There is a place that is significant to every person, a place that they know as home; For Jonathan’s mother it was her flower bed; she sewed her own comfort along with the seeds, tended to the bruising of her heart with the gentle drops of a copper watering can. For his father, it was his armchair, gaze distorted by the bottom of a brown beer bottle, washing his sorrows down with whatever alcohol he could get his greasy hands on. For his brother it was his car; his companion, his partner for running away from reality when Jonathan refused to follow him—the gray leather seats scratched, springs poking out like pointing fingers, foam frothing at the mouths of the seats.
For Jonathan, it’s La Bibliothèque, a nightclub hidden behind a metal door underneath the old and tattered streets of New Orleans. With the letters written over the entrance in bright pink and swooping letters, like the dip of a bloody swan on a frozen lake, it’s a dark place that smells of coying syrups and sweat.
This is Jonathan’s home; the drunk staggers and the aching lights sweeping the floor like the beam of a lighthouse, the false promise of salvation glowing to those lost in a human sea of sweat and tight clothes and sweet loneliness that buzzes in their heads like the drugs flowing in their systems. He can navigate the controlled chaos in the form of bodies, the way the floor clings to the bottom of his shoes, the way he needs to yell to the bartender if he wants to be served; it’s more familiar than his own apartment, the way he could close his eyes in his room and still be able to navigate it, no matter the boots that were thrown off the side of the bed or the shirt he abandoned at the door.
La Bibliothèque is a place for bitter hearts and sweet drinks topped off with a strange sense of community, the sense that everyone recognizes the fragility of everyone around. This is what attracts Jonathan and others to the little place, even with the sticky floors and passive-aggressive staff. Privilege must be abandoned along with dignity at the descent down the hall, one door on the left before Hell.
He snatches his drink before someone else can and downs it before he loses the nerve. He shivers as it sinks down to his gut like firecrackers, sparkings and licking with flames as they splash in his stomach. With that he sways to the dancefloor, allowing the bass to liquidize in his nerves, aligning with his spine and drawing his limbs like puppet strings. It’s not fun; Jonathan doesn’t do it because it’s fun. He does it because it’s stepping out of the dark and into the yellow of the light, where he can pretend he’ll pick flowers in a meadow. Flow into the blue, where he can smile as saltwater sprays against his sailboat. Pink, where he can be lying in silk sheets next to a warm body, the skyline view to his right.
It’s not fun, rather it's an escape. But to some people, aren’t they the same?
Either way, Jonathan will take what he can get.
Hot hands enclose on his waist, thumbs pressing into the dimples in his back. He turns and is met with a shadowed face, too difficult to make out in the spotlights that come and go like lightning. He smells of marijuana and his lips are moving, his head tilted, and Jonathan has been here enough to know—or rather, smell— an invitation when provided with one. So he follows the man to the alley out back, sitting on the curb with him as he lights up a blunt. They watch others lie on the road ahead of them, dancing and kicking water at each other from the puddles lingering like the smoke.
The first hit is rough, but the second comes easier. They pass it back and forth without a word until the man speaks up.
“You dance like starlight.”
Jonathan glances over at him. High cheekbones are accentuated in the dramatic lighting, and Jonathan thinks he could get lost in the sharp shadows of his face, the dip of his cupid’s bow like that of a mattress drooping underneath a body, plump lips sticking out like warning signs and eyelashes fluttering like a lure.
And Jonathan is caught on the sharp hook of his dimpled smile.
“You think so?”
“I would have to be blind not to see it.” His mouth curls over the words, and a tongue piercing glitters into the night catching like the accent he can’t place. “Like starlight on a port sea, as the waves swallow up the shore and shudder against the boats.”
“You’re quite the poet.” The words tickle his lungs and his heart like the brushing of wildflowers against palms; no one’s ever said anything like that to him.
“And you’re quite the muse.” The man rumbles, taking one last drag before brushing off his hands and rising. Jonathan stares up at the yellow halo around his dark head of hair from the streetlight behind him, crowning his dark, tight curls in a soft glow. He looks like an angel fallen to the grime-ridden city. “Would you like to see my studio?”
“But I don’t even know your name.”
“Gabriel.” That smile curves and the urban angel juts his hand out.
And who would Jonathan be to deny the devil disguised as a savior?
Jonathan doesn’t get much time to stare at the paintings on the wall, too busy pressed up against another, much more urgent piece of artwork. But when he sneaks out an hour or so later, he glances at them swathed in the moonlight before slipping out the door.
He doesn’t expect to see Gabriel again, but when he slinks back to La Bibliothèque a week or so later with an aftertaste of a drink on his tongue, the same hands press into his back. But this time, they’re familiar with the terrain.
He follows the hands that lead him back to that curb and watches as the flames bloom on the blunt like poppies, dimming then preening back to life with nothing more than Gabriel's breath. He tries not to think about the way those lips had done the same for him not long ago—breathed life into him.
This time, rather than letting Jonathan taking a drag himself, Gabriel grips his chin and dives in; the last thing Jonathan sees are those dimples before he closes his eyes and warm lips press against his. Breathing in the smoke, he smiles against the kiss as that tongue piercing clanks on his teeth.
Gabriel pulls back, pressing his lips to the corner of his mouth. “You never told me your name, ma toile.”
“Jonathan,” Gabriel breathes, excess smoke dripping like wax from his mouth. “Well, Jonathan, do you think you’d like a second look? Maybe allow me to paint you black and blue and pink again?”
“I tend to like to leave things as they are.” He says, tapping his fingers against the hand encasing his jaw. Gabriel’s hand is hot, and his fingertips press into his cheek in a teasing manner.
“Not even once more?”
This time, with Gabriel tugging on his hair on the sofa and his accent curling at his ear, he admires the paintings on the canvas for a good portion of the night.
Blue lights at La Bibliothèque, a drink swallowed too quickly, hands tracing his dimples of Venice like an astronomer tracing the constellations; a hand offered and a hand taken. When Gabriel boasts about the strawberry crepes he makes, (“They taste even better with a kiss”) offering them in the morning if he stays, Jonathan almost accepts.
The next time, or the time after that—Jonathan, startlingly enough, has lost count— Gabriel finds him at the door. They shoulder their way through the crowd and when Jonathan has to tuck into his side to order his drink at the bar Gabriel swings an arm around his shoulder like it’s the most natural thing in the world to tuck him into his side.
Gabriel slaps some money down on the bar before Jonathan can reach into his wallet. His arm stays draped across his shoulder like it’s got a right to be there—and maybe it does— until they make it out into the humid night.
Gabriel hasn’t allowed him to hold the blunt since that first night; Jonathan pretends to be as peeved about it as he was the second night. When lips pull away, he says, “You don’t have to treat me like a princess. I’m not a prize to be won.”
“No,” Gabriel says, “Prizes are easy to win. You’re a falling star to catch, and I’m trying not to burn my hands.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means you’re special, ma toile. It means I want you to stay.”
“And if I’m scared of staying?”
“Then I guess I’ve been burned.”
Jonathan thought Gabriel was exaggerating about his strawberry crepes, but they're downright blissful to eat, and when Gabriel catches the pleased hum that comes out of his mouth, he becomes determined to taste them the way Jonathan does.
One night, while on the pavement, Jonathan asks why Gabriel only kisses him when he’s shotgunning a drag or when they’re having sex. Gabriel stares into his eyes as if the answer is plastered onto his forehead and he’s stunned Jonathan hasn’t noticed it yet.
“Because I’m terrified to kiss you just for the sake of it.”
So Jonathan rolls his eyes and does it for him.
“You’re not from here.” It’s not a question, rather a statement hidden behind the rim of a coffee mug. Their feet are pressed together underneath the table as Gabriel flips through a book Jonathan doesn’t know the name of, and he tells himself it’s because the tiles are cold and Gabriel runs hot like a radiator on a wintery day.
Gabriel finishes his own sip, setting the mug back down and meeting his eyes across the table. “No; I moved here from France.”
“France? That’s quite a move. Why did you come here?”
Gabriel creases the corner of the book and closes it, pushing it to the side with his fingertips. He cradles his coffee mug in his hands, elbows on the table, feet brushing up against Jonathan’s. Jonathan equips the patience he learned from his mother’s delayed response, watching as consideration swirls in the dark irises illuminated by the window; the metal-working of the fire escape casts shadows across his face.
Jonathan is brought back to their first meeting in La Bibliothèque, but the contrast is undeniable; back then, the dark had cradled his face, kept him tucked away like a secret, but out here in his kitchen, the light showcases his face like he belongs in a museum adorned with a golden frame.
“France was a dream; Paris was a dream. It was perfect in every way, the city pristine, the architecture like art, the cafes were little tucked away worlds where you could sit and watch the world go by without a care.
“It was too perfect, and no matter what I always felt like I didn’t belong; a duck among a sea of swans. The dirty street of New Orleans, the sputtering cabs, the lingering smell of marijuana, and the beignets served too hot to eat; it fits into every crack of my imperfect shell, fills me up like I’m a mold and I just needed the right glaze to complete me—to make something beautiful.”
Jonathan considers this. “But it wasn’t enough.” La Bibliothèque does not attract those that are content. There are bars that are closer to the present, that don’t carry the sharp tang of loneliness like armor chinked and rusted.
“No. As beautiful as New Orleans is, it will always just be a city. It can’t quite fill the hole,” He gestures to the center of his chest, “right here.”
Not like you can, goes unsaid but not unheard.
“What brought you to the city?” Gabriel’s voice is soft; he senses the fragility of the air wavering between them from the table like the air wobbles above the road on a blistering hot day.
Jonathan remembers the hole in his own chest, the vacancy of his movements, and the way the whole world had filled over in a film of gray, of static, of undereye circles and white screens and dark nights that tick into mornings. He thinks of the way Gabriel waters the plants on his fire escape and the way they bloom like sunsets under his touch, the way Gabriel brushes away the gray with impatience just so he can look Jonathan square in the eye.
He thinks of what it feels like to be alive again.
“I guess I was looking for something too.” I just didn’t know it.
“Did you find it?”
“Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to.”
When the end of his apartment's lease term comes up, he refuses to renew and packs his things away. It only takes one box; most of his things are already in a certain someone’s apartment.
Gabriel helps him pack the rest of it away, and they both stare at the La Bibliothèque coupon they dug up from his junk drawer. Gabriel smiles in that soft way of his when Jonathan throws it in the trash. Jonathan pulls him into a kiss for his theatrics.
He doesn’t need it when he’s already found his home.