study that night. I wrote and rewrote a text, swelling and shrinking with every new draft: a paragraph long, two sentences, three paragraphs, six words.
Sorry, but I’m not actually gay.
I gave you my number because I’m bad at turning people down, but I don’t feel that way about you.
Look, I gave you my contact info because I’m always down to make new friends, but I’m not interested in dating anyone right now. Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.
Sorry bud, I think you got the wrong number.
Then came the text: hey! it’s mark. wanna get donuts tmrw?
I had just finished proofreading an essay explaining that I wasn’t gay, that looking back I realised I’d misread his intentions, that I’d be down to get to know him as a friend but wasn’t interested in anything more, sorry.
Select all, backspace. I decided I could tell him in person the next day.
I think about the first time he told me he loved me, six months after we’d started dating, although I’d refused to call it that at the time. “You don’t have to say it back if you’re not ready,” he’d said, ever understanding, ever patient.
I didn’t say it. I wanted to tell him that he meant a lot to me, more than it felt possible to express, that every day I was glad I hadn’t turned him down, that I missed him whenever he didn’t spend the night, that I would do anything for him except say those words, that I couldn’t say those words, that it was difficult for me to admit that I was in love with a man, even though it was the truth, that I couldn’t promise him that I’d ever be able to say those words, that I was sorry I was a coward but I’d never pretended to be brave.
I conjured up excuses, trying to determine which one would sound the least pathetic. That I didn’t like using the word ‘love’ because it was too vague for my liking. That the word felt hollow because it didn’t mean anything without the actions to show it. That I thought the word lost value if it was tossed around carelessly.
“Mm,” I said instead.
Of course, I’ve been more verbal in my responses since then. It’s been inferred, implied, understood, assumed. He knows I love him. But I still haven’t said it.
I think about when the addendum to his “I love you”s became, “I just wish we didn’t have to hide it.” We’d graduated by that point, started living together in a small apartment as Mark pursued his doctorate and I started working. It was getting harder to continue giving the excuse that we were ‘just roommates’ at an age that everyone assumed we’d outgrown the need for cohabitation unless it was with a lover, and our professed perpetual bachelorhood grew ever more suspicious. Mark was out to his friends and family, but I’d begged him not to be open about our relationship with acquaintances or strangers, not to make it public knowledge.
“My family can’t know,” I’d told him. “If my dad were to find out about you…”
He’d been understanding. He never stopped being understanding, but it was only a matter of time before the frustration started to creep in. He wanted to hold hands in public, to not think twice about mentioning his boyfriend, to post pictures of us on social media, to not have to behave as if there was something wrong about us being together.
To his credit, he’s never pestered me about coming out to my family, even though I know he’s not convinced they’ll take it as badly as I think they will. And maybe he’s right. So every trip home, I compose a little speech. Sometimes it’s blunt: “I’m gay. Yes, I’m sure. No, it’s not a phase.” Sometimes I ease into things: I’ll tell them about my partner, using gender-neutral vocabulary the entire time, get all my relatives buttered up and eager to meet them, and then I’ll drop Mark’s name, unquestionably, unequivocally male. Sometimes it’s sly: I’ll slip the word ‘boyfriend’ casually into conversation, blink and you’ll miss it, no fanfare. Sometimes it’s provocative: I’ll get my dad to make one of his many asides on the gays and then ask him how he feels about the fact that there’s one sitting right next to him.
But then I’ll arrive at the door and my dad will open it and he’ll look so much older than the last time I saw him, his hair thinner and his cough louder and his hands shakier. And I’ll think, why ruin this holiday season for everyone, and I’ll say “Hi dad” rather than “I’m gay” and answer “no” when someone asks if I’m seeing anyone and feign interest in whoever’s friend’s daughter they propose to set me up with. And then I’ll escape into thoughts of him for the rest of the evening, drawing his dimples into my mashed potatoes with the tine of my fork.
I think about him now, laying beside me with one arm flung over my chest and his head nestled in the crook of my shoulder, as if he can’t bear to stop touching me for one moment even though we fought earlier. I try to remember what we fought about, but all I can think about is him, the way his hair glows copper in the sunlight, the way his head tilts back when he laughs, the way his fingers look when they’re threaded with mine, the way he moves about the kitchen when he cooks, the way he frowns when he’s trying to concentrate, the way the words fall so easily out of his mouth, the way he gives his love so freely.
He stirs, eyes fluttering and hand rising from my chest to rub at them. His head lifts slightly to check the time on the clock. 5:57 am. The soft glow of dawn is just starting to filter through the gauzy curtains, painting the room a soft, sleepy blue.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he mumbles, voice husky and concerned.
He props himself up on his elbow, brow creasing, his hand brushing the hair off my forehead, lowering to stroke my cheek. I don’t think he even realises he’s doing it. It’s simply reflex at this point.
“Are you okay?”
Yes, I want to tell him. He’s next to me so of course I'm alright. He always makes everything alright. He makes me feel whole, makes me feel worthy, makes me feel like I could climb into the sky and give him the sun. He feels like family, like home, like safety, like love, like all that I’ll ever need.
No, I want to tell him. To feel this happy, day in and day out, is dizzying. I can’t stop thinking, wondering, worrying about if it might end, when it might end, how it might end. How I’m terrified that someday he’ll realise that he deserves someone so much better than me, someone who can give him everything he wants, everything he deserves. How my heart is so full that sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of him and will feel like I can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t do anything except look at him, think about him, wonder how I would go on without him after all this time.
I wish he could crack my skull open like an egg and look inside, to see all my thoughts and emotions so that he could know them without me having to say them, bumbling and awkward and inadequate, most of the words lost in my throat. That he could read all the poems and odes and ballads and sonnets and symphonies I’ve written to him that I’ll never be able to transcribe with something so crude and untuned as my mouth.
I want to tell him all of this. There are a thousand words on the tip of my tongue, but only three come out.