Ours was not a story of tragic romance; the fault was in us.
You were proud and I was selfish, and so we never knew until it was too late. Our narrative is more a tale of two broken halves: one slipping, one fallen. If I’d written it, Sydney Carton would have let Charles Darnay die and married Lucie. The French Revolution wouldn’t have been a reign of terror, and the end would go something like, “they all lived happily ever after.” Because whatever the critics say, I don’t want my books to be realistic. I want them to be that one haven in which things do turn out all right and love wins the day.
The Ancient Greeks had six words for love. I know because you told me, read it from one of your many books that you cherished more than most anything else.
Philia. Ludus. Philautia. Eros. Agape. Pragma.
This is the story of two children, countless pretentious literary references, one devastatingly unfair world, and six loves.
Philia – Brotherly love
I wondered if you noticed me before I slapped the book out of your hands.
We were seven and I was a brat. You just sat on the limp swing, not moving, staring into my chest with dark, emotionless eyes. The suspender strap had slipped off your left shoulder. I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. There was a conclusion to this scene that I had expected, optimistically involving you running off in tears and me standing in rare power for all of three seconds. Yet you didn’t move and finally, feeling a bit ashamed and a lot foolish, I handed the book back to you.
Frowning in confusion, you accepted the book and tucked it under your arm. “Did you need something?” Your voice was soft and lilting. I had never heard anyone my age speak so politely, especially to me, rogue bully of the neighborhood playground.
“Uh,” I responded.
You stood, almost a full four inches shorter than me, and yet there was a quiet air of authority around you that I sensed and acknowledged. It was probably then that I should have run. Of course, being who I was, I took it as a challenge.
Straightening, I pointed to a pine tree about five hundred feet away. “Race you to that tree?”
You placed the book carefully to the side and took off before I could blink.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” I shouted, running as hard as I could after you.
“Beat you,” you said breathlessly, a smile tugging at your lips.
And that’s how we became best friends in less than five minutes.
The first time you saw me cry was when I was ten. My dad had been a bit more drunk, a little more vicious and his fists flew a tad too quick for me to duck.
You, almost two feet shorter than the mammoth of my father, stormed to our unkempt house. You stood tall and looked my father in the eye and demanded how he could bear it.
“Your own son,” you said, disgusted. “How could you?”
My father stared down uncomprehendingly at this little elf who was lecturing him on his parenting.
“Are you listening to me?” you challenged loudly, and, swear to god, my dad flinched. The man I was most afraid of, the man who had made me cower every time I passed his bedroom, the man who had filled my childhood with hookers and the stench of alcohol, actually trembled when this little child confronted him. If I hadn’t known it then, I did now.
You were the new center of my world.
Because later, even though my dad shouted expletives at me till his bottle was dry, he never lay a hand on me again.
Ludus – Young love
Who cared about him though? Who needs family and home when I had you beside me?
“If I’m Sydney Carton, you’d be Lucie,” I told you a couple of years later.
You wrinkled your nose in distaste. “I hope not. I hope I’m a bit more interesting than her.”
I forced a laugh. That hadn’t been what I was trying to say.
We lay in golden fields, Tennyson’s fields of barley, with your head next to mine. Our hands were almost flush against the other’s, knuckles brushing at the slightest movement. The day was hot and dry, with only the faintest winds occasionally stirring through our hair. You were laughing at some joke Victor Hugo had made in Les Misérables, and I was thinking about how radiant you looked when you smiled. Suddenly falling silent, you stared at me and I looked back, heart in my throat because, god, even at thirteen, I was aware of clichés.
Nothing happened. At least, not then. But later, when we had run back to your home, drenched in rainwater and the thrill of living, you smiled and hugged me till I couldn’t breathe. I stood stock-still, two inches taller, looking over your dark hair, and before I could lose nerve, dropped a quick kiss on your head. I don’t think you noticed. We never brought it up again, and before I knew what was happening, we were both turned on our heads and Heaven became Hell.
Philautia – Self-love
If we had sipped from the Fountain of Youth, this may have been a better story. As it were though, high school hit like a lightning bolt thrown by a jealous god. High school was a fire that separated the dross from the gold, and I fell into the dross. That time was a mess of pallid pills and sweaty skin and rolls of smoky paper. Still, you hung around me like a veil, hiding a broken boy from complete apathy and cynicism which would probably have ended in self-slaughter.
In ninth grade, your hair turned pure white. You muttered something about hair dye when I stared too long and your dad never spoke a word about it. I wondered if you ever noticed that the medicine had fallen out of your backpack. By tenth grade, your well-toned muscle had completely atrophied and you were as skinny as when we’d first met.
Meanwhile, I was subscribing to that blind poet who said, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” Teachers hated me, my hood always tucked rebelliously over my head to hide my face and my hands shoved listlessly into pockets. You suddenly started to devour books like they were the food you neglected, shudderingover the cafeteria lunch, which had never been great, but had also never been flat-out rejected. I Googled male anorexia, but you just laughed bitterly when I confronted you.
Mid-way through sophomore year, it clicked: the many unexplained doctor appointments, the secrecy, the medication, the loss of appetite. You just dropped your head on my shoulder when I asked, exhausted with the burden of secrecy and malignancy. Later, you apologized, smiling a smile so big it almost tore your face in half in forgery. You assured me you were fine, which I knew was utter garbage. How could you have thought I wouldn’t notice? Maybe the medicine was saving your life, but it was devouring your youth. You were literally disappearing beneath my hands, losing weight as fast as your sleep, breathing a little harder every passing day. As I tumbled down my rabbit-hole of self-destruction, you steadily climbed Jacob’s Ladder, reaching closer and closer to the white light of Heaven.
How pathetic could I be, to rely on a sick boy to save me? Every week, I found myself swamped in a new brand of transgression: a fresh drug, a stronger drink, a different lover. You never said anything, just waited quietly, with a hand held out when my head finally broke the surface of the water, spluttering and choking on my own sin. I grabbed on and, god, it felt so good to breathe again.
You were disappointed, but I just looked away, laughing hollowly at another close call.
I wondered if you ever saw that I only reached out for your hand.
Eros – Sensual love
You took used to take gymnastics, twisting your body in all sorts of impossible pretzel shapes, building up firm, lean muscle that lined your arms and legs. I was the loser kid who stood to the side in ill-fitting clothes and a lanky, unfit body. You would run up to me during breaks at meets, a red towel thrown around your neck and sweat dripping from your hair, beaming to see me.
I used to hate myself. Even then I was selfish as Zeus, slouching in the corner to watch Ganymede dance. Strong arms carrying you over the bars, legs spread to draw a perfect 180° line, the cords of muscle bulging under tight, scarlet uniform.
God, I was sick.
Now you probably weighed less than a crate of beer. You were a bird, all thin bones and feathery hair. Eyes large and shining with delirium. Crooked arms like a pair of wings, so easy to snap. I still thought you were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Pragma – Longstanding love
The sickness spread like fire throughout your body, sapping energy until you began to pass out randomly during the day. That was about when your dad pulled you out of school. Without your presence to hold me in check, you would think that I’d lose it completely and fling myself over the abyss.
I was far too distracted. You were gone and it felt like I was missing part of myself. Addictions were painfully ripped away when I was barred from your hospital room smelling of stale alcohol and smoke. Sick or well, you were liberating me.
When they finally deemed you healthy enough to go home, twelve pounds heavier and sitting up a little straighter, I volunteered to take you home. Your dad distrusted me (who wouldn’t in their right mind?), but he had work, so there was really no choice. They pushed you out in a wheelchair, looking smaller and frailer than ever, but you still smiled when you saw me. I gently took over the nurse and propelled you towards my car. You breathed deeply when we broke into the outside, fresh air and sunlight as precious to you as the transparent liquid dripping into your veins. When I helped you into the front seat, your hand gripped mine, and I couldn’t help but notice that they were cold and papery, like you were eighty years older than you were. You settled into your cocoon of green pillows and blankets, cushioning the rocky ride home, and I wished I could wrap you up in life as vibrant as that green and carry you safely to the other side.
“They think I’m dying,” you told me softly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, too loud and too confident for it to be true. “If I could survive till now, you’ll outlive us all.” Fallacious logic—they always say the good die young, but I pushed it out of my head. “It’s just an autoimmune disorder.”
You sat quietly, absorbing my words, hoping against the hope that they were true.
“Maybe,” you finally said, doubtfully.
I swallowed hard, cursed the salt water in my eyes, and smiled.
“You’ll be fine. I promise.”
The tests came back. They said you had a four-month deadline.
Four months. I had more time to finish my English essay.
When you told me, I squeezed your hand so hard you winced and then my mask cracked, and I cried, the toll of the past years finally breaking free. You held me tight, fingertips digging into my hoodie like I was a float keeping you above the waters, and I held you like glass, terrified that too tight a grip would shatter you. I cried until you smothered a cough attack and then I almost had a heart attack trying to find your inhaler. Death and Disease weren’t sentimental; they wanted your life and they’d take it, one breath at a time. Life has no mercy for two stranded boys in a deadbeat town.
I’d play proxy in half a heartbeat. Take my life, god knows I don’t deserve it.
But that’s not how our fairytale goes.
“Take me?” you murmured, one night, hands too tired to do more than smooth the same patch of blanket over and over.
“What?” I asked, startled out of my reverie.
“To the top of the Centurion Estate. You promised, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember,” I replied quietly. I had no idea which promise this was; I had made too many.
“Do it now, before…” you waved a hand aimlessly.
I could never deny you, not even your constant reminder of the future. I’d grown tired of protesting it.
At the top of the Centurion Estate, forty-two stories in the air, you shook in the wind. I tried to steady you, but you wrenched yourself free. Then without warning, you screamed. Screamed across the top of our city. Screamed and screamed and screamed, screams as heavy as stars, until your voice gave way to sobs and this was it. You were going and there was nothing we could do about it. I tugged you down, away from the edge of the roof, and held you until you breathed a little smoother.
“Thank you,” you gasped, sucking in huge gulps of air. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” I said.
We sat side by side, watching the city flurry by. I wondered what you were thinking, watching this living organism that would outlive you. I knew what I wanted. I wanted you. If I believed in miracles, I would’ve given anything in exchange for a little more time. Staring out across the horizon of harsh lights, I closed my eyes and tried to wish it true.
Stay alive, stay alive. Just a little while longer.
The night answered with silence. You fell asleep, slumped against me, your hipbone digging into my side. I could almost feel every bump of your rib against my side. I promised myself I wouldn’t break down again.
You didn’t wake after some time, so I lifted you up, cradled your skinny, delicate body in my arms. You stirred, shifting your head so it rested against my chest, but didn’t wake. And I carried you down the many flights of stairs to my car. At your house, you thanked me calmly; the hurricane had passed and now you were picture-perfect. I smiled thinly and allowed the good-bye embrace to continue a moment longer than usual. Your dad watched us from the top of the stairs. The door closed and I heard the click of a lock.
I wondered then if you ever knew that I loved you.
Agape – All-consuming love
I had learned the art of dying alive well; it was harder to learn how to live while dead.
It was strange at first. The realization that you were gone didn’t hit at first; I kept expecting you to be there behind me, in your wheelchair with a book in your hands. Then one day it hit, like a violent blow from Ares, and I crumpled in myself, splattering sorrow all over my room.
Gone, gone, and never coming back.
I looked at your dad, the only other person in the world who was hurting as much as I was, and tried to see myself from his perspective: the addict who hung around his dying son, the punk who always had a pack of cancer sticks tucked in his back pocket when he turned to push the wheelchair out of the house, the boy whose hands spelled out everything when they lingered a second too long on his son’s shoulders. He stared back at me, unreadable. Then, out of the blue, he grasped my hand and pulled me into a tight hug, so tight I almost couldn’t breathe. I remember the first time you hugged me on this doorstep, still soaked in life, and the last time I hugged you, the bitter perfume of death hanging around you, the hoarse screams still echoing in your throat. I didn’t even notice I was shaking, tears spilling down my face, and your dad was crying too, his head resting on my shoulder. I didn’t know who was comforting who. It didn’t matter. At that moment, we were connected in grief.
“He was in love with you, you know,” your dad said gruffly, after we’d run out of heartache to spill.
I said nothing. If he’d taken a knife and stabbed me in the chest, it would’ve hurt less.
If I could sum up our time in a word it would be “desperate.” Desperate for attention, desperate for a laugh, desperate for escape. Desperate for a little bit of love. Desperate for a little more time.
Desperate for a miracle.
You were Apollo, light and music to this deplorable Dionysius. You be my wine, I’d gladly intoxicate myself.
You’d given me a heart, but all it did was break.
Now you were gone, and I was still hurting.
I would always hurt. I had given you part of my soul, and it was never coming back.
One day, I may accept that.
Until then, I’ll see you in hospital windows, by pine trees, behind bookcases—forever locked away in my memory.
Because you possess me.