He did not ring me often. When he did, it was because alcohol had numbed his skull, or because a fevered idea had possessed him that he needed to share. I loved him in a way that I find difficult to describe. It was akin to a sibling amore in the sense that no war that raged between us could ever mutilate our bond. But there was passion too: a curious attraction that twinkled in its shyness.
The night he called me was cool and starless. I know this because I was outside in the garden. Wrapped in an old shawl, I was sat on the bench just outside the front door, trying to write a poem that had been haunting me all week. The golden light from the open door illuminated my notepad just enough so I could see.
When the phone rang, I jumped. It was 1am; silence had been my only companion for hours. I almost didn’t answer it. The moody poet within resented any sort of interruption, especially at this time of night. I sighed and walked into the house, feeling instantly stifled by the close air inside. When I saw his name on the screen, my heart trembled in my throat.
There was a static pause. “Emily? Oh thank God it’s you.”
“Of course it’s me,” I said, and tried to laugh, but it never made it out.
Sobbing. He was sobbing. He never cried. I gripped the phone hard to my ear.
“Emily,” he choked, “I think I’m in trouble.” It was bizarre to hear tears inside his deep voice. It was like soggy chocolate, dark and ruined.
“It’s alright,” I said, without even knowing if it was. “It’s alright, come on now, tell me what’s happened.”
I heard him take a long, shaky breath. “Nothing’s happened,” he said slowly. He sniffed. “I just… I mean, I think I need to talk to someone. Not anyone. You. But I’m so scared. Oh, Em, I’m so scared. You will hate me. Oh God, you are going to hate me.”
For some reason I sat down. “I could never hate you.” I wasn’t sure if it was a lie.
“You will.” Another pause. Then I heard a stange sound. Tic-tic-tic.
“Where are you?” I asked. My voice was like stone. “Tell me where you are.”
“I’m at home,” he replied, the little sobs disfiguring his words.
“I’m coming over,” I said. Without giving him a chance to reply, I hung up the phone, grabbed my keys, and ran out of the house. I didn’t even turn off the lights or shut the door behind me. I flew down the garden path, clutching my shawl tight about my shoulders against the unknown.
I burst into his house, my heart pounding. I shouted his name, I shrieked his name. I felt utterly mad with panic. I strained my ears against the pressing quiet. The place was dark, the only lights tiny green pinpricks from the tv. Suddenly I saw him. He was just stood in the corner, watching me. He wore the shadows like a coat.
“Stay there,” he said. Something slithered down my spine. His voice was no longer soggy; it was bleak and hollow, like old bones.
“Stop hiding,” I snapped, shocked at my own boldness. “Stop hiding and face me.”
“I can’t, Em.”
“Then I shall come to you.” I took a step forward. He didn’t move, so I took another, and another, until I was two feet away. We stood face to face in the darkness. He stroked my cheek softly with the back of his hand. He was trembling.
“I’ve been hiding,” he whispered, almost to himself. “I am evil itself.”
I switched on the lamp, bathing us in a cheap yellow glow. I offered him a weak smile; he looked awful. He dropped his head in shame. I lead him to the sofa and we sat down side by side.
“Tell me everything,” I said, holding his hands in mine.
I let him collect himself for a moment. Then he let out a mad little laugh, more of a bark. “It’s funny,” he said, “because you’re the one I need to tell, but you’re the one I’m most afraid of.”
That hurt me, but I did not show it. I squeezed his hand. “Go on.”
“I went to church tonight,” he said, “St Michael’s, you know, on the corner.” I nodded. “They have evening mass on Mondays, so I thought I’d give it a go, see what they were about. It was alright I guess, and afterwards I got talking to one of the guys that had spoken up front. We talked for hours; everything inside of me just came out and I couldn’t stop. I told him everything. A complete stranger! I’ve never felt more exposed, but it felt good, you know? And then… and then something I had been hiding for so long – for so long – sort of… slipped out.”
He stopped. He pulled his hands out of mine and crossed his arms. I watched him shrink into himself. After a moment he looked up at me, right into me. “Emily,” he said, “I’m gay.”
“OK.” That was what I said. OK.
And then it sunk in. Bile rose in my throat. I felt sick. Not because of what he had told me, but because he had kept it from me for so long. He had been afraid of what I would say, of how I would react! He forfeited truth for torture.
He stood up. “I thought the man at church would understand, I thought he would be kind. But you should have seen his face, Em. It was like I’d told him I’d raped someone or something. It was pure repulsion. He spat at me. He fucking spat in my face!” He paced about the room, angry now. “He told me to leave, to never come back. He said I was evil, the devil’s creation, a perversion.”
I was still sat on the sofa, dazed. “Oh God, help me,” I whimpered. I hid my face in my hands, the lovely coward.
“See,” he said, “not even you can look at me.” His words cut me like knives.
“No,” I began. I stood up. “No, you don’t understand –”
“I disgust you! You can’t stand me! You and your perfect God can’t stand me!” He pushed past me and stormed into the bathroom. I heard more of those tic-tic-tics, and then it dawned on me. I sprinted after him. He was sat on the floor, an empty bottle of pills in his hand. The floor tiles were a rainbow of colour: blue, pink, yellow. “I spilt them,” he said numbly, like a child.
I collapsed next to him and took his face in my hands. “I love you,” I said, every single word a perfect truth. “I love you so much you complete and utter fool.” He shook his head between my palms but he did not look away. The tears poured from my eyes, the damn burst. “Please, never keep anything like that from me ever again, do you understand me?”
I gripped him angrily, my heart a beast inside of me. In that moment I felt hatred like never before. I hated religion, I hated the establishment, I hated the lack of love and grace, I hated the ignorance, I hated the un-Godliness of it all. I cried out in anger. And then exhaustion took me. I fell limp. He pulled me close to him and held me tight.
“Thank you,” he said into my hair, “thank you, thank you God.”
I was staring into a pair of dead eyes. They were pressed deep into a face sunken and grey, cheekbones sharp, mouth slack. Multicoloured beads were scattered all around the bathroom floor. It was him, it was my friend. My heart broke and escaped out of me; I tried to catch it mid-air, but it slipped through my clawed fingers and into nothingness. I bawled like a starving baby, everything crashing down around me. I pounded the floor with my fists, blood everywhere, pills everywhere, death everywhere.
And then I woke up.
I was back on the sofa, my neck stiff from sleeping at a funny angle. How long had I been out? I scrambled to my feet and called out his name in the dark. No answer. My brain swelled with the horror that comes with knowing. I made the short journey to the bathroom and slowly pushed open the door. He was slumped against the bath, his head resting on his chest. The dead eyes. The rainbow floor. Somebody tweaked the lens of my life, and everything was thrown into clarity. I knew exactly what to do.
I went to him and laid my hands on his broken body. I closed my eyes and appealed to the Lord. In that room that stank of death, the Spirit came to us. I burst into flames. I prayed like never before, my tongue adopting the language of angels. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I knew that Christ Jesus was interceding for me, perfecting every syllable. I felt His breath on my skin, His hand on my shoulder.
And then I heard the most beautiful sound – a cough. My boy coughed. He lifted his head and gazed about him, his eyes lost for a moment. He wiped his mouth with a trembling hand. I fell backwards in shock.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!” I laughed and laughed, and then I laughed some more. “Oh thank you Jesus, oh my sweet Lord you truly are good!”
He looked at me. For a second he couldn’t speak. He looked absolutely wonderful. He grinned. “I saw Him,” he said. “I saw Him, Em… I saw God!” For a good five minutes we howled with laughter, overcome with an ecstasy not of this world. We laughed until we cried, until we could laugh no more.
In the small hours, exhausted and trembling, we crawled into the empty bath and fell asleep together.
No one ever believed us.
Written last August, 2013.