This story can be read a couple of different ways: while not an actual/direct sequel to my story on ff.net (The Mysterion Mythos), this story can be read with the characters being the same/having the events of that story behind them (it's not necessary to have read it, but it may make one or two subtle mentions in this story read slightly differently), or it can be read as its own separate thing.
Pack It All Up
In a lot of different ways, my life could probably be scrawled on paper and stone tablets and the chalkboard bathroom walls of countless coffee shops as, at its most simple, a story of two boys and a guitar. Being entangled with a musician is being entangled with music, after all, and to create music, one must have a solid process. A series of logical steps that eventually lead to the desired result. And what better result for any self-respecting singer/songwriter than perfection, right?
This particular formula took form over the course of five years.
Five years, and an enormous room full of mental suitcases.
That was the way he’d started to put it.
Suitcases for him, logical, rigid timeline for me… until the two modes of thought really began to meld together into the one thing that finally, once and for all, allowed the right kind of music to be created. Inspiration found. Sanity saved. Lyrics flowing with bars of melody flowing with steady streams of harmony flowing back into the lyrics again.
And thank you very much, but a lot of the final thought process did indeed come from my horrible and unshakeable habit of over-analyzing every tiny detail of not only my life but his. Or how mine fit into his. Or how his fit into mine. How it all came together and fell apart and was eventually pressed into compact disc form.
Two boys, five years, and a guitar. That was all it took.
Five years of yes and no, give and take, push and shove, before and after. Five years of us having, each to our own, an on-again, off-again relationship with that guitar. Whether a constant topic of discussion or simply something we walked by, it did have a steady hand in seeing it all through.
Five years and then some, in all honesty. And all of it getting packed up and needing to be re-shelved and re-stocked anew. Because that’s the way of things, when one packs thoughts and inspiration into suitcases both mental and physical. Clear out the clutter and travel with the events that served as the constant reminder that the destination had been worth it all along.
I woke on the morning of May fifteenth in my bedroom at home, sunlight darting through the single window, casting its golden glow over dozens of empty suitcases and cardboard boxes, stacked up in piles according to size. There were full boxes from years ago—high school, even elementary—and some empty ones from recycled care packages still bearing my campus address in Fort Collins. One or two still had airmail postage from my junior fall semester abroad.
For a while, all I could do was lie there in bed and stare. This was insane. It didn’t feel real. Four years of college and now: this. Get the diploma, go out into the world. Fuck. For all the classes I’d taken, Real Life 101 was not one of them. Oh, I felt prepared for the internship I was moving away for, and all, but…
I groaned and grabbed at my hair. Graduation was three days prior. I’d stayed that last night at Homewood Suites in Fort Collins, along with my parents and younger brother, sprawled out on the pull-out sofa (my back still hurt a little from that) while Ike made himself a nest of cushions and blankets, keeping me up with an occasional dissatisfied groan when he missed out on something in whatever the hell he’d been playing on his phone. Thrown right back into family life… just enough time to get used to the comforts of home again before leaving.
I shoved my face back into my pillow, heavy with the chemical scent of the product I’d spray into my hair as a hold whenever I preferred keeping that thicket in large waves rather than tight curls. (Not that anything I did to it made much difference: my hair color still lent itself to the suggestion that my head was on fire.) It was enough to wake me up, so I turned the pillow over and settled in for another five minutes. God, I really was a college graduate, home and coveting the eternal ‘five more minutes.’ Of being at home. Of not being self-sufficient. Of being a kid. Or whatever.
When I had left, I hadn’t expected I’d become the person I was now. In my teenage years, all I wanted was this weird notion of a vaguely-processed ‘freedom.’ I’d experienced a few things that could very well have led to just that, but in the end was able to find that I was perfectly—and in some cases beyond—content with the way things had turned out instead.
But really. Is there anyone out there who became exactly what they’d always expected?
Expectations change. I hadn’t had many, going into college. Hell, I’d gone in undeclared. Wise choice in the long run? I thought so. God, today was going to be all about evaluating, wasn’t it? The way my brain worked, anyway.
I’m a person who can often be found looking back, and I do so fondly. My brain works in a very detail-oriented way, like a brand new computer on a good day, and like an abandoned Victorian clock on a bad one, but even on those mediocre or even awful days, I simply filter logic. It’s been the way I’ve thought of my mind since I became aware of the different kinds of conscious thought. Starting around the time I turned ten, I began dividing my life into segments, and the vast majority of these segments were befores and afters.
There had been no ‘after’ quite like this. Probably because I still felt stuck in a ‘before.’ I had not experienced anything like this yet in my life… because, really, nothing in life prepares you—not even in my consistently crazy hometown of South Park, Colorado—for being twenty-two. Or whatever age you happen to be after you graduate from college; in my case, I was nearing twenty-two. Twenty-two: the era of both doubt and certainty, of everything you have been and everything you’re going to be. Of consistent re-evaluation.
“Kyle?” My mother’s Newark-laced alto shot through the crack in my bedroom door. Well, the day was starting. She’d kick me into gear, no doubt about that. Today wasn’t going to be easy—picking and choosing what stayed and what was to go, packing up physical suitcases with my already carefully-sorted memories.
“Yep,” I muffled out into my pillow.
“It’s seven thirty, bubbe, you’ve slept in long enough,” my mother declared. “Come on downstairs and have some breakfast.” Seven thirty? Fair enough. Ike had to get to school, I understood that.
“’Kay, Ma,” I said, tilting my head to the side somewhat. “Be there in a minute.”
She must have taken my word for that, since the next thing I heard were her footsteps plodding down the stairs… aaaaand then her voice snapping at my brother to put down his phone, honestly, because he could talk to his girlfriend later.
Hearing that triggered an automatic response in me, though; I sat up in bed, blinked a few times to adjust to the sunlight, and glanced down at my own iPhone, plugged in on my bedside table. It was flashing a text message alert, which got me grinning and slightly more awake. Picking up the phone, I saw that had been sent about ten minutes before I’d checked, meaning that it must have contributed to waking me up, without my consciously knowing.
Am I up before you again?
I laughed a bit. It was from Stan: notorious, lately, for waking up far too early (and thereby teasing me about ‘sleeping in.’). 10 minutes later says yes, I texted back.
Only a few seconds passed before I received his reply of, So close!
Whatever, I responded.
So… lunch? he texted me while I was hauling myself out of bed. I started down the hall to the bathroom and listened in for more of my mother’s rants at either me or my brother. Things seemed to be fairly calm downstairs, since Ike still had half an hour to get to school, so I let go of any worry about morning family drama, or even general ridiculousness, and began humming to myself a little. I had a couple of new favorite songs now, and they’d run through my head like wildfire… which was actually perfect, because I really needed something to get that grating, God-awful commencement music out of my head before my ears actually started bleeding from having to listen to it twice.
I took the whole of my morning routine (the usual that one would expect, plus an extra couple minutes to figure out what the hell my hair was doing, and if I wanted to bother straightening it—I decided no, at least for now) to think about Stan’s offer. Every time I came up with a reason for heading out to lunch, though, it was like adding onto the work I eventually had to do in my room. So I ultimately came up with, Can’t, dude. Mom’s on the warpath till my room’s clean.
Lame. Dinner it is :)
God, he knew how to time things. I rolled my eyes and laughed again before I texted my reply, Well played, as I descended the stairs. Where?
Wanna come over? I found something I wanna show you.
As if dinner at his house wasn’t enticing enough. That much was already code for the fact that he’d be cooking, which was never something I’d pass up, and it would be nice to see his parents in a less-frenzied atmosphere than the bookends to our week: graduation, and the impending move.
And the wedding. Shit.
Wait isn’t tonight Clyde & Bebe’s rehearsal???? I texted Stan frantically. I was hardly watching my step as I walked around the corner from the stairs to the dining room. It hardly mattered, though, since my parents rarely re-arranged. My room was currently in the most disastrous state of any in the house, due to the stacks of boxes and suitcases. The first floor of our two-storey, upper-middle class home was set up spaciously and simply… my feet could find their way to the dining room as easily as anything, without me having to check my surroundings before tripping or miscalculating. I have a bit of a sixth sense for knowing when I’m nearing a collision, too, but that’s neither here nor there.
Tomorrow, Stan texted me a reminder. I stopped walking to let myself heave out a huge sigh of relief. Way to be a great friend, Kyle Broflovski, forgetting your friends’ exact appointed dates. Thank God I hadn’t actually missed a day, though. Stan followed up his reminder with, Go wake up!
K. See you tonight.
6:45. Oh, ha ha, Stan Marsh. We’d started the stupid 6:45 thing way back in eighth grade, while complaining that everything in the movies happened at either exactly seven or exactly eight. So we would make our band practices—God, we sucked back then—start at 6:45 to break norms, which only added one extra thing for our pseudo-friend Eric Cartman to mock us about. We never cared. And the joke had stuck.
You suck, I texted Stan, still laughing to myself a little.
All right… so maybe nothing in life—and believe me, I have seen a lot—had really prepared me for everything I was about to face on the daunting road ahead of me, but, I realized, I had plenty of people I could rely on. People I could go to in order to talk about troubles, or else in order to forget about them. The impending wedding of long-time friends Clyde Donovan and Bebe Stevens, stressful as it was to be a part of, was actually pretty well-timed, since it was much more of a ‘last hurrah’ kind of thing before we all parted ways and set out into the world.
But that could wait to think about. I’d take a leisurely, normal morning while it was right there, available to me. Yes, ‘normal’ is a relative word—in my family and my hometown—but nothing too insane could happen at breakfast. Just my mother’s usual overzealous coddling… or, rather, as the case currently was, griping at my brother.
“Ike,” she was scolding him, “you put that phone away and sit up like a normal human being! Honestly. You are going to Yale next year!”
“I’ll be human once I get there,” Ike quipped back, his black eyes still fixed on his iPhone screen, “how’s that?” I slid my own phone into the pocket of my grey flannel pajama pants and cast a slightly jealous glance at Ike’s. For the past four years, he’d been getting all the first available upgrades, and was beta-testing the new version of the iPhone currently. I understood why, I mean, I lived several towns away… and besides, my parents had given me things like, oh, a car, so I wasn’t in any place to complain.
My mother, her beehive hair a tornado of flame and smoke, walked by and removed the phone from Ike’s hands, reminded him that he had to leave for school in ten minutes, and set a plate of eggs, toast, and turkey bacon in front of him. Ike rolled his eyes at her constant fluttering, but started in on his breakfast anyway.
A high school senior at the age of sixteen, my brother of Canadian parentage (adopted into our family when he was a baby) was intelligent, a high-achiever, and a genuine person, but a regular teenager nonetheless. The bad posture, active social life, disenchantment with part-time jobs… all that comes with it. Ike was taking our parents’ wishes and advice on college and a career, though, much more than I had. All right, yes, I’d done well for myself in that respect, too. As the older sibling, though, my parents did see other qualities in me that Ike, six years my junior, couldn’t quite match. Not that we were much in competition, but my sixteen was quite different than his, given a variety of circumstances.
We were both very family-oriented underneath everything else we were, or, in some cases, tried to be, despite our individual quests for self-fulfillment beyond expectations. It had taken me a long time to accept that fact, and I was still sort of coming to terms with it. Comforts of home, family support… the brink of independence was littered with the desire to have just a little more of that, just a little while longer.
But this was it. Just a few more days… and then the move. The very freedom I’d been wanting for almost ten years had grown from dream to reality. Just a few more days. Holy shit. And then… well, I kind of knew… there were at least a few future certainties, but the hows and whys would remain a mystery until then. Yeah, this was neither ‘before’ nor ‘after.’ This was ‘between.’ Get used to it, I told myself. ‘Between’ would probably last until I settled into a career, permanent house or apartment, those sorts of things. Welcome to what it’s like to actually be in your twenties.
To my mother, though, I was certainly not ‘between’ anything: I was both on the brink of adulthood, and yet still partially a little kid. She bustled over to me upon her next cross from kitchen to dining room—she set down another loaded plate on the table at the spot I’d been sitting at all these years, then locked her arms around me for the umpteenth time since graduation weekend had started. A few more days of constant tight hugs from her and my ribcage might just restructure. “Oh, good morning, Kyle,” she fussed. “It’s so wonderful to have you home for a few days, sweetie!”
“Yeah, ’morning,” I said in return. My mother, who only came up to about my collarbone in height, let go of me and, beaming, shuffled me over to the table and encouraged me to eat. Once she was off, babbling on about something or other, Ike rolled his black eyes and pointed in her general direction. “Still that predictable, huh?” I laughed to him, under my breath.
“You know it, buddy,” said Ike, his unshakeable Canadian dialect out in full swing. He messed slightly with his tightly-clipped black hair and stared up at the ceiling to project an image of his own next step: “Can’t wait to hit the East Coast.”
I felt a sting in my chest, and started in slowly on my breakfast. “It goes by a lot faster than you think,” I told him.
“Everybody says that,” Ike said doubtfully, glancing at me again.
“No really,” I repeated. My voice was almost too quiet for my own liking. “It goes by way too fast.”
“Whatever,” Ike shrugged. He reclaimed his phone after casting a glance into the kitchen. Mom had picked up the phone and was thick into a conversation with someone, but just to be safe, Ike turned his back on the opening between kitchen and dining room in order to continue his texting conversation. “I’ll milk it.”
Yeah, that’s what I’d said, too. Four years ago may as well have been four months ago. Weeks, maybe. Days. It was hard to come up with a measurement for something like that. College years are an odd time of life. Four years of self-discovery and self-doubt, and then: see ya. Next step.
Next logical step.
There were a couple of things that I knew about heading off into the real world, though. Not to expect anything, not to let myself fall short, and to appreciate every opportunity. That, and embrace my freedoms as they now chose to manifest. Embrace everything.
When my mother appeared back in the room, she sat down across from me at the table, swiftly dislodged the phone from Ike’s hands and set it aside, then looked at me with her brightest, proudest smile, and said, “Oh, I just can’t believe it! You’re all graduated. I wish you could be home a little bit longer, but, that’s just the way things go, isn’t it?” Her smile pinched her eyes upward into beaming arcs.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to push her with my mind back into the kitchen to make coffee. She totally didn’t read me. “That’s the way the internship worked out, though, y’know?”
“Of course, of course. Now, sweetie, I hope you are considering graduate school—”
A couple years ago, I may have groaned. Now, I just laughed, not unkindly, at my mother’s predictable comment. “I’m thinking about it,” I assured her. “Just need to get this internship done and see what the prospects are first. If I get hired by these guys, the company might help pay for my higher education after—what is it—I think like two years.”
“Now that’s smart planning, Kyle. Ike, I hope you’re listening to this.” She nudged my brother’s arm a little.
Teenager he was, Ike’s response was, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
“Ike, go to school!”
As my mother hurried Ike up and out of the door, I rose to reward my efforts in waking up early during the few days ‘off’ I still had with the largest mug I could find, filled with the organic coffee I’d given my parents as a Hanukkah gift this past year. It had, in turn, been from a gift given to me from a barista friend back in Fort Collins. Weird that, once it had been done up the way I like it with cream and sugar (read: Splenda…), I had the thought, This tastes like home. Man, when had Fort Collins started feeling like home?
Or maybe it was just the coffee house aspect of it. That particular coffee had more than a taste. A sip of it, and I could hear the guitar. Hear the bustling of the crowd, the clattering of jewel cases as artists exchanged their demos and EPs, the electric buzz of amps and microphones all set up in this corner or that, accommodating enough space so that patrons could still come and go as single act after single act took advantage of the downtown showcase, the ten minutes to share personal music with a live audience.
A sip of that coffee, and I’d always be able to see him looking either for me or directly at me, eyes asking either, “Does this sound okay?” or, “For the love of God, will you help me if I freeze and forget the lyrics?” I laughed a little into my coffee cup.
God, it had gone by fast. Not just those four years. All twenty-two. I’d had so many years of being pulled off in one direction or another, fighting some cause or running from one. Always with him. And all boiling down to that cup of coffee that would forever bring songs to my head.
I had found my freedom in getting carried away. However the music would sway me.
Other people I’d talked to felt the same way, though: not feeling ‘at home’ in a college town until the very end. At that point, you own it, you own campus, you know the town, you’ve got everything covered… and then, off to another place to find yourself.
Ten years ago, I was in middle school—mind both open and closed, hands fumbling with my own bass guitar. Five years ago, I was a senior in high school—mind both open and closed, suitcases packed, pleading to hear a little more than a half-remembered Cohen cover. Plus, when I was a senior in high school, all I’d wanted to do was get out. Now, seasoned an extra four years in a different town, having tasted a little bit of that enigmatic ‘real world,’ I was at that balancing stage of looking both back and forward with the same fondness. As Bebe (Stevens for only a couple more days; jeez…) would say though, I wasn’t a Libra, I was a Gemini—I was more about duality and comparisons than balance.
When you grow up in a small town, as I did, things become predictable. Two types of people came out of South Park, Colorado: those who could do nothing but stay, and those who would choke if they did not leave. Either way, whether one stayed or left, if you grew up in that town, it stayed with you forever.
I’d always known that I would eventually leave. I never knew when, how, or why, but it was one of those thoughts that tickled the back of my mind at all times. Leaving for college had sent me off with the promise of four years in a new town, and possible opportunities abroad. I left home with the security of knowing I could always come back, just in case it turned out that I hadn’t quite found my brand of freedom yet. It became, then, more about finding the things associated with that town that I really did want to carry with me forever.
Now that those four years had slipped away as calmly and casually as a fog will lift from a lake, I found myself at a crossroads. Surrounded by memories, and the demand to pick and choose my baggage. This was it; I was leaving.
Pack it all up, Kyle. It’s time to go.
It was all over? Really? College was just—over? Just like that? Jesus. The end.
It was hard to believe I’d be watching a couple of my friends get married in just two more days.
Those thoughts stuck with me through my morning conversation with my mom, through my second cup of coffee, and finally up the stairs into my bedroom. My heart skipped some, and I swallowed back my nerves. “All right,” I said aloud, in an attempt to pump myself up and make this less of a chore and more of an adventure. I glanced around the room, laced my fingers together, then flexed my palms out. Might as well be getting out the work gloves. This wasn’t just packing. This was excavation. “Let’s get started.” That said aloud to myself, I started digging and sorting.
One of the first things that I found, and decided right away that I had to keep, was my battered green, overpriced-CSU-brand, single-subject notebook that I had used for the English class I’d taken my freshman year. On came the distractions. Every single item in my room would probably send me off like this, I realized, so I closed my door and snuck just one peek at the opening page of the notebook.
I must have spent a good five minutes just flipping through that thing before I finally came to the conclusion that I really had to get started on packing, so I began to sort things into piles. Now, I had never been firmly diagnosed with OCD, and I doubted that I actually had it—since, lacking from whatever my case could actually be was the ritual paranoia—but I did have a driving need to organize things in a certain way. And, okay, a little paranoia, but still. It was never even necessarily the best way, like, oh, sorting things by size, color or quantity… I sorted things based on how attached I was to them. Or, the degree of attachment I felt for any one grouping of objects. Which, I supposed that day, was a good thing, since it would help me determine what I needed to part with.
And of course, constantly going back to that English notebook and all, there was one overarching presence over everything. Stronger than my family or any of my other friends, those four years were laced with Stan’s influence. I had the quick thought to haul out my phone and text him, but I knew that the only good that would do was make me give into the lunch offer, and I really needed to get this work done.
By noon, I had a pretty good sense of where I was going, as far as packing things up. I’d shoved the high school and elementary school boxes out of the way, and piled them against the wall opposite my bed, since going through those would probably take me another full day, and as long as my parents didn’t mind having those in the basement, or our storage unit, or whatever, I could sort through them some other time. The rest of my room I had started to lay out in logical piles. On one side: the items to be rooted through. On the other: the few suitcases I told myself would be coming with me on my move.
I allowed myself four suitcases and two good-sized cardboard boxes. The rest, I’d find some way to deal with. Eventually.
To help my thought process a little, I opened up my laptop and set iTunes on random. I’d come to be able to sort things out so much better with music in the background.
As I began to tackle the piles, though, that English notebook was one of the first things I picked up again. And one of the first things I packed into the large black rolling suitcase… one of the only two pieces left from the set I’d started out with four years ago.
Solitary Matched Luggage
If my parents had been of either the cheap or prank-loving variety, they would probably have spaced out one of my Hanukkah gifts over five nights. Since they were neither (my father’s antics sometimes aside), and were, instead, practical and rather straightforward, the matched luggage was the eighth and final one. Which I sort of took as a message, but hadn’t decided to dwell on, at the time. It was my senior year of high school, after all, and I had other holiday plans that occupied much more of my time than wondering if my parents really were being practical or if they were giving me the signal that my room was going to become my dad’s office or something.
I’d heard enough stories of the oldest kid going away to school and returning not to a bedroom but to an office he was lucky enough to have a day bed in. Mostly, of course, from my younger brother, who could not stop blabbering on senselessly about the symbolism of my leaving for school. It was my duty to remind him that when Stan’s sister Shelly went off to college, her room hadn’t been modified; Ike’s argument was that she was a girl and it didn’t matter. That was around the time I stopped listening to his stories and discovered the beauty of the comeback, “Whatever.” After all, Ike was still only twelve at the time, and therefore thick in the midst of the annoying adolescent years that hit us all.
The matched luggage was, I decided in the long run, a good idea, even if it was black, and therefore easily confused, but then, I wasn’t flying… which, again, got me wondering if the gift was in any way insulting. I really shouldn’t have thought that; my parents are good people. I just did struggle for quite some time over whether or not they really were angry about my passing up Yale and Princeton.
I felt no guilt over not choosing the Ivy League, though. I didn’t need it; I didn’t want it. In my opinion, all schools are equally credible as long as they provide what it is the student is looking for. As the very student in question, I felt that I had some right to decide where it was I was going. And to be honest, yes, some of that decision was based on who else was going to be there.
Maybe I’d wanted freedom, but I’d also wanted solidarity.
I’ve been very close with a tightly-knit group of friends for a very long time, and since a few were already Colorado State University-bound after high school, it got me leaning in that direction. I toured the school along with that group of friends, and decided that if I was going in undeclared—my wish from the start, while if my parents had it their way I’d be going for pre-law, no questions asked—CSU was the place to go. Besides, I was valedictorian and a state resident. Hello, scholarships and minimal student loans. Save that money for Ike, I told my parents. He’d be Harvard- or Yale-bound for sure.
It was that five-piece set of luggage that first saw me on my way out of South Park and into Fort Collins. I’d been out of my hometown plenty of times, sometimes for an extended stay of a couple weeks, but never more than that. This would be my first time actually being able to live away from home. Sure it was just three and a half hours away, but it was away. That, to me, at that point in my life, was all that mattered.
My parents and brother helped me move that August morning; we took two cars, my family all riding up in the van my mother had caved and bought when I was a sophomore in high school—and I had then inherited the family station wagon, which was my own ride. Beside me the entire way was a friend I was beyond grateful to be heading to college with, even if we were already bickering over musical tastes.
Kenny McCormick, someone I’d known since toddlerhood, would be a nearly constant carpooling companion of mine, due to his own lack of vehicle (not to mention parental support), but he was the kind of person who’d do favors in exchange, or offer to pay for gas money, and at least drive some of the distance if need be. “Dude,” he said when we weren’t even twenty miles out of South Park, “change this music.”
“What’s wrong with Neutral Milk Hotel?” I wondered.
Kenny burst out laughing. “Is that honest to Christ the name of this band? Change this!”
“Oh, to what, Sex Pistols?” I didn’t mind the Sex Pistols, but it was always the first name to drop around Kenny.
“I’d rather listen to a band with Sex in the name than fucking Neutral.”
“Shut the fuck up, they’re good!” I scolded back.
“Are you saying that,” Kenny snickered, “or is Staaaaaan?” He leaned over onto the divider between the driver and passenger seats, propped his head up in both hands, and gave me a put-on puppy-dog stare, his senselessly tousled blonde hair adding just that much more of a quirk to the position he’d chosen. I laughed, and shoved him away, back against his window, before I could lose concentration on the road. At least it was summer and we were heading down the mountain. It’s bad enough having road rage without adding ice and snow on top of that.
“Shut up,” I said again, this time more modestly.
Stan Marsh, another friend of both of ours for years upon years, had discovered Neutral Milk Hotel along with Tori Amos, Regina Spektor, Max Vernon and other acoustic recording artists throughout our high school years while looking for things he could stand to cover on his guitar (or piano, which he was much more proficient at than I, despite my efforts). Hearing him play the music was what got me into those bands and singer-songwriters in the first place.
Starting around middle school, I’d begun trusting Stan’s tastes in music more, and had put in more of an effort to keep up with the bass guitar so we could jam together, occasionally with Kenny on drums. (Between the ages of nine and nineteen, my friends and I had probably formed and broken up at least twenty-five bands.) Stan and I had gone through phases in tastes together, and sometimes would argue that one or the other of us had really shitty tastes, but lately, we’d been in pretty solid agreements on just about everything.
That, and we had been dating for a little over a year.
My life, in its sequences of befores and afters, follows logical patterns. I have accepted this wholeheartedly, and do sometimes obsess a little much over where I’m going next. If my friends and interests that had stuck with me over the years had been influential forces over which direction I was heading next, my relationship with Stan had been the root of the logic in it all. Sure, I had Kenny to thank for a lot of it, as well, and, yes, there were Ike and my parents to think of, but it was Stan that I went to with troubles, Stan who helped me keep a level head; Stan who I’d fallen in love with.
It had happened a couple months after he’d turned seventeen. He’d come out to me first, and after drilling through all of the ups and downs and yesses and nos and possibilities and opportunities in my head, I’d realized that there was really no room for debate on my part, either. We didn’t approach it with caution, we approached it with confidence. The next logical step. We had been best friends for years, and over the course of it all had grown closer together. The word ‘love’ came into the mix in December, and the label of ‘boyfriend’ followed in late February of our junior year of high school. In amongst the insanity of our hometown, we kept each other sane.
And now we were moving that out to Fort Collins, as well.
Our first really big challenge of an after: taking our relationship out of South Park, and seeing just what lay in wait for us as a couple beyond the confines of our hometown. It summoned up both nervousness and excitement.
That day, mostly excitement. I hadn’t seen him for almost two weeks, which had been killing me. Stan, along with our friend Clyde (one from the list of ‘known since elementary school…’ God, South Park is small…), had both been welcomed onto the CSU football team, and had therefore needed to report in early for pre-season practices. In high school, Stan had played quarterback and Clyde center; I had a feeling it was their already-standing team camaraderie that had landed both of them spots on the college team… though I also got the sense that Stan may not have tried out if Clyde hadn’t badgered him about it. Clyde was the one who got the athletic scholarship, after all, so my boyfriend agreed to give it a shot, at least for the first year. Off the two of them had gone, much too early for my comfort, so I was eager to just get there and see him.
With my parents’ eager help—and my brother’s disgruntled half-assed efforts—Kenny and I were able to move in fairly swiftly. As we were bringing the first load into our room (after scaling, luckily, only one flight of stairs), I discovered that a green CSU notebook had been slid under the little crack under the door. Kenny was the one to pick it up, but a second later, he laughed and handed it off to me. “It’s for you, dude,” he said as if passing off a phone.
The inside cover read, in black sharpie, “Hey Kyle, guess what? I live down the hall from you. See you soon! —Stan. PS—Save this for one of the classes I’m in with you, k?” In smaller print, under that, he’d written, “And save a couple pages for when we get bored.” If my high school English and Chemistry notebooks were any indication, Stan and I would continue our tradition of having margin conversations in, most likely, both of the two classes we’d be taking together that semester, one of which was, ironically, English. That instantly seemed like the right one to save that notebook for.
Beaming, I staked my claim on one of the desks in the room by setting the notebook down on top of it, then whipped out my phone to send Stan the message that we were on campus.
He sent a few frantic texts back, saying he and Clyde were currently off-campus but were heading back, and showed up just as I was sliding the last of my suitcases under the bed my mother was making up in order to occupy her time and not get too emotional. While Kenny was swearing over trying to find the ethernet hookup at his desk, Stan appeared in our open doorway and knocked twice. “Hey,” he called in.
I turned—probably too fast—and walked briskly over to him; I locked him immediately in a tight hug and exclaimed, “Hi, Stan!”
“Hey,” he said again, more brightly this time, and followed his thought by greeting me with a sweet, much-anticipated kiss. He looked so upbeat and confident, back straight, black hair still sun-warmed, cut into the intentionally slightly shaggy shape that had been the frame to his face since late junior year. Cheekbones high and well-angled, jaw precise, he had the most intoxicating grin. While my own eyes matched my birthstone, Stan’s were a deep, complimentary sapphire. I had to admit that I was glad he had a couple of inches of height on me, too; it had been awkward only for a little while (read: until I finally hit my manageable five-foot-ten to his impossible six-foot height he’d attained at sixteen). Stan rested his arms around my waist, kissed me a second time, then asked, “How’re you?”
“Fine,” I answered on a sub-tone. My heart started racing. I was so excited for a full four years of college—with him, away from home, both of us opening ourselves up to something completely new. I could not wait. “I missed you, though.”
“Missed you, too,” my boyfriend told me, kissing my forehead. He began to stroke back my hair, one of his favorite activities since even before we’d started dating. I kept my hair quite strictly flattened into waves rather than curls—from freshman year of high school through sophomore year of college, it was easy to forget my hair naturally corkscrewed at all sometimes—but Stan never cared how I wore it, just that I kept it thick enough and long enough to provide shape, though it was significantly shorter than it had been when we were kids and I hadn’t cared quite as much.
“How’s the team and stuff?” I wondered.
“Fine,” Stan shrugged. “I’ve got a story for you later.”
“Sure. How about the school?” I grinned. I had already forgotten about everyone else in the room; Stan just had that kind of magnetic power over me. “You gonna show me around?”
“If you want.”
“Just warn me or send a postcard if the tour concludes in this room,” I heard Kenny say, a promiscuous lilt added to the final thought. Slightly embarrassed, Stan and I turned to acknowledge him—it was probably at that point Stan figured out that my family was still there, too.
“Oh, Kenny McCormick, that is not appropriate!” my mother scolded, then fussed about with something else.
“Eh,” Kenny shrugged. Furthering that comment, though, he smirked and walked up closer to us, slapping his right hand into Stan’s for a fast greeting handshake. “What’s good, dude?”
“Hey, Kenny, it—” Stan drew his hand away to reveal the single condom Kenny had slid into the handshake. “You dick,” he muttered as he slid the package into his back pocket.
“No, that’s so you protect yours,” Kenny said without skipping a beat. “Assuming it’s yours we’re talkin’ about.”
“Still not gonna find out, Kenny.”
“Or do I?” Kenny and I both whacked Stan for that one.
Kenny had, at some point, made it a kind of life mission to try to get either me or Stan to tell him about the dynamics of our relationship. Or, in Kenny’s words, “Who’s the chick and who’s the dude?” We let it slide with Kenny, since we kind of expected that sort of thing from him, but if anyone else were to ask in that way, we’d get a bit more defensive. With Kenny McCormick, it was just a game. We didn’t tell him anything because we knew we could have fun with him about it.
The truth of it was, though, no matter how many times our friend would guess, no matter when he got it right or wrong, Stan still had this adorable preference for being on the bottom.
When we first started out, I talked to him a little about it, since I’d been the one to kind of set our sex life in motion in the first place. I just loved crawling on top of him, stripping him down, licking his skin, biting his neck, hearing him moan, feeling his fingers brush against me—face or hair or arms or chest or back—with a kind of desperate innocence. I just hadn’t known that he preferred that, too; that he didn’t consider himself much of an initiator, or licker, or biter, and he confessed to me that some of it was because he felt insecure.
“I don’t want to let you down,” he had told me at the time, his face flushed as he revealed that secret. “Also,” he added, when I assured him that he never disappointed when he did take dominance, “I um… just really fucking love the way you take me…”
“The way I take you?” I repeated, quietly laughing at his word choice.
“Fuck sounds cheap,” my boyfriend smirked. “Um, just… like… I don’t know. You’re intense, dude, I like that.”
I laughed, and cupped his face in my hands, as I loved to do, telling him, “You’re so fucking cute.”
Words were kind of pointless, by then, so I held him right where he was and kissed him firmly. He’d been right about my intensity, though, I realized. While Stan had a preference for not taking dominance, I honestly didn’t care either way… but when I thought about it, I did kind of enjoy—not asserting myself, but I’d say affirming myself. I liked feeling like I had some kind of claim over Stan. I did want to sort of wean him out of feeling insecure—about anything, really—but in the meantime, I’d initiate while I could.
Besides, Stan took dominance in a lot of other respects. He was the one who usually planned dates, he could make faster decisions than I could, he was great at avoiding confrontation and keeping the playing field level. And he led when we danced. We didn’t, often, but since we’d taken the trouble to learn (thanks, prom), we both did kind of feel that urge every now and then. Which was actually a pretty big step for me. I’d hated the idea of dancing (school dances in particular) until Stan had helped to teach me how.
Something about the way that our relationship had all worked out was that we made discoveries about each other as we went along. So I was confident that we had a good four years of college ahead of us. We were playing this smart, not rushing anything.
And, in fact, if it weren’t for his tempestuous internal struggle with exactly how to define himself creatively, I just knew that I wouldn’t have ended up thinking about songs in the same way. Talk about something that can go from a curiosity to an addiction. But at this point, the tiny roots of freshman year, Stan was still so new into that part of him that it wasn’t much on my mind yet; we shared tastes, and that was enough. Shared tastes, shared ideas, and as luck would have it got to live down the hall from each other. Nice start.
As my parents were preparing to leave, that very first day in Fort Collins, I hugged them and said my goodbyes with the promise that I would study hard, that I’d choose the right major, and that, most importantly (my father said), not let a single opportunity slip by. My mother was teary and flustered, but beaming and proud, and after she’d hugged me, she yanked my boyfriend into a hug as well. “Stan, sweetie, you be good, too, all right?” she said.
“Sure thing,” he said, smoothly and easily. I was pretty flushed. I couldn’t have been happier with how loving and accepting both of my parents were about my relationship with Stan. He sometimes went out of his way to do nice things for them, as well—running errands or cleaning up and whatnot—and, with our long, long friendship preceding the actual relationship, my parents already more or less treated him like family.
That much was reaffirmed when my mother added, “You take care of my son, all right?”
Stan grinned and stood back; when he looked over at me, I knew we were both thinking the same thing. His mother, Sharon, had said the same thing to me a few times. It was sweet that our respective mothers put so much trust into each of us. And, of course, Stan’s answer was, “Kyle’s gonna be fine, Sheila. But I will, I promise.”
And then they were gone.
Almost involuntarily, I took hold of Stan’s hand, and he laced his fingers through mine. Both of us held on tightly, then turned to walk back inside. It was a rush. I was on my own. Well, not completely: I had Stan. I wasn’t making this transition alone. When I thought of it, I hadn’t really made any transitions completely alone. Stan had always been there, even whenever we’d hit our down patches. We’d come around in the end, and always be each other’s safety net. Well, now Stan had gone from safety net to full vault—I’d entrusted him with everything, and held him up as well.
College was going to be great, I told myself. We’d be just fine.
We returned to my dorm momentarily, and after I thanked Stan properly for the little notebook, he offered to take me out on a little walking tour… or just a good, long walk. I took him up on the offer right off, and, even though we really did want the time alone, we opened up an invitation to Kenny, who was still trying to figure something out about his computer.
“Nah, you guys go,” he said. He was almost forcing a grin, but I knew it was due to his laptop complications, not a desire to be third wheel. “I’m gonna hang here, maybe call Red in a bit.”
“Hey, where is Red?” Stan wondered.
“She’s driving up with Bebe, dude, remember?” said Kenny. I was surprised Stan had to ask, too, particularly given that Bebe and Clyde were fairly recently engaged; their plan was to marry after college graduation, and I’d be surprised if the two didn’t bring it up every now and again. “They wanted to go shopping along the way. Which ride would you have taken?”
“Yeah, so go, have fun. Again, dudes, warn me if you need the room.”
Stan slowly shifted his gaze back to me, his left hand subtly brushing back along my hip, which eased me back against the corner of my desk, where I’d already been slightly leaning. “We might,” Stan admitted, his eyes bright and focused. I felt myself smile, then grin. A laugh tickled my throat as I grabbed hold of my boyfriend’s shirt and pulled him in closer. I’d been a week without him before, and I’d hated it. Pre-season was such a stupid reason to lose him for a few days. We had a lot to make up for.
I thought I heard Kenny say something, but whatever it was, we both ignored it. Stan ticked his head down to kiss the side of my neck, and then the hinge of my jaw, each a welcome, reassuring pressure. I nudged him a little to encourage a full, warm kiss, and became intoxicated with the prospect of being able to explore so much more of our relationship now that we had this new beginning all laid out for us.
We dislodged together, not wanting to kick Kenny out in the middle of the afternoon, but basically put a bookmark on that and agreed to pick up again later.
Stan did take the time to tell me, and Kenny while he was listening, how football really was going. He’d agreed to play since Clyde had apparently had such a convincing argument for it, but of course took the right precautions—since not everyone out there was as easy to accept things like this outside of little South Park—to privately let his coach know he was gay, and that if he’d be playing, he sure as hell wasn’t going to go back in the closet to do so. The coach was, a little to my surprise, fine with that, and Stan even told us how he’d put it to his teammates. One of the running backs had apparently challenged him in the locker room, called him a bitch and wound up to blacken his eye, but Stan, still a little extra jacked from having been a part of the vigilante group Kenny’d been running for years throughout high school as well, caught the upperclassman around the neck and hurled him down.
To the running back, and everyone who’d witnessed that, he said firmly, “Dude, I’m fine with you wanting to beat me up, but only if it’s for something I actually fuckin’ did wrong, not cuz I’m gay, got that? I can take any of you guys. And if I can’t, I know for a fact my boyfriend can.”
“Holy shit!” Kenny laughed after hearing that. Stan flushed somewhat. “So, like, what’d they say to that?!”
“Well, Clyde kinda helped play me up on that, so…”
“Wow,” I said. I was laughing a lot more nervously than Kenny had been. “They gonna believe you if they ever actually meet me?”
Stan shrugged. “We’ll see.”
I had no way of knowing that afternoon, but Stan’s comment had been the right thing to say to his team. As time went on, once people started to know me as Stan’s boyfriend, there were all these stupid whispered rumors about the fact that I was probably a ninja or something, since I wasn’t quite as broad as Stan, nor quite as tall, and apparently something about having ginger hair knocked me down a couple pegs on the ‘formidable opponent’ scale, but still, none of those guys fucking approached me. I would come to make it a damn game, actually, once I knew the team had a secret fear of me. I perfected a long-distance glare that I could shoot across a room or the field, which got me hiked from ninja status to possible Russian spy, which was one of the things Stan and I would laugh about later, especially if Clyde was around as well, since he was probably the only team member who wasn’t sucked into the rumor circle.
On our way out of the dorm room that afternoon, after another quick discussion, Kenny was still struggling with something. “Ugh, this piece of shit,” he grumbled, smacking the side of his laptop screen.
“What’s up?” I wondered.
“Fucking overheats like every ten seconds,” said Kenny. “Sorry. I should’ve just bought the damn desktop computer, these fans suck. Computer lab for homework it is, I guess.”
“Not necessarily,” I said, “let me see that.” I checked in with Stan, who didn’t mind hanging back a few minutes so I could address Kenny’s dilemma, then walked over and flipped the laptop so I could take a look at the bottom. There was a box attached to the bottom of the old black clunker of a machine, and while the processor was probably fine, the fans were indeed in pretty sad shape. “Your problem is you need a Mac,” I couldn’t help but blurt out.
“My problem is I can’t even imagine paying for a Mac,” Kenny reminded me. “If the choice is school or a shiny laptop, I’ll take the shitty computer, thanks.”
“Good point. I think I can fix this,” I told him.
“Yeah.” I’d noticed, in speaking, that the main problem was a twisted blade. I could get in there and either try to flatten it out or just plain snap it off and make a new one later. No big deal. “Hey, Stan, can I borrow a screwdriver?”
“What?” Stan wondered.
I grinned over my shoulder at him. “I’d imagine Toolshed came prepared,” I teased.
“Dude, shut up, what makes you just plain assume I have a whole toolkit with me?”
“I didn’t say whole toolkit, I said screwdriver. Can I borrow it?”
“Goddammit. You’re good.”
“I love you, too,” I smirked. Stan slapped my ass on his way out, and returned a few minutes later with the tool in question; one of those heavy-duty ones with replaceable heads and sizes for various jobs.
It didn’t take long. I’d soon disemboweled the malfunctioning fan, tweaked the faulty part and made a couple other minor adjustments, and gotten the thing re-assembled and working at peak performance quality. “There,” I said to Kenny. “You should be set.”
He whistled his amazement and said, “Thanks, dude, you didn’t have to put off your date for that, though.”
“Nah, whatever,” Stan said, shrugging it off. “Not like we have any idea where we’re going anyway.”
After giving the laptop a test with the newly-working fan, Kenny then added, “Dude, Kyle, just go into engineering. Seriously.”
“You think?” I wondered.
“You’ll just do this stuff in your spare time anyway. Might as well get a degree for it. And, y’know, make a ton of money and all that.”
I laughed. “This may shock you, Kenny, but a six-figure salary is not exactly my prerogative,” I told him.
Kenny just leaned back in his desk chair and laughed. “Dude, you are from such a different world than me.”
Since, out of respect for him, I didn’t want to keep that conversation going, I ended up changing the subject to something more lighthearted before Stan and I could take our leave.
I loved the idea that Stan was going to be right down the hall. Even though we’d decided that it would probably be best for us not to be roommates right off the bat, having him on the same floor was almost just as good. Plus, we’d worked out the perfect situation: I was rooming with Kenny, and he with Clyde. The four of us understood each other’s needs and boundaries.
We four, plus Kenny and Clyde’s respective girlfriends, were among the small pool of SPHS students who’d gone to CSU, and while we knew and were even friends with some of the others, the six of us were that pivotal group, having more or less made a pact to help each other out on the bridge between high school and college. It was hard saying goodbye to some of the others, but we knew we had winter breaks and summer vacations to look forward to with them. Two of our friends were all the way out in California: Token at Stanford, and Wendy at Whittier. One, our old kind-of-friend-but-really-just-annoying-acquaintance Eric Cartman had ended up at Front Range Community College, also in Fort Collins, since he’d just plain forgotten to apply to CSU. Which was absolutely fine by me, the less we had to deal with him, the better.
Kenny proved to be a great roommate, too. He’d drink and smoke (cigarettes only, as far as I knew) on occasion, but not to a distracting or bothersome level. My blonde friend had more or less given up on drugs when he’d become committed to a pretty full life as his vigilante alter ego, Mysterion, a well-known figure in South Park since we were nine. Kenny had had some reservations about leaving school due to that, but what it all came down to was that Mysterion was not a paying job, not momentarily, anyway. Besides, his little sister Karen had pretty much taken his place, at least for the time being. Kenny’s determination helped me stay on track, too, since, while, yes, I’ve always enjoyed school, the temptation to slack was almost too great, now that I didn’t have my parents watching my every move.
We were all off to a pretty good start.
The first semester of freshman year was at once inviting and disorienting, interesting and daunting. It was the opening of a world of opportunity… if we dared to step through that door.
I decided right off, since I’d gone in undeclared, to go ahead and take advantage of opportunities that came up. I made friends in each class as best I could, went to campus events, braved the cafeterias and swore I’d never buy a pack of ramen (that vow lasted about three weeks). An almost instantaneous addiction to caffeine at all hours of the day saw one of my first big trips through downtown Fort Collins with Stan being a mission to find either a cheap coffee maker or a coffee shop that had endless free refills.
We found neither, but something we did discover was a twenty-four hour coffee shop, the Alley Cat, and a couple different places advertising open mic nights. When we settled down at a table in one of those establishments, I nudged Stan’s arm and encouraged him to give one of those nights a try.
“I don’t know,” he blushed modestly. “I haven’t written, like, anything.”
“So?” I shrugged. “You can cover stuff.”
“I don’t know,” he reiterated. He was smiling, at least. “I mean, like, not right now, but… I’ve got time, and, y’know.”
“Sure.” I took a sip from the latte he had so generously bought for me, and took a look around. The place felt open and inviting, but of all things my eyes really were drawn to the corner that looked like such a perfect fit for those open mic nights, with speakers affixed to the walls, and flyers posted for the various local acts who’d gone through the open mic circuit and were now playing their own sets in other locations.
My boyfriend was on and off about his guitar, and his songwriting ability, sure, but senior year of high school had been a promising time. “You’re gonna give it some thought, though?” I prodded. “Really?”
“I will,” Stan assured me. “What’s with you and that anyway?”
He’d been kind about the way he’d asked the question, even though I knew I could sometimes dwell on a particular subject. Sometimes even exhaust it. “I mean, like, you really like hearing me play all that much?” Stan wondered. He followed my gaze over to the wall of flyers and notices. “Or, huh, maybe I should…”
“Can we talk about something kinda big for a sec?” Stan asked. He leaned over the table, propping his head up with one hand, and I leaned in to meet him, my hands wrapped around the slowly-cooling mug of espresso and foam.
“Yeah,” I said, “like what?”
“Name something that scares you,” he suggested.
“Corrupt government?” I tried.
“Something about college,” he laughed.
“Oh.” Come to think of it, that hadn’t been much of a discussion point. All we’d been focusing on, senior year, was the fact that we were going to the same school, and that we were getting out of South Park and we were getting out together. We were both convinced that once we were out of our hometown, our lives might start mimicking the lives of our newly adopted town… in other words, the weirdness that seemed to follow in that town’s wake could potentially be something we could leave behind. We kind of wanted to. We wanted to see what it was like for the other side. For the people who didn’t have to deal with threats both natural and supernatural, for the people who just got to go on with their lives. Or, as Stan and I put it to each other, for those who could create experiences and adventures, rather than have them just sort of happen. Since they’d been just sort of happening to us for years. We could hope. Or maybe worry.
“I guess I’m kinda scared not having a major yet,” I decided on saying, “but I kind of wanted that, you know?”
“But I’m also—yeah, I guess I’m afraid of getting boring.”
Stan cracked a grin. “Me, too.” He looked back over at the area with the flyers. “I mean, what if this is the time for me to actually sorta… make something of that damn guitar? What if that’s, like, what stuff’s been leading up to?”
“I’d love it if it was,” I tried to encourage him. “You should go for it.”
“Yeah, but see, my other fear is, like… losing it.” My heart skipped when he said that. I didn’t even have to ask him for clarification before he caught my nerves and continued speaking. “Like, losing the right inspiration or something.”
“Well, what’s your inspiration now?” I wondered.
Stan flushed magenta, then looked down at the table and smudged away a droplet of coffee. “Well…” he started, skirting around the answer.
“Oh,” I grinned, “it’s all good. You don’t have to tell me if that’d infringe or anything.”
“Let’s just say nothing you can say could infringe on anything, Kyle,” Stan said, propping his head up in one hand to look at me again. “My inspiration’s been pretty constant so far,” he went on. “I don’t wanna jinx it.” I had the feeling even at the time that there was something I wasn’t getting, but I didn’t pry.
“Dude,” I said, “you’re already a musician. Go with it.”
“I’m also afraid of turning into my dad,” he said quickly. Oh. Huh. Really? Stan’s father, Randy, was a curiosity even within our odd hometown. He was known for his over-the-top ventures and reactions; Stan took much more after his mother, especially in recent years. “Like, chasing after something that isn’t right to chase after.”
“Stan,” I argued calmly, setting a hand on his arm, “the things you do are totally reasonable and acceptable. Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about instead of fear, let’s talk about something we’re hopeful for?”
He sighed, looked me over, and then finally smiled again. Man… the one big mystery about him really was how he actually felt about his creativity. It wasn’t like anyone had really ever put a lot of effort into trying to stop him—at least to my knowledge—but other than me, he hadn’t had much encouragement toward it, either. “I’m just hoping we can make the most of this,” was his blithely-toned answer.
“All right.” I grinned. “Me, too.” In February, it would be two years. By the end of college, it would be five. But I didn’t think that far ahead yet. Just to two. That was promising in and of itself.
We started up a discussion about the coffee at that point, but in the back of my mind, I kept wondering if and when Stan would start making something of his musical talent.
I couldn't know, however, that this was the start of a four-year mission, on both our parts: my desire to creatively encourage him, and his struggle with musical identity.
When it came to carving out corners and niches in the world, Stan approached the task with caution. I wasn’t much more headstrong, but it was one of those things more easily noticeable in someone other than myself.
As freshman year pressed on, and we fell into our new routines, both of us found ourselves clinging to the past, just enough to hold onto a security in something. But at the same time, we did enjoy branching out. Having freedom. Exploring all of the possibilities of who we could be.
By the end of that first semester, I did decide to go into engineering, specifically electrical and computer engineering. It really did interest me; I liked classes and challenges that presented me with formulae through which I could get satisfying, tangible results. I thought about a double major in something else, but instead shot for two minors instead, in business and (kind of as an excuse to take more classes with Stan) English. My boyfriend went for a major in business administration with a concentration in conservation and management, plus the English minor and an additional minor in natural sciences. I encouraged him to minor in music as well; Stan just laughed and said he’d consider it, since three would be pushing it.
He’d take the guitar out here and there, tune it and pluck strings, sometimes play something reminiscent of a melody. Nights when we’d be studying together and he’d get bored would find him creating what I started calling a soundtrack to my continued evening of homework. Until he’d become too distracting, of course, and things would take their course in other ways. The thing that got me was, though, that Stan wasn’t giving up on his talent. He wasn’t moving forward with it, but he wasn’t giving up.
Life is fucking beautiful when you’re a college freshman. Away from home, new opportunities, new town, design your own fucking class schedule, figure out who and what you want to be. I was enraptured. I was taking classes that interested me, joined clubs with like-minded other students, and wouldn’t you know it, rooming with Kenny had turned out to be the good idea I’d hoped it would be from the start. On top of everything, I was in love. Stan and I were so fucking stupidly deep into our relationship that year, it was like nothing else mattered. It was the year we celebrated our second anniversary, the year we realized that we were still the healthiest part of each other’s lives even outside of South Park. Few conflicts. Little arguing. Life was just plain beautiful.
Duffel Bags (Are Boring)
I was able to pack up my freshman year just as neatly and tidily as I had lived it. Looking back at the things I decided to keep from that year (like that damn notebook that I still couldn’t find a spot for, now that the black suitcase was now almost overflowing), I was mostly able to laugh. In some ways, I’d changed since then. In others, I was alarmingly the same.
The same could be said of every year I’d lived at home, too, for that matter. Part of me was still sixteen and always would be. Another part, always nine. Long and short of it, the person I was growing up will always have influence over the person I’m on my way to becoming. Everyone’s like that. It’s all a matter of how you choose to keep those parts of life around.
Since the rest of my matched luggage had disappeared in numerous incidents over the past few years, a couple of which had included ‘lending’ a couple of them to Kenny, I had to improvise for my next big stack. The next bag awaiting clothes, books and memories was, oddly enough, a memory in and of itself. God fucking dammit, Stan had been looking for that duffel bag since mid-junior year. Oops. He’d be wound up if he knew I’d had it buried somewhere in my room the entire time.
It still had his name and his crossed-out high school locker number written on it in green, and written on again in silver with his college mailbox number. He had given it to me sophomore year, after football season was over and one of my own suitcases had met with some awful snow and ice damage for having been tied to the roof of my car. “I might need it back next season, but you can keep it till whenever,” he’d told me when he lent it to me to pack up for that year’s winter break. I suppose ‘whenever’ meant two and a half years.
Oh God. Sophomore year. What the fuck even happened sophomore year?
The first year of college was one of discovery. The second year was one of, “okay, I’m here, who am I?” That and, of course, “So… what now?” If freshman year is the shiny new varnish on the fine countertop of post-high school life, sophomore year is every element that gives that varnish a run for its money, with nicks and scrapes. Most of them done under the influence of something.
Doubting myself became, that year, something I could almost start listing in that interests/activities section of the campus questionnaires. I have no idea where I would have been without Stan on that one. Honestly. Back in high school, even before we’d started dating, Stan had figured out my ‘formula,’ a we jokingly called it.
“Stop thinking,” he’d tell me. Simple as that. That was all the kick in the ass I usually needed in order to get myself on the right track.
Sophomore year was such a fucking jumble, though. The ‘right track’ was kind of hard to find, even when I did tell my mind to shut up and just plain enjoyed things as they happened. Because burrowing in the back of my mind was still that nagging, pestering voice saying that something interesting had better happen soon.
Being a second-year college student had all sorts of new trying challenges. I had a major now, for one thing, which helped keep me academically motivated, and I felt like a lot of my spare recreational time was spent encouraging Stan. He was still on the fence about the whole being a guitarist thing, so I kept on giving him positive reinforcement. That was the kind of thing Stan needed: someone telling him that, yes, he really was good, he should hone that. Next to him, I felt like I kind of had nothing much to offer. I didn’t really pick up my bass anymore… meaning I had left it at home and had no idea if Ike played it or not. Not that Stan or I had any new band notions anymore or anything. Besides, he wasn’t just proficient in the art of playing the instrument… Stan could write.
So I felt kind of… I don’t want to say inferior, just less skilled. Once again, I’ve always been the logic. The math brain. Whatever. I can fit pieces together to make new things, that’s about it. Sure, I can come up with ways to fix appliances on my own or re-route encryptions on computers and such, but I never considered myself all that creative in the traditional sense.
In the fall, Stan did agree to a couple of open mic nights, but only the ones specifically catered to college students. And only those that were specifically cover nights, so that he wouldn’t have to feel the pressure of having to have something written.
The first one was right before he turned twenty, in mid-October. He’d announced his acceptance to go by tacking a flyer for it on my dorm room door along with a sticky note reading, “Guess what?” I’d noticed it the second I was returning back to the dorm from dinner with Kenny and his girlfriend, and gasp-yelped like a startled little animal and yanked the flyer off of the door.
“Uh… good news?” Kenny guessed. Kenny and I had gone on to room together again that year, as had Stan and Clyde; we decided not to fuck with a good system. Red, still as much an accessory at Kenny’s side as she’d been since our sophomore year of high school, tried to lean in to peer over my shoulder at the announcement. Both of them, I could kind of tell, were already thinking, So can we have the room?
“Stan’s gonna play!” I exclaimed. “Holy shit!”
“What, his guitar?”
“’Bye, then,” Kenny laughed. I’d hardly even noticed that I’d started moving until my roommate had pointed it out.
Figuring that was my inevitable move anyway, I simply gave those two a wave and made my way further down the hall and around a couple corners until I stood at the door to Stan and Clyde’s room. The door weathered a few vehement knocks from the sharp bones of my knuckles, and was opened by the very person I was itching to see. I just barely saw him smile before I attacked him with a hug. “Stan!” I cried out. “Way to—oh my God!”
“You found the flyer?” he laughed. He stepped back a little while holding onto me, just to get me the hell out of the hall, and tugged me in once the door closed again.
“What’re you playing?” I asked, kissing his cheek. “Where is it?”
“Alley Cat,” he shrugged, “and it’s just covers, one per artist. Figure, little commitment, what the hell.”
“So what’re you playing?!”
“You wanna help me figure that out?” I nodded vigorously, and let him lead me by the hand over to his corner of the room.
Clyde had his bed situated on the right-hand wall of the room, the mattress as high as it could go to create a loft so that his desk could go underneath. Stan had thought about doing the same, but I’d been completely against it because all I could think about was how the fuck Clyde and Bebe could stand to have sex on a fucking loft. I’d think that if you fell, that’d be the most embarrassing fucking death ever. Knowing I worried about things like that, Stan had his bed at a respectable level, but there was enough room left after his desk setup for him to have space for his guitar.
He settled down into his desk chair with the instrument, a website of tablatures detailing some of the key signatures Stan still struggled with—A flat minor or something like that, not that anyone ever plays in A flat minor, but whatever; if he could play it, that was awesome—open on his laptop, while I perched on his bed, leaning over my knees and beyond excited with the prospect of him actually getting out and playing more.
Stan was a guy who needed encouragement. Who needed a lot of protection and a lot of affirmation whenever he did the right thing. His dad had stopped him from other ventures before, as had teachers and peers, but the guitar was the untouched territory. If that got taken away from him, I had a feeling that things wouldn’t quite be right for him. He had a history of depression… which never showed itself when he played. It was both an escape and a new path.
Since the theme for that particular open mic night was something from the punk movement of the ‘70s or ‘80s, we chose a Ramones song that Stan already knew fairly well, and shared a few good laughs over the fact that there was probably no easier prompt than punk music. Yes, we both had our share of songs from that time in our iTunes and whatnot, but the truth was that the chords were some of the easiest to follow. Which meant that there was room for interpretation.
He nailed it at the open mic night, too. For someone so modest about his talent with that guitar, Stan had a lot of stage presence. Practiced stage presence. He was a great public speaker, even though I’d see him sweating about it afterward. He knew his material when it came to playing music, even if he’d come find me as soon as he was done and request we go somewhere quiet.
That particular night, we couldn’t exactly have quiet anywhere around that twenty-four hour coffee shop, so he just pulled me outside once his guitar was all packed up. He passed on the barista’s offer for free coffee, and once we were out and standing against the outside wall of the bustling building, Stan heaved a sigh and leaned back.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked him.
“I’m… I’m okay.” Stan was catching his breath as if he’d just run a marathon. I was carrying his light autumn coat for him, since he’d admitted he just really needed to cool down; sweat marked even the dark blue shade of his shirt’s collar. He gathered up the bottom of his shirt and brought it up to dab against his forehead, the same way he’d sometimes do after a swim, or football practice. To help, I gathered up the long sleeve of my own light jacket and dabbed at his right temple for him, only to then ruffle my hand through his hair, my fingers quickly gathering beads of sweat as I did.
“Wow, you sure?” I wondered. “You’re sweating like you’ve got a fever.”
“It’s just the rush,” he assured me. “Kyle, I get so fucking nervous playing.”
“I know.” I smiled to give him reassurance, and bounced on my toes to kiss his cheek, even though I hardly needed the lift. “You killed it, though, Stan. It was great.”
“Yeah, I loved it. I love watching you play.”
He smoothed his shirt back down, then bent to kiss me, full on, his hands both tangled up into my hair. The kiss matched the rhythm of his heartbeat, so unrestrained it quickened by the millisecond. When he pulled back, Stan left a long, lingering kiss on my forehead as well, and then another just over my lips before he pulled me in. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need to.
Stan had such a personal way of showing gratitude, and he tread our relationship lightly; neither of us wanted to ruin anything, but even though so far there had really been no threats to what we had, he’d play things cautiously. He’d had different ways of growing up… sometimes getting down about it, sometimes just tossing out all other thoughts and revisiting the things that made him happy. I was just so damn glad that playing the guitar was one of them. That he had an outlet, and that I could share it with him.
Before we could start a conversation back up, a young woman I didn’t recognize from school but could clearly see was a student passed by and stopped to congratulate Stan. He seemed to know her from a class, and they talked a little, once she’d mentioned she was a violin player. And then she dropped it: “Maybe we could, you know, hook up sometime.”
“What, like, to play?” Stan guessed. “Music,” he added firmly.
The girl laughed. “That, or, you know, we could just, talk, or…”
“Sorry,” he said, his voice lowering with shyness at the situation, “I’m kinda taken.”
“Oh,” said the girl, kind of flatly. “You’re gay.”
“Um, that, too, but there’s just the simple fact that I’m taken.”
“Gay and taken. Right. Okay.”
As soon as she’d walked away, Stan pinched the bridge of his nose and grumbled, “Oh, my God.”
“Oh, jeez,” I muttered. “So there we go, it happened.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Stan groaned. “Jesus Christ, Kyle, how is it that my coach is cooler with this than someone in the fucking arts?”
“Way to stereotype yourself.”
“I’m not, but you know what I mean!” He wasn’t really angry, but he was bothered. I couldn’t blame him; I mean, I was right there, too. “Dude, South Park wasn’t the best place to grow up, but I guess people are narrow on the outside…”
“This was one incident,” I said. “We’ll see how things keep going.”
I nudged him in the arm, then took hold of his hand. “Hey,” I said, kissing his neck once, “don’t worry about it, okay? It was really just this one thing. Don’t let this get in the way of how great you sounded in there tonight. Okay?”
“I did?” he wondered.
“Yeah. Now, come on. Grab your guitar, let’s go back to my room, we’ll order a pizza or something, and stay up till we get sick.”
It was a good sign that Stan laughed. “You’re so fucking romantic.”
After that particular night, the open mics came very few and far between; he did one more prior to Christmas, and I slipped in my encouragements here and there, trying not to overdo myself for fear that Stan might break and not want to keep going with it.
He was a little quiet, I was noticing, but it wasn’t to a worrisome level. There was just something I could tell he wasn’t quite telling me, and I was already probably bugging him enough with how much I sometimes complained about schoolwork and how much I kept asking him how things were going with his songwriting that I didn’t pry.
Name one fear, he’d asked me freshman year. I had a new one. The fear of stagnancy and potential unhappiness. But doesn’t everyone have that? Doesn’t everyone break because of that fear eventually?
In college, people were re-inventing themselves left and right. The person that I became was a blend of old and new, which I suppose could be said for many people I ended up knowing, both from home and from college alone. I just didn’t feel like I stood out for any one thing. Which, when I obsessed over it, annoyed me.
Our respective dormmates did all they could to attempt to get us to go out to parties with them. I cared about as much for college parties as I had high school dances, which is about as much as a gardener cares for Japanese beetles. Mainly because I hated the idea of alcohol.
Until a gift from Ike got me all of a sudden on the road to wine snobbery.
Oh, that’s right. Second semester sophomore year was the weird stuff.
Ike had been studying abroad in Australia that year, and sent over a bottle of Riesling from the town in which he was living with a host family, as a token for me and Stan to celebrate our third anniversary. That was a tricky thing for a then-thirteen-year-old to do through the mail for a couple who were respectively nineteen and twenty, but his elder host sister’s boyfriend worked for the postal service or something, so it got through. And it was the best fucking thing I’d ever had to drink in my life.
Before that bottle, I’d never been really into alcohol. But that was something that had to be savored and put on a Goddamn pedestal, I swear. Which was why, when Stan uncorked it in my dorm room that night, poured a couple glasses (Erlenmeyer flasks, actually, from the extra set I’d accidentally come to purchase for my freshman chemistry course), and suggested we drain the bottle that night, I protested, “No fucking way, are you kidding?”
“Kyle, you don’t even know if you like wine,” Stan laughed, sitting next to me on my bed so that he had his left leg sprawled over my lap and his right leg bent up behind me so I could rest back on it. “You’re gonna want to go for the whole thing.”
“Seems like we shouldn’t, just cuz it’s from Australia,” I said, taking a whiff of the pale gold liquid that had been measured to 10cL in the flask.
“If we don’t drink it all, we’ll get thrown off campus for having it anyway,” Stan said.
“Oh, my God, since when do any of us care if P-Safe finds us with alcohol?” I returned, rolling my eyes.
My boyfriend laughed, and leaned forward against my left shoulder. “You care,” he pointed out. “You totally care. You busted Craig with weed like… last month.”
“You gave Bebe a lecture about champagne on New Year’s Eve.”
“She said she thought she might be pregnant!” (And Clyde had fainted. He didn’t exactly make it to midnight. Poor guy.)
“Okay,” said Stan, “I say we toast before you can get worked up into an ultra-cerebral moral dilemma, ’kay?”
“Fine by me,” I grinned. We clinked our makeshift glasses together, as I wished him, “Happy anniversary.”
“Happy three years, Kyle,” Stan smiled, leaning in to leave a kiss on my cheek. “I love you.”
Now, I have to be pretty careful with alcohol. On top of generally having a weak stomach, I have a history of diabetes, but I count what I eat well, and can splurge a lot more often than one might think. Plus, Stan was always there to help me out if I did have sick reactions to anything. Until our third anniversary, my relationship with alcohol had been touch and go. I would pretend to drink the cheap beer that Clyde would manage to procure at the maybe two parties I got talked into going to, usually only downing two sips before dumping the rest down the sink, and I had discovered a slight affinity for bitters, but that wine… that fucking beautiful, golden Grosset Polish Hill Riesling was so Goddamn fucking good I knew right then and there I was going to have a problem.
Welcome to adulthood, Kyle, I remember thinking to myself. You’re nineteen years old and you’re already a wine snob. Good luck with that.
Wine snobbery, though, did not translate to having an alcohol problem, no, and I was sensitive to alcohol in other senses, other than just moderating the buzz. Stan knew what an alcohol problem was, and after an awful bout of depression when he was ten, I still did not let him anywhere near whiskey. He wanted to take care of himself, too, and watched what he drank at parties… though now the day had finally come that kind of cemented what our mutual future with alcohol would be. And, just like so many other things, it would be me fussing over minor details. But God damn that was good wine.
“Dude,” I commented, holding my makeshift glass out and taking another whiff of the enticing aroma. “Fuck.”
“What?” Stan wondered.
“This is way too good to be drinking out of a fucking chemistry jar.”
From then on, it really was good wine or bust with us. Which was actually good, since it meant that we didn’t really waste our time with other things. Not that either of us ever wanted to party specifically to get drunk; that just wasn’t on the list of pleasurable activities for either of us. Coffee was generally our drink of choice. Alcohol could come in sometimes, but it was certainly not going to ruin a single damn thing.
I did, however, develop a different kind of problem.
Well, I’d always been known to obsess, but it got worse as the spring semester continued. As Stan continued exploring newer and greater ways to use his guitar as a form of self-expression and even escape, I still felt like I hadn’t quite found my thing yet. I hadn’t found something like that, to set me apart.
The worst part of the obsession was that I felt my encouragement for Stan started lacking. I couldn’t just keep on supporting him, no, I had to go and worry all the time about the fact that I myself didn’t have an obvious outlet. And it was fucking killing me, the fact that I got obsessing over that.
That, and a dumb, non-existent rivalry with my brother. This was when my self-doubt set in, and that stupid rivalry became my obsession. To the point that I almost really screwed myself over.
I got a call from Ike, while he was still in Australia, mind you, just as midterms began to encroach. I was feeling rather stressed for midterms—but, then, I always did—which certainly didn’t help when the call came through. I was studying like crazy for my Electromagnetic Fields II midterm (300-levels can suck it, I thought), so when the call came through I was more than ready to talk to someone about anything but homework.
“Hey, Ike,” I said, picking up just before it could go to voicemail. “What’s up?”
“Dude!” he announced into the phone, which was a word he used so rarely I knew this had to be some kind of special occasion. “You’re never gonna guess what I just got approved for. Go on, guess.”
These were the times when I remembered that Ike really was still kind of a kid. I laughed and said, “You get to judge beauty queen mud wrestling, Ike—I have no idea.”
“As hot as that would be, no. I get to student teach abroad!”
“I learn from the best, Poison Ivy.” Ike had started calling me Poison Ivy when I’d turned down Yale and Princeton in favor of going to CSU, saying that I’d poisoned myself against the whole idea of going to one of the schools in the Northeast. It was funny to me until I made the connection to the Batman villain, who just happened to be a red-head (and a woman, but I always blow over that part of the joke), at which point it became fucking hilarious to Ike that I hadn’t gotten it before. (It became funny again when Stan started laughing about it, though he never, ever used the nickname. It was exclusively an Ike thing.)
“Where’re you teaching?” I asked, ignoring the joke-insult.
“London, at the American School!”
I couldn’t help laughing just a little too hard. “Dude, you’re Canadian,” I reminded him.
“Hey, fuck you, buddy, I grew up in America!” Ike admonished me, his unshakeable accent ringing clear over the airwaves. “It’s a global perspectives class anyway, so fuck you hard, I’m studying abroad again.”
“Aren’t you still in Australia?!”
“Yeah but they had this thing and I applied, so I’m gonna be home this summer and then leave again in August. Hey, you gonna study abroad at all, Kyle? It’s awesome.”
“Uh… I, uh, I was thinking about it.”
No, I wasn’t. It hadn’t even crossed my fucking mind. I didn’t think about studying abroad because I kind of didn’t care. Then again, I had remembered my parents saying something along the lines of how it’d be nice if I at least gave it a shot.
“You totally should, buddy,” Ike encouraged me.
“Is Karen okay with you being gone so long?” I wondered. Ike used to fantasize, when he was a kid, about dating Kenny’s younger sister. Once it had happened, I’d started teasing him about it, but it was actually a very sweet, innocent relationship, and one that Kenny wholeheartedly approved of.
“Funny story, she’s gonna study abroad in London, too. Different school, but how cool is that?”
“Huh,” was all I could think of for a comment.
The thought began to dig at me. As I poured over my twenty credits worth of midterms, the thought became an obsession. College had been going fine so far, but here’s the secret about sophomore year: that’s when you realize it’s just another routine. When you get so comfortable with what you’re doing you kind of forget to look around and realize you’ve only got one full year ahead to cram everything in before the senior itch to graduate sets in. One more year to cram things in before the dreaded senior thesis, before applications for internships and jobs pile onto your life.
The materials, if I wanted to study abroad, were due by April. That wasn’t much time.
Never mind that maybe I hadn’t settled into such a bad routine. Never mind that it was all just a stupid obsession. Never mind that I had my role as Stan’s support and encouragement. Nope. I just had to be weird and think I’d be missing out on something if I didn’t apply.
Stan noticed that I’d started obsessing over something else, and on a night out at Avogadro’s Number (one of my favorite places downtown if only just for the name), he finally asked, “What’s up lately?”
“You seem like you’ve had something on your mind,” Stan noticed, accurately. “What’s going on?”
“I dunno,” I sighed. “Classes this semester were kind of stressing me out.” The thought hit me, and I realized, “We haven’t been out as much this semester.”
“Yeah, no kidding, right?” Stan agreed. His face lit up, and he grabbed my hands across the table. “You know what we should do? We should, like, take a trip or something. We could go hiking, or, like, I dunno. What do you think?”
“Actually, Stan, um…” Fuck. This was the biggest fucking bomb drop I’d ever come up with. I knew, deep down, that I had no good reason for wanting to go, but at the same time, I’d started to worry about how I might feel if I didn’t go. “I’m thinking about studying abroad.”
His features contorted with confusion. “What? That’s kinda sudden.”
“Yeah, um… I know, but, like…” I sighed, unable to hide it. “Stan, Ike’s going abroad again. He’s going to London. Dude, my brother is six years younger than me and he’s seen more of the world than I have.”
“No he hasn’t.” Growing up in South Park, Stan and I had been pushed and pulled in all sorts of different directions. We’d seen every continent at least once—usually illegally—and had plenty of odd things happen to us right there at home. When we were kids, it happened a lot; as we grew up, things stayed weird but we just accepted them as natural for where we lived. I hadn’t actually experienced being anywhere else without just turning around and heading right back.
“Those stupid trips from elementary school don’t count,” I dismissed. “Ike’s like… experiencing being abroad—”
“Dude, when we’ve been taken to other countries before, you’ve said they suck ass,” Stan pointed out.
“We were kids, it’s different.”
“If you say so.”
It was all really sudden, and I knew it.
Stan was quiet about the subject for a little while after that. I pussyfooted around it myself, but ultimately sent in the materials. Just in case, I told myself. But the whole thing had kind of put this awful damper on just about everything.
And I admit it. I turned to the fine wine as more than just something interesting to have with or after dinner. It became a stress-chaser. When Stan found out, shit didn’t even really hit the fan. He just took the bottle away from me and said, “We’re not doing this. Okay? You’re not doing this. Don’t get stressed. Just fucking do whatever you have to do.”
“Stan—” I started to argue, having really nothing to back me up.
“Kyle, if you want to go abroad, go abroad. I can’t, and my hands are tied. Sorry,” he said, trying to talk me down. “Do whatever you have to do but do it for you, all right? I don’t want to have to worry too much about you. Please don’t make me worry. Okay?”
We hadn’t gone stagnant, we hadn’t actually seen any of our fears happen. But this was an after, I realized. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I should go abroad. As an experiment. Just to see if it was the thing I’d been meant to do, the thing that would shut up my other obsession about not having anything interesting about me. What made it hard, though, was that Stan didn’t know whether to encourage me or hold me back; I didn’t know which I wanted him to do.
The remainder of that year was a blur… then, and especially now.
Oh. That’s right. Sophomore year was when I’d gone from spontaneous and interesting to a neurotic mess. Total neurotic mess. The prescription? Apparently move to Hungary for a semester.
I wouldn’t recommend that. Not that anything is wrong with Hungary. In fact, I’d recommend it to just about anyone who isn’t me. Anyone who isn’t ready. The experiences you’re meant to have in life will find you. When you force them to happen, you might lose your way.
The Carpet Bag
Going to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics sounded like a great idea on paper and in the ‘this is an experience you’re supposed to have’ sector of my mind. It was the spur-of-the-moment decision to murder all other spur-of-the-moment decisions. My Hungarian air tags were still clipped to the carpet bag I’d used as checked luggage, and probably still smelled like the perfume Bebe was wearing the day she’d given me the bag as a gift.
No offense to Bebe, she’s such a sweet girl and a very dear friend, but I just could not keep that bag. Not because of who gave it to me or what it was originally supposed to represent, but because it had been a part of the trip that had marred my ideas of what ‘freedom’ and ‘escape’ truly meant. The first semester of junior year I had spent abroad and alone, in an English-speaking pocket of a country whose language I hadn’t even thought of taking (I mean, I could have gone to France or Spain or something and felt slightly more prepared… hell, I should have gone to fucking Israel). Emphasis, though, on the alone.
So into that bag went the things I’d let my mom do whatever she wanted with. Hand down to Ike, take to consignment, donate, whatever. This was the bag of, it’s done, now time to move on. Looking at it again, though, I almost very poignantly had the terrifying thought, once again, of: move on to where?
I had submitted my materials at the last minute. I was too late to go to the University of Kent, so I was kicking myself over that one, but Ike was not going to beat me 2-0 on the study abroad count. If I didn’t this semester, I’d miss out for good, so, fueled by old teenage notions of getting the fuck out of South Park and doing something different, I went gung-ho into applying for study abroad at BME.
The minimum GPA required for the semester abroad was 3.2, so I basically had it in the bag. I was the only one of my friends I knew who was going abroad. Clyde had said he wanted to, but couldn’t because of football—on both ends, since he took less credits during the season, and built them back up in the spring. Stan was a little busier than that—football on top of having two minors and a possible third would do that—but still made room for the more rigorous academic schedule in the spring. I really admired him for that. Maybe that had something to do with it, too: I was pushing myself plenty, I was doing more than well in the classes I’d chosen (which was key, I mean… choosing classes; that novelty from freshman year had, at least, not worn off), but I hadn’t quite accepted a challenge yet.
So the challenge came in the form of going to Europe for four and a half months. I had not accurately calculated (I with my math brain, go figure… I can apparently spout logic, just not common sense) exactly how long four and a half months was. The longest I had ever gone not seeing Stan was maybe two weeks. Maybe. And some of those times had been really hard, even when we were kids (or, especially when we were kids, back in the days when a week was eternity).
What I had really miscalculated on was the fact that there was no homestay option available to me. I had to go that whole four and a half months alone. I pretended, all summer, that it was no big deal. That this was an experience worth having. After all, my parents were so proud to hear that I was going abroad, and Stan, though sad, had ended up encouraging my every move.
“It’s gonna be a great opportunity, Kyle,” he told me, one afternoon in July. “Stop thinking so hard about it, you’ll be glad you went. I know it.” I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I didn’t. “Hey,” Stan said comfortingly, “look, it’s gonna be a full semester anyway. I’ll call a lot, okay? We can Skype and stuff too.”
“I wish you could visit, or I could take a trip back,” I admitted.
“I know, me too,” he sighed. “But, look, you’re gonna go to a university abroad. I mean, let’s think about how cool that is for a minute! Right? You’ve been wanting to travel, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Then there you go!” Stan’s grin was bright, winning, but ever so slightly painted on. “Kyle, I love you so much, I know you’ll be able to make the most of study abroad. Okay? And I am going to be right here for when you get back. You know? I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’d better not.” I tried to laugh, but the words came out shyly. Stan caught onto that, and simply leaned in to me to leave a kiss at the top of my head. “Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being so cool about this and stuff.”
“Are you kidding? I just want you to have fun, Kyle. I want you to go, I want you to call me and tell me all about that awesome history and stuff you’re gonna be surrounded by, and then when you come back we can fuck to a slideshow, how’s that?”
“God, you’re so Goddamn sweet.” This time, the laugh came easily.
We did talk a little about our stance on phone sex. We decided that, as far as we knew right now, it might not work for the two of us. We were just so much about the intimacy of the moment, attempting to talk it through over the phone seemed kind of stupid. No way in hell could we take it seriously.
So we made the most of the summer, whenever we could. We took some time to hang out with friends, but mostly stuck together. His bed saw plenty of action, as did mine, but the more time we spent being intimate together, the harder it was to say goodbye in August.
It killed me even more that, all summer, he seemed to be making even more of an effort with his guitar. Why the fuck was I going abroad? Once I’d announced it to my parents, I couldn’t really escape the trip (plus I’d be fucked for credits), but the more Stan strummed out little tunes on his instrument, or hummed against me at night, the more I kept on thinking, I’m going to miss something. I fucked up. I actually fucked something up.
On the day I was set to leave, Stan was able to drive me to the Fort Collins-Loveland airport, and sat with me inside until I absolutely had to go through security and on to my gate.
I hugged him tightly, knowing that at this point, I really couldn’t just back out and stay. My luggage had been checked and was on its way already—I kind of had to follow it. But it was at that moment, holding onto Stan in the airport, that I realized a lot of what I’d ever wanted out of my college experience was anything that I’d end up sharing with him.
I wanted more. Right at the moment I was about to leave the fucking country. Which really did fuck me up.
“So, see you in December?” my boyfriend said. The fingers of his right hand deftly combed their way through my hair, soothing me, yes, but coaxing out tears I tried hard not to show. I was going to miss his subtle little motions, his quirky morning routine that followed whenever I ended up in his bed, or he in mine. Miss being able to call him for mindless activities, or sneak up on him on campus and grab hold of his hand, destination anywhere.
Did December even exist?
“I can’t believe I planned this so fucking stupidly,” I muttered. “I’m missing your birthday.”
“We’ll celebrate when you get back. It’s better if you’re here for our anniversary anyway,” Stan said gently.
“I already miss you.”
“So do I.”
And then, after one deep, invigorating, passion-laced kiss, I was on my way to four months on my own. A pit hit my stomach as I sat in the gate texting Stan, and it stayed there throughout the entire semester.
When I got to Hungary, there was plenty enough to do, what with orientation, and moving into my furnished flat a few sectors away from the university. Every time I had to call home though, it was Stan first, then my parents.
But I told myself to make the most of it. Early on, before my coursework had really started, I’d walked around a little, telling myself to keep positive; I’d go up and down old streets, getting gift-shopping done early since I knew I’d run out of steam, packing up purchases in Bebe’s carpet bag. She’d been so nice to give that to me, even though I was sure it was just an extra one she’d had and didn’t want. She and Clyde had been in the ‘clear out yours and mine to make ours’ phase during sophomore year, since every semester that passed meant that they were a few months closer to moving in together and getting married.
I envied them. A little on some days, a lot on others. I’d talk to them both, at alternating times, about how things were going, and though there were some little arguments about minor things, they were, as far as I was concerned, pretty much already married. They had civil ways of settling their disputes, working things out before they could get out of hand. Clyde knew almost better than anyone how awfully a small debate could get blown out of proportion in our hometown, and since the two wanted to move back there after school, I understood their adopted methods that would help them ease into married life. It was really too bad I’d end up having negative connotations associated with that damn carpet bag, since I respected Bebe and her fiancé so much.
Early on in my trip, too, I’d attempted to make friends within classes, and went out to taverns—I will say that the wine I had there was excellent—on occasion, just to give myself a biting taste of something normal, knowing I could head back to my loft and waste up all my phone’s international call time talking to Stan during the times we’d worked out with the seven-hour difference.
Another ‘odd’ factor to study abroad, though, that I hadn’t even really thought about at first, was that for quite some time, it hadn’t even come out that I was bi or that I had a boyfriend back home. My conversations with people were just that short. Which made it terribly uncomfortable when a young American woman cornered me one night in a tavern. She’d probably picked up on my own obvious American traits… such as my broken conversational skills (read: really shitty Hungarian) and telling red hair, and at first, the conversation was fine.
The place itself was tucked away on an old, narrow street, so different from the large, open structure of Fort Collins or South Park, and had a wooden sign out front that had probably survived at least two wars, which was impressive. Seating was cramped, but many of the patrons preferred to stand, huddled into groups the same way you’d see in bars anywhere. She’d pulled me to a standing bar by a window for our fish-out-of-water chat; she was apparently there waiting for friends, and when I offered to wait with her until they arrived, having nothing else to do, she took the gesture the wrong way, and tried to slip me her number.
“Oh, um, sorry,” I said politely, as the bar door chimed to signal new customers. “I wasn’t…”
“Oh,” said the little brunette, who reminded me ever so slightly of my first girlfriend, Heidi Turner, “you have a girlfriend? Like, back in Colorado?”
“Colorado, yes,” I said. “Girlfriend, no.”
The girl gave a nervous laugh as she looked me over. “I totally never would’ve guessed you’re gay,” she commented, her tone unfathomable.
“Well, I’m bi,” I just had to correct her, “but Stan and I are pretty serious, so…”
“Stan’s your boyfriend?”
“Yeah.” And I missed him like crazy.
It didn’t improve my mood that the girl pulled the cleavage move, bending over the bar and making that fluttering attempt to get me to look down. “How serious again?” she asked, lowering her tone a couple notes.
“Um, incredibly, thanks,” I said, icing my own voice with sardonic bitterness. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“You really think he’s going to wait out the next few weeks for you?” My heart skipped. “Honey, I’ve been there. My boyfriend said he’d wait for me when I went to a different college, you know. Three girls later and I realized that there’s no guy out there who’ll just plain wait.”
Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was my attitude, maybe both, but the next thing I said to the girl was a hissed, “Fuck you.”
“It’s against my moral code to hit women, but I’ve got nothing against saying what’s on my mind,” I said coarsely. “I’m going to go ahead and declare that my situation’s a lot different than yours was. And I don’t see you helping yourself by trying to pick up strangers in bars anyway.”
I left her with that, missed the tram I needed and rather than wait for the next one decided to walk, and therefore returned to my loft much too late to call Stan. I texted him anyway, and fell asleep before I knew what to do with myself. After oversleeping, I checked my phone to find a new message, not from him but from my brother, asking how things were going. Fuck study abroad, I texted Ike back. To which he responded that he was coming to visit.
For the rest of that day, my ears rang with silence. I hated silence, especially now that I was waiting to hear from Stan, after that awful conversation at the bar. Way to give me one more thing to obsess over. I glared at the carpet bag, lying carelessly beside the bed, and thought about shoving everything in there and grabbing the first flight back to the states I could find. I was handling this so fucking maturely.
Ike helped ease my nerves a little, though, by actually making good on his thought and booking a cheap flight over from England that weekend. To be honest, seeing my brother was probably the highlight of studying abroad. While he was there, and staying with me on my floor, I actually didn’t mind playing tourist again, and managed to have fun, since I was actually with someone, and bonus points that he was someone in my family, who also qualified as a good friend. We hit up museums and libraries, and I was able to appreciate the country for what it was, rather than lament my own rushed decisions.
We met up in a café near BME on the day he was set to head back to London, and God did he ever look world-traveled. His first day there had been playing tourist, sure, but that day he really looked like a young professional, with his iPad out taking notes and learning useful Hungarian for being a restaurant patron. Ike was just becoming that kind of person. He could meld in anywhere. Sure he could be a surly teenager along with the rest of them, but he had diplomat pretty much stamped onto his forehead. My dumb, mental, obsessive rivalry turned into more admiration for my brother, and more shame in myself.
“You having fun yet, buddy?” Ike asked me. “You must at least be enjoying the coffee, holy shit, this stuff is good.”
“Yeah, local cuisine and all’s fine. I’ve done the museums a couple times now and whatever.” I sighed and leaned forward on the table. “Hey, Ike, how’d Karen take you being gone for a year in Australia?”
“She almost didn’t,” Ike said. “We almost broke up, a couple times. She cheated on me once.”
My heart skipped. That again? Stan wouldn’t do that. Stan would not do that. “Really?”
Ike shrugged. “We were ‘eh’ at that point anyway, I’m over it.”
“Experience comes as it comes, Poison Ivy. You were fourteen when you—”
“Anyway,” I said, waving off the idea that I had so much as kissed anyone but Stan ever, let alone fucked a girl who’d turned out to be as shallow as a kiddie pool. “I’m not just talking sex, Ike, I just mean stuff in general…”
“Kyle, you have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?”
I stared at my brother across the little table. He had a talent for reading me… but, then again, I had a talent for giving myself away. I sighed, and glanced away at the busy restaurant. Miles and miles from home, it kept on dawning on me more and more what I actually wanted. Freedom wasn’t supposed to mean escape. Besides, I’d gotten over that. I didn’t want to be completely no-obligations, I just wasn’t like that. I just wanted comfort in something I knew. Something that could shift and change a little, while at the same time being constant. In fewer words, my relationship with Stan.
Things would get better when I got home. That was what I told myself, to keep myself going. I wouldn’t make a stupid decision like this again.
“Study abroad just not working out for you?” Ike guessed, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“Am I that obvious?”
“Kinda. Plus, you texted me the exact words, uh…” He checked his iPhone. “Fuck study abroad. So.”
“Must be nice having Karen around in London,” I mumbled.
Ike rolled his straightforward black eyes and said, “Kyle, can I tell you something? I sincerely wish me and Karen could have it as good as you and Stan do. Before you even interrupt me, let me just keep going.” I probably would have interjected. I’m always double-analyzing, reaffirming, putting in my two cents. So I shut up and let my brother talk. Ike is an alarming mountain of wisdom at times, even if I did often have to be in the right mood to listen. “Why’d you really study abroad, buddy? Was it because I did?”
“Can I talk now?”
“Then, yes,” I grumbled. I fussed with my hair and glared past Ike again. The waitresses bustled to and fro, and the near-copper lighting might have been charming if I had been there with Stan, but now seemed gauche and made me feel kind of ill. “Ike—”
“Ah-ah-ah, nope, I’m talking again.” He sure was. Ever since he was in second grade, he kind of hadn’t shut up. Ah, well. He was a kid with opinions, I wasn’t going to squelch that. “Kyle, don’t make me slap you for feeling pressured by me,” my brother warned. “I’ve been trying to live up to you for years. Can we both stop it? It’s stupid. You have nothing to complain about. When was the last time you were the only kid in our house? Were you six, seven when I was adopted?”
“Oh, shit. Yeah. Something like that.”
“So let’s just say Mom’s gonna be a pretty bad empty-nester. I keep leaving so I can get them used to it,” Ike said. “And then when I’m home they just rave about you, how you’re so responsible, how Engineering is like the degree to have right now, aren’t you smart for doing that—oh, but Ike, you should still be a lawyer.”
“Dude,” I said, staring my brother down. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah, well,” Ike shrugged his thin shoulders, “there you go.”
He shook his head, spiny black hair barely moving as he did. “I’m still gonna be a lawyer, but that’s cuz I want to be,” he explained before splitting and buttering a roll. “I want to get out of the country, so I do. You don’t. That’s just you. You want to be an electrical engineer. You want to be back in Colorado. It’s cool, Kyle, quit searching for the things you don’t need. Call your boyfriend.”
A Pavlovian response, I pulled out my cell phone and began composing a text, since I couldn't calculate the time difference in my head and wanted to make sure Stan would be awake. “Ike,” I said, looking up from my phone to acknowledge him, “thanks for coming here. Even if you did drop two hundred bucks just to call me out.”
“Two hundred my ass. That flight was like seventy-five or something.”
“Classy. Don’t lose a wing on your way back.”
After Ike had left, I returned to my apartment, climbed up into the loft bed, and sprawled out on my back. I stared at the off-white ceiling until my eyes started to hallucinate colored dots, which I then tried to form into cohesive pictures. Nothing happened. Until I texted Stan again: Free if you wanna call.
I read over the text I’d sent earlier. It was frantic as hell, and almost embarrassing to read back over. I was getting too worked up over what the girl at the bar, and then what Ike had said about cheating. And on top of that, my brain just had to cut in and say, And don’t breakups just make for the best songs?
“Shut up, shut up,” I muttered to myself. “He isn’t cheating. He’s not going to. Don’t be fucking stupid.”
When Stan finally did respond, it was clear I didn’t really have anything to worry about, even though I kind of still would. Sorry! My phone died--did you get my email? Oops, I’d been too stupid to check.
No didn’t think to, I texted back. Thanks for texting back. Sorry I sound crazy.
You don’t sound crazy. I’ll let you know when you do.
So I didn’t mention the ‘you aren’t cheating on me, are you?’ worry, since he would qualify that as kind of insane on my part; I certainly did. I ended up calling, and midway through the conversation I asked, “How’s your season going?”
“Good, but we’re still not the best.”
“Whatever,” I said, “it’s fun, though, right?”
“Yeah, for now. Stuff to do, you know. Clyde’s got some recruiters on him.”
“Dude, you think he’ll take the offer?”
“I doubt he’d want to, dude. Bebe.”
“Oh, right, right.” I glanced over at the carpet bag and sighed.
“Hey, d’you think we’ll ever be as sure of stuff as them?” Stan asked.
“Hmm?” I wondered.
“Nothing,” Stan dismissed quickly. “So, uh, any good music over there?”
Fuck. That was when I realized I honest to God hadn’t been listening to any. Hardly any at all. There’d been the exhausting flight over, during which I’d been completely plugged into my iPod and listening to a mix of Stan’s recommendations, but ever since, I’d succumbed to silence. What the fuck was wrong with me?
I stared at the carpet bag again, and wondered why I hadn’t taken Stan’s old duffel bag with me instead. It was like I’d hit pause on my life and started watching something else. “Not as good as yours,” I decided to answer.
“Oh, come on,” Stan said lightly. “Hey, I’ll go get my guitar and get it a little out of tune and see if you still think so.”
“Hey, actually, yeah, play me something,” I requested.
“Over the phone?”
Stan laughed. “Didn’t we say no phone sex?” he asked. “Same thing, right?”
“Oh, dude, whatever,” I grinned, lying down onto my side. Honestly, the thought of it was starting to become enticing. In my mind, I attempted to recreate the feel of my own mattress back in my bedroom in South Park, being one I knew so well, rather than the tough provided one I was lying on. Keeping my eyes closed, I transformed my loft into the entire bedroom. “I miss you.”
“Miss you, too,” Stan told me.
“Mmh,” I dismissed. I pressed the phone closer to my ear, then started chewing my lip with nerves. I wanted to be back in the same room with him so fucking badly. We said we wouldn’t, but… “Hey. Where are you?”
“What? The apartment, my room, why?”
“What are you wearing, Stan?”
“You are not serious.”
The corners of my lips tugged upward, and then down; I went with the smile, and burrowed into my pillow a little more. “No, I’m not, you caught me. I just want to hear you play.”
Stan paused for a second, and I heard him moving, heard the squeak of his fingers on strings as he picked up his guitar. “You sure?” he checked again.
“Well,” I said, “you wanna humor me?”
“Um. I could be persuaded.”
“This is so not gonna work, but let’s try it,” I decided. “And then I wanna hear you play. So what are you wearing?”
“Okay…” he began, cautiously. I could hear the smile in his voice, though. If there was one person on Earth I could picture perfectly in my mind’s eye, it was Stan. So I placed him in front of me, my eyelids pressed lightly together as I wove my own daydream. “Uh, I just went for a jog, so I’m all boring. White tee shirt, black running pants. Oh, wait… wait… never mind, no shirt.”
I felt myself laugh. And then a blood rush. “Take off your pants,” I requested. Maybe I could pull it off after all.
“What? Is this even going to wor—”
“Lie down on the bed and take your pants off, Stan.” I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t really stop myself. Oh, well, I thought. Fuck it. I missed him.
“All right. So… I’m on the bed… and… off.”
I waited for it. For a little more on my part, but there was just too much fantasy around it. Study abroad itself felt like it wasn’t real. This wasn’t the way we did things. It just wasn’t. Blood rushed back through the rest of my body, and I was done. The situation was too out there. I couldn’t do it. “…Can I laugh yet?” Stan asked.
“Yyyyyyyyyyeah, I’m good,” I said, and rolled onto my back. Together, we just started laughing. “Please tell me Kenny or Clyde is there and he’s gonna walk in on you laughing in your boxers,” I snickered.
“I like that that is the very first thing you thought of,” Stan teased me right back.
I was laughing too hard to answer. “Oh, my God, I haven’t laughed this hard in forever,” I commented when I could breathe again.
“Neither’ve I. Dude, holy shit, did that seriously just save us from being boring for a little while longer?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“You did need that, huh? How was it for you?”
“Oh, my God, stop.”
“Okay, and now I’m lighting a cigarette…”
“You are not, dude,” I mock-scolded, “shut up.”
Stan let out a long hum to slow down his free laughter. “I really am excited for you to come home, though,” he said. “I’ve got some stuff to tell you.”
“Like what?” My pulse quickened a little, and I sat up, my back against the wall behind me. I tucked my knees up and grabbed a pillow into my lap so that I could lean forward onto it.
“I’ll tell you when you get here. Or, ask you.”
I bit my lip as I grinned to stop myself from yelling out how badly I wanted to just get home. “’Kay. Will you still play me something?”
“Is it serious time again?” Stan asked. A few seconds later, there was the sound of him picking up the guitar again, and then the deep strum of a G chord.
“Whatever you want.”
“Um… sure, hold on.”
Simply the fact that he did it was something that could get my mind off the worry that he’d ever cheat. I closed my eyes, and listened to him play. He messed up a couple times, but I didn’t care. Something was going to come of that music someday. I knew it. It’d be an after worth waiting for. It had to be. Even if it was just for us.
I managed my way through the rest of that semester abroad, even though each day seemed to be more insultingly lengthy than the one that preceded it. But eventually, finals came. I had my suitcases packed so fucking quickly after that semester. I knew that my parents would just want to talk and talk and talk about it, and maybe I could, but I was running on a one-track mind for now. Anything involving my parents didn’t really interest me to think about. Just Stan. Four and a half months was way too long. The cause of too many breakdowns, particularly the couple weeks leading up to coming home. I called twice a day, even for just a few minutes, and he’d calm me down. I’d wake up to text messages from him giving the countdown and more secretive things, like Ten more days till I tell you my new idea! I had another breakdown just before leaving for the States again, and drank about a gallon of water to calm myself down.
Kenny was the one to eventually pick me up from the airport, which made it all so much fucking harder. If I had known Stan had had a fucking game that night, I would have scheduled a different flight. Honest to God, fuck whatever extra cost it might have been, I would’ve done it. A week prior to my leaving, I called to ask if he could drive me, and that was when he looked at the calendar and realized he could not. I was practically in tears talking to him at that point, until I realized I’d be back to catch the final half of the game, since it was on our field.
So once Kenny picked me up and my luggage was in the back of my own car, which I’d lent to him for the semester, we booked it (as best anyone can book it in a station wagon in the snow) back to campus and to the field. We didn’t talk about anything beyond, “Hey, how are you?” Kenny is awesome that way. He knows when something’s up with people and will only pester if it’s necessary. He tried to keep things light, knowing full well he wasn’t my first choice for a ride, but I kept insisting that he was a very close second.
The roar of the crowd was the exact thing that I needed to yank me out of my own forced solitude. I hardly even knew what was happening until Kenny was pushing me into a seat in the stands (apparently he and Red—as, luckily, she was a cheerleader—had worked out a deal with someone to get us ticketed seats, so Kenny kicked some squatters out and everything). It was right in front, by the rail… a little too close to the band for my left ear’s comfort, but I did not fucking care. The scoreboard buzzed to signal the start of the second half, and then I just started laughing.
When I didn’t stop, even when the crowd calmed somewhat, Kenny shook my shoulder and asked, “Dude, what’s up?”
I sat forward onto my knees and covered up my laugh until I was good and finished, then tilted my head around to look at him and said, “Welcome back to America. Have some football.” Kenny got it right off and tilted his head back to laugh as well. We went all the fuck out and bought popcorn and hotdogs, the whole fucking deal.
Study abroad can be a super freeing experience for a lot of people. It opened Ike’s eyes up to the world a lot, to the point that he wanted to go into international law. And, I mean, good for him. It just wasn’t for me. Coming home that night was like having my feet on solid ground again after wandering in the clouds for far too long. There comes that point in everyone’s life where the grass really does look greener somewhere else. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t; we take it as it comes. For me, sure, someday I’d look back and be glad I had the experience.
That night, all I cared about was being shocked half-deaf by the band and the crowd, about shivering in the snow until the crowd rustled up some heat, about watching my boyfriend in one of his elements and watching the clock tick down the time to the moment I could be with him and pick my life back up again. God, the second, the fucking second I saw him on the field, I knew I was home. I could pick him out even without the obvious green-on-white home jersey bearing his number and name. I wanted to holler down to him right off, when I saw him on the bench, as I watched the way he watched the game, bent over his spread knees at the very literal edge of his seat. But I remembered that Stan told me how he drowned out crowd noise for games.
To keep a clear head on the field, he drowned out everything. When it was just him, a bare stage, and a guitar, he listened for everything. In some way or another, no matter what he’s doing, Stan is very much affected by the elements around him. I’d come to learn that he functioned better that way: in company, rather than alone.
The main thing that I realized about myself in Hungary was that I don’t like being alone, either. Not when I’m forced to be. Sometimes it’s nice to have personal time, but the way I grew up, I just enjoy having people around. Someone to share opinions with, or argue about opinions with. Sometimes anyone would do. Most of the time, though, just one person was enough.
The silence had done it. Talking only on occasion, not feeling like listening to music. It was weird, it was alien. Over the past several years, and especially since we’d started dating, Stan and I had alternated being support for one another. And while I did my part encouraging him and whatnot, things usually came down to him comforting me and calming me down, and keeping my head on straight. Alone didn’t suit me. Lesson learned; I was ready to pick things back up again.
When Kenny and I had arrived, we were ahead. We lost the lead in the third quarter, but came back; Stan threw a fantastic fourth quarter, even when the clouds thickened overhead and the snow blew in more persistently. The way it had back home, all our lives. Relentless, enormous flakes of white, white snow. Of course we won. Stan knew the elements better than anyone on the opposing team. I don’t even remember who we were playing, I just knew that they did not stand a fucking chance against a guy from a nothing-doing, tucked away blizzard of a mountain town.
It was never an odd thing for friends or girlfriends or deranged fans or what have you to jump down onto the field from the stands after a game, so, after a quick nod to Kenny, I did the one thing I’d never thought to do before and followed the crazies down, scaling over the wall and jumping down onto the white-blanketed grass behind the home bench. It was such a fucking ridiculous and stupidly romantic thing to do, but I had to.
Immediately, Red and Bebe, now allowed to break from cheerleader formation, rushed up to me. “Oh, my God, hey!” Bebe squealed, throwing her arms around my neck as I was recovering from the jump. “I had no idea you were back!”
“Like, literally a couple hours ago, hey,” I said, turning my answer into a greeting at the last second. “Hi, Red. Kenny’s up there.”
“I know,” Red grinned, sweeping her snow-covered, nickname-sake red hair out of her face. “How was your trip?”
“Uh, okay,” I managed.
“What are you doing down here?”
“I jumped. I have no idea. I left my mind on the plane.”
“I guess!” Bebe laughed. “Come here, come here, we’ll totally talk later, oh, my God, but you gotta come over here!”
Quickly and easily, the girls ushered me through the crowds to a good place to park myself. I found myself completely caught up in the rush, and followed, living in nothing but the immediate moment. I only registered what was happening again when I heard Bebe squeal, “Clyde! Great game!”
Sure enough, there was number 27 himself, the first-string center who was, as Stan had disclosed, already a whispered name among the NFL recruiters who’d wind up at some of the games, despite the fact that Clyde had already stated he didn’t want to go pro. He unclipped and pulled off his helmet, the bent to kiss his girlfriend, greeting her in return, “Hey, baby, you’re drenched.”
“Go shower,” Bebe laughed, “and then later you can help me towel off.”
“Deal,” Clyde grinned, kissing her again before following a few other teammates to the showers.
Bebe left at that point to chat it up with the other girls, but Red stayed and clung to my arm as if to keep me standing until Stan made his way over. He’d been talking with the assistant coach until he noticed me, then excused himself from the conversation, still breathless after the last play of the game.
He’d been carrying his shoulder pads and helmet, and had stripped down to just the black ‘under-armor’ the guys on the team all wore, but he dropped his gear off the path and walked briskly over to me. The stadium lights darted through the steady snow and reflected a glow off of his midnight hair. I huddled under my jacket but was frozen in place until, before I knew it, Stan had his arms wrapped tightly around me. “Kyle!” he exclaimed as he hugged me close. I could barely even think, but I managed to lock my arms around him as well, and just stood there, captivated, completely here, finally home, ready to just get going onto the next step. The semester had happened, but it was over.
“Hi, Stan,” I heard myself say. I had no idea I was still capable of speech at that point.
“What’re you doing here?!”
“Told you I’d be back for the rest of the game.”
“Holy shit,” Stan repeated. “You’re back. Oh, my God, you’re back.”
“Uh-huh.” I started to tear up, but I told myself not to; not on the fucking football field.
His next two words were perfect: “Welcome home.”
One of Stan’s not-so-secret indulgences was kissing in the snow. He loved it, and I have to admit, I’d really come to love it, too. He admitted to loving the way the snow would cling to us, maybe even soak us, and I loved pushing his dripping wet bangs out of his eyes, and how the chill that accompanied the snow would make me shiver enough for Stan to pull me in, as if that alone could stop me from getting covered in a thin white blanket along with the rest of the world.
But that night on the field was one of the best. He smelled like sweat and victory and that stupid enhanced water that tasted mildly of fake berries, but I hauled him in to me and sucked those added electrolytes right out of his mouth, feeling my hands absorb the heat from his stretched under-armor, grasping and groping until I was synched to his heartbeat. I was home.
“Hit the showers, Marsh,” his assistant coach called over.
Stan wanted to ignore him, I could tell, but he pulled back, only to grasp the back of my head with both hands, level his eyes with mine, and tell me, “I’ll be right out. I promise. Wait up with Kenny and Red, we’ll head back right after. Okay?”
“Okay,” I half-pouted.
“Don’t give me that look,” Stan grinned.
“I’ll give you any look I want,” I tried to tease, even though my voice was shaking. I held him at the waist, rocking back and forth with him for a few fleeting seconds before relenting and letting him go. “Don’t take too long.”
“I won’t.” He followed his promise with another, though quicker, kiss on my lips, and then he was off. I shot a Russian spy glare at another player heading off to hit the showers—still fucking worked; honest to God, I really didn’t think we’d make it as long as we did without catching a bunch of shit from the team. Well, better that we didn’t.
I shivered against the snow again, then followed Red out of the stadium to the other end of the locker area, where Kenny looked like he’d just fought through a battle zone to get through to.
“Dude, I had no idea you were that insane.” Kenny’s words sounded congratulatory… even more so given the fact that he followed them by giving me a slap on the back. “Lover boy welcome you home right and everything?”
“Almost,” I said, all of the heat in my body rushing to my face. “I need him to get out from the shower now.”
“Did you even, like… think about anything else abroad?” Kenny taunted.
“You guys are so married.”
“Shut up.” I elbowed Kenny in the ribs. He laughed, and was then too busy being an extra coat for his girlfriend to continue talking to me, so I texted a Hi I’m home—will call tomorrow, to my mother, then stood with my eyes closed as the crowd hurried by. The snow breezed by, clung to my hair—which I hadn’t had the energy to straighten more than twice abroad, so it was back to pretty prominent curls until the snow gripped and melted some of them down into dripping icicles—stung but delighted me in every way.
Moments later, I felt a rush of breath against my cheek, and my eyes opened just as Stan was placing a kiss there as well. He’d showered fast, and his hair was still a little wet, but he’d cleaned up; his fresh, nearly nondescript bodywash hazed around him, and this time, when his arms came to be wrapped around me, they were covered by his sturdy black coat. I pressed up against him. For all I cared, we could just stand outside there forever.
Three years, nearly four, into our relationship, and something had finally clicked. I had been in the process of realizing it, but that night, after four and a half months away, it was really solid. We were building something bigger than we’d ever really anticipated. We were all about next steps and keeping each other happy and all… this felt like the right time to take another big, bold step together. Because God, had I missed him. The first years of college had been almost like an extension of high school. We’d done the same kinds of dates… the only big difference was being able to have more freedom of how often we could mess up one or the other of our beds. How we were in charge of our own agendas. But we were officially into our twenties, now. And we’d made this relationship work so well, even study abroad hadn’t shaken anything.
If anything, we were even more solid now. More than ever.
“Hey, you,” Stan greeted me again. “Sorry if I kinda smell like a rushed shower.”
“At least you smell like a person,” I managed to laugh. “I smell like the Detroit airport.”
“Nah…” Stan grasped the front of my wool coat and kissed me firmly. The wind shifted directions, snow clung and melted against our skin but did not pose any kind of interruption.
Time whirred by between that moment and the next… somewhere in there, Kenny drove us all back to the three-bedroom grey townhouse apartment in University Village that he, Stan and Clyde now shared, I claimed my car keys back from the smirking blonde, and then a blur.
And I was in Stan’s room, my back pressed against his closed door, my fingers fluttering over the skin of his face and neck.
No time for words. Words later. Questions later, thoughts, ideas—later, who cares. For the time being… just, everything else. His breaths were clipped but purposeful, each one pushing him closer against me. I sighed into him. My hands painted two lines downward, slowly, slowly down along his chest, the heat from his body rising
through the thin organic cotton of his shirt. I’d hardly unfastened his jeans before he freed me from mine; we shed layers with each step back toward his bed. I had not yet explored this room, but the setup didn’t matter. Just as long as he was there. No room in my head for anything else.
Slipping his shirt off and tossing it over into the corner, Stan sat back toward the headboard; he pulled me in with one hand on the small of my back, my mouth locked onto his. We were a unit. We moved together. Those four and a half months had given us nothing but added drive. My breaths timed perfectly to his, I crawled on top of him, easing him down over the sheets.
Blue eyes gleaming through the winter dark, he beckoned me down, and I was with him, and against him, and in him—and we were one single entity. Four months of deprivation and I practically wanted to be on him like an animal. But this was too good to be rushed or ravaged; not fucking but lovemaking, pure and simple. Promises and affirmations. There was life before study abroad. This was the after. The reward. And how perfect it was. I am so fucking lucky I have you.
“I love you,” Stan managed between heavy breaths. Arms up over his head, he grabbed at the headboard but fell short, his fingers dug into a pillow instead. He radiated sincerity. I trapped him fast in a kiss and told him the same.
We melted together for a perfect eternity, until Stan gathered the sheets up over us, and, gathering breath, beaming, shifted me down onto my back so that he was positioned over me. He had rarely kissed my eyes before that night; he placed a kiss in each corner, once and then again, but by no means quickly. Each was done with a silent purpose.
He was glowing. Fucking glowing. Beautiful and almost mysterious, the pale moon casting untold stories in shadows over his flawless skin. My fingers grasped at the air until I’d caught him, a thin layer of sweat between my shaking palms and his sturdy back, but I didn’t pull him in; I drew myself closer. Shuddering, I wrapped my arms tightly around him, pressed my face against his warm bare chest and tried not to cry.
“Ssh,” he coaxed me before I could even begin. Calmly, brilliantly, strongly, Stan locked me in close with one arm, and smoothed back my hair with his free hand, tucking his head in next to mine. “Hey,” he whispered. “Kyle… what’s up?”
“I’m sorry,” I choked out.
Stan shook his head. “What for?”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, holding him tighter. “I missed you so fucking much. I’m so sorry.”
“Ohh…” Stan nudged my head with his a bit, which got me to look up at him. He pressed his forehead to mine, and let his thumb stroke a calming line just above my ear as he graced my lips with a light kiss. It was like I could taste the whole Goddamn moon. “Hey… listen, don’t be sorry you went, okay? I missed you, too. God… fuck, Kyle, I missed you—”
“No. Ssh. It’s fine. It’s fine,” Stan assured me. He let me carry on, though. Now that I had space to think and space to breathe, I was a mess again. I had made a rushed decision; I could not count my strokes of luck enough, Stan was just that incredible for staying through, and supporting me, even though the trip had been such a sporadic idea. Of course I was going to apologize… but, being the peacekeeper he was, Stan let the fact that it had been a hurried—let’s face it, bad—idea slide.
“No it isn’t,” I insisted. “I mean it. I’m so sorry.”
“Kyle, don’t worry, it’s okay,” Stan told me. “You were gone for a little while, it’s all right, that’s kinda what study abroad is, it’s okay.”
“Why are you so okay with this? I really fucked up!”
“I’m okay with it because you’re you,” said Stan, “and I trust you.”
“I trust you, too,” I choked out. I felt him smile against me as his hold grew stronger.
“Once this passes, I think you’re gonna look back and be glad you went.”
“This isn’t gonna pass, Stan,” I said. Suddenly, every single tear all queued up to turn me into more of a sobbing mess just plain evaporated. I nearly choked on my breath, but the realization was there. Some ideas that come on a dime are dangerous and misleading, such as my notion that I just needed to study abroad. Other ideas that come in one tiny moment are wonderful… the culmination of many other thoughts that were too difficult to think of or say earlier. This was one of those. “Stan,” I repeated, lifting my head, “this really isn’t. I’m a mess. You know why?”
“This was the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing you.”
My boyfriend showed a sad smile, indicating that he had been thinking that himself for quite some time, then drew me in again. Then, almost cautiously, he began to stroke my back. And the words came. It was my own thought, too, but he was the one to voice it. “Hey, Kyle?”
“Can I ask you my idea?” The one he’d texted me about, full of secrets.
“Yeah.” My voice came out cracked and whispered.
“Are, um… are we ready to live together?”
“Yes,” I half-sobbed.
Stan nearly laughed a little, but kept his voice on an even, soft tone. “Wow… I mean… okay,” he said, smiling gloriously. “Um… so, I actually checked with Campus Life about that, since this is a three-bedroom. If you write up a letter of appeal and we get Clyde and Kenny’s okay, we can have four people here.”
“You mean like next semester?” Best news of my fucking life.
“Oh, God, I love you,” I sighed. I grabbed him in, and the second my lips touched his, I pried them apart. His tongue slid in over mine, and I gently stroked my hands down his chest. Down against his hips, his upper thighs—back around to knead that ass, stake my claim; hips again, then pelvic bones… kneading and stroking, all the while drowning so peacefully in his comforting kiss. He stiffened and lay me back against the well-ruffled sheets, pressed his left hand into the pillow, directly beside my head, kissed me again, and again.
He paused over me for a few seconds, tenderly running his right hand down my side, his eyes a question of whether or not I really wanted him to take control. Fuck yes I wanted that. I wanted to get lost in him in every way possible. Grinning broadly, Stan bent to kiss my neck, and, somewhat to my surprise, bit to leave a mark. I let out a little whimper, mostly out of surprise; Stan sat back, but I shook my head. “Keep going,” I begged. “Whatever you do, I don’t care, just keep going.”
“I don't want to hurt you.”
I reached up and yanked him down to me. “You’re so beautiful,” I whispered to him.
“Yeah?” Stan licked my neck, bit again, then took complete charge and entered. Smooth, steady, gorgeous, unstoppable. This was so rare, for him to take control, so rare, and yes, maybe, yes I was a little fragile and foreign to being on the receiving end, but I trusted Stan. Plain and simple, all we were was founded on a tight, trusting bond. Controlled and cautious, but delicate and warm, that was his way. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
If this was home… I never, ever, ever wanted to leave. Ever again.
I fell asleep nestled against him, calmer and happier than I had been in months. Once or twice in the middle of the night, I awoke, if only to reassure my subconscious that Stan was right there, that even in our sleep I had my arms locked around him, that he had his locked around mine.
As soon as we both woke, the sunlight beating into the room promised to see us through a day without incident, which then would flow into a string of days, and weeks upon weeks, of pure, simple catching up. And not letting go.
There weren’t many nights left in the semester, but I spent every single one of them with Stan. I began moving in, too, claiming half of the closet and a couple of his dresser drawers. He only had a couple of finals to finish up, and between them, we’d take walks through the snow-dusted campus, or head into town for dinner or coffee. Or, my favorite, we’d just stay in, and he’d play for me.
Stan was still just covering other songs, but I did not care.
Our last night before winter break, he was just strumming a few chords, still looking full of a secret he wasn’t telling me, while I, laptop open on the bed, emphatically selected classes through the online system for the following semester. We’d once again be taking an English class together, which was alluring to me.
“Hey, Stan,” I asked as he continued to mindlessly strum the guitar.
“Are you gonna play any more open mics next semester?”
“I hope you do,” I said, softening my tone a little.
I glanced up and over at him, just as he set down his guitar in favor of walking up to me. He shut the laptop and tucked it under the bed, then placed a hand on my waist and leaned in to kiss me. I was smiling as soon as he hummed into it. He eased me back so slowly I couldn’t tell I was lying down until my neck brushed the pillow.
Move in with him. Yes, we still had housemates, but I was going to move in with him. It was like instant euphoria to just think about it. And the ultimate antidote to the poison that had been me leaving for four months. I’d catch myself laughing out of excitement for it, which I ended up doing as I wove my fingers up into the clean, soft material of Stan’s sweatshirt.
“What?” he asked.
“What’s so funny?” A lingering kiss at the corner of my left eye followed the question.
“Nothing. I’m just really ready to live with you.” When he smiled, and lowered his face closer to mine, so that our foreheads touched, the zipper of his sweatshirt brushed against my chin. Grinning, I shifted so that I could grab the zipper pull in my teeth. I yanked it down a couple inches, and Stan took the hint, coaxing me to release my bite so that he could pull the garment right off. His skin felt warmer, anyway.
“Yeah?” I nipped at his neck.
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Stan admitted, his voice calm but cautious, “but, um… how’s this relate with that freedom plan you used to talk about?”
I smirked, then pulled him down by his right arm, so that he lay on the left of the bed and I the right, as we’d come to prefer. Quickly, I turned over onto my side, then rolled over on top of him, grabbed his face in my hands, and drowned him in a deep, deep kiss. Stan clung to me tightly, his hands applying just the right amount of pressure on my arms. He was alive with the sense and scent of everything I loved. When I drew out of the kiss, I lay my head on the pillow beside him, so that when he turned to face me, there was barely a millimeter between us. “Fuck it,” I whispered in response.
“Fuck freedom if it means being alone,” I corrected. “I’m not making any more mistakes like that.”
“We all make mistakes,” Stan assured me. His fingers began to stroke a simple line against my cheek, and I melted against him, wrapped in his warmth, and every promise we’d ever make. Long and short of it, I had let him down. But he had waited for me. I’d let him down for no reason other than the stupid thought that I wasn’t having the experience I was ‘supposed’ to have, no reason other than some stupid personal obsession.
“Promise that next time you’ll stop me,” I asked.
“I can’t really promise that,” Stan admitted, “but I can promise I won’t judge you for anything you might call a mistake. It’s just life, Kyle.”
“You’re amazing,” I told him. I grabbed at his hair with my right hand, each tangle delighting my fingertips more than the last as I swept them through. Stan had such thick, unpredictable hair; pure, sleek black, jagged but alluring. I couldn’t emulate that with my own if I tried.
Stan ran the index and middle fingers of his left hand around some of the thicker rings of my hair, and pressed a kiss to my lips. “I can’t promise it,” he said, “but can you try, too?”
“To not leave again.”
“Y-yeah, Stan, of course,” I promised. “I swear to God, I don’t want to repeat that.”
He smiled, and settled in against me. “Okay.” He seemed content with that. Those eyes, that night, looked incredibly innocent. It made sense. We were at the threshold of something new. “So I’ve got a couple more secrets.”
“You do?” And oh, I could tell. Just never what about.
“When are you going to tell me?”
“Soon enough.” Fine by me… since I was certainly not heading anywhere before ‘soon enough’ could happen, or even after.
Stan hit me with another secret, or, more like piece of news, once we were in his car, on the ride back home for break. We had plenty of time to talk, but, much to my delight and surprise, my boyfriend wanted to talk about music more than anything. He went about it nervously, which kind of led on to me that a part of him wanted to talk about the whole semester, but even with his fluttering around the subject, he talked about it with passion. That was all I really wanted from him, on the subject of music, too: just to hear him say that it meant as much to him as I’d always known it did.
During the semester, he told me, he’d had a lot of time to reflect and re-evaluate his position on a lot of things, and songwriting was the main one. “I just, like, wanna devote more time to it, you know?” he said. “Oh, oh, did I tell you? I’m gonna start taking music theory this semester.”
“Yeah?” I grinned. “Stan, that’s awesome!” I turned around in my seat to scour the back. Yep, the guitar was there. “Oh, sweet, you’re bringing it home!” I exclaimed. When I faced forward again, he was still blushing something awful. “You okay?”
“Huh?” He snapped out of it pretty fast, and smiled at me briefly before going back to keeping his eyes on the snowy highway. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m, like… I’m still just, like…” Stan trailed off, then said, more softly, “Kyle, I’m really glad you’re back.”
The snow was such a hindrance. I found myself wishing we’d taken the bus. All I wanted to do was have him alone, talk about nothing or everything, catch up and nestle in. And, yes, hear him sing. It had been way too long. Trying to find words to put to that kind of want seemed impossible, since it was such a peculiar little love of mine. It was one of those things. Still the one mysterious part of the guy I’d known so well for so long, who I’d been dating for nearly four years.
“Yeah,” I beamed. My cheeks felt warm, and my stomach knotted. I was falling in love with Stan Marsh all over again. I was smitten and he was gorgeous, and it felt like nothing in life could ever be wrong again. “Me, too.”
“Thanks for coming to the game,” he added with a laugh.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I’m so fucking happy I could see that! Last one of the season, right?” He hadn’t mentioned any others, anyway, which I figured meant that, despite the win, the CSU Rams were out for the rest of the season.
“Wasn’t that it?” I wondered. “I feel like Kenny said something about ‘last one’ or something on the car ride over. I wasn’t really listening.”
“Oh. Sneaky asshole, he said that?”
“Oh. Well, um…” Stan’s hands curled around the wheel nervously, and he made a slow turn onto an exit, the windshield wipers beating the snow away in an off-beat from the clicking blinker. “There’s still a few for the team, but that was my last one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, watching every intricate tick of his facial expressions.
Stan chewed the inside of his cheek for a second, waited until he’d eased out onto the next stretch of highway, then said, “Kyle, that was my last game.”
“Of the season.”
“I’m not playing football anymore.”
“What?” I accidentally blurt out louder than I should have in that small car. “What the fuck, they’re not kicking you off?!”
“No!” Stan covered quickly. He glanced over at me quickly. “No, no way. Nothing like that. I’m not getting kicked off. I’m quitting.”
“Why?” I wanted to know.
Stan shrugged. “Lots of reasons. I thought about quitting after last year, honestly. It, like… it was fun in high school and whatever, but I’m not going pro, I really don’t care as much about being in organized sports anymore. It’s just, kinda… not my thing. Anymore. I told my coach I was quitting for academic reasons, and that’s kinda true, dude, my grades did kinda slip a little this semester, and football was just this dumb distraction. I didn’t need it.”
“Oh,” I said. I was slightly stunned, and a little sad that he hadn’t told me before that he’d had reservations, “why didn’t you tell me? If I’d known this was your last season—”
“You wouldn’t have gone abroad,” Stan finished. “I don’t know… I thought you really wanted to go, so I didn’t say anything.”
Silence fell through the car, then, for the next mile and a half, until I was the one to finally let out a little sigh and say, “So… not the best semester for either of us.”
“Guess not. But this next one’s gonna be better,” my boyfriend said encouragingly. “Gonna be so much better.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I mulled over the thought again, then asked, “So, you’re really fine with not playing anymore?”
Rather proudly, Stan shook his head. And then he said something I felt like I’d been holding my breath forever to hear: “I’m not a quarterback, Kyle, I’m a guitarist.”
I was grinning so widely right then the only other thing I could do was start laughing. Full of delight, I let out a satisfied laugh, then squeezed my boyfriend’s shoulder, and said, “Don’t say stuff like that in the car! I’m so ready to just fuck you right here right now.”
“What,” Stan laughed, “for saying that?”
“Yeah, Stan! I mean… aaaaauuuuhhhh,” I let out a satisfied near-moan and sat flat back against the passenger seat. “I just… you are your music, Stan.”
“I don’t play all that much,” he blushed in his defense.
“But when you do, I fucking love it. You can’t watch yourself play, dude. I can see you. I see you just… I can’t describe it. It’s beautiful.”
Stan laughed again, and observed, “You’ve been using that word a lot.”
“Yeah, that one.”
“Well,” I said, feeling my smile spread, “you are. You and everything you do.”
Letting out a little vocal sigh, Stan admitted again, “I really missed you.”
“Me, too. Now, step on it, I wanna get back and pick a bedroom.”
“You can’t fuck me if we both die in a car crash,” Stan snickered.
“Okay, fine. Then at least put on some music.”
He smirked over at me, then cycled through the six CDs in his car until he settled on a mix. I recognized the very first one as a Skid Row song we used to play on our Guitar Hero game back in elementary school. I couldn’t take it, and burst out laughing. Nothing will get hair metal stuck in your head like playing Guitar Hero as fucking obsessively as we had. “If you play this at the next open mic,” I said once I stopped laughing, “I’ll fuck you onstage.”
“I am so doing that, then.”
“Bet you won’t.”
“No, because I’m a guitarist, not a performance artist.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“As you’ve promised. Give it an hour.”
Needless to say, that winter break was amazing. Snowy as hell, but we had no other obligations. We didn’t see much of our friends for the first couple weeks, and Stan spoiled me like crazy for Hanukkah, covering a different song on his guitar each night. He complained a little about the quality of the instrument, but I assured him it was fine. At the same time, though, I started to hoard away the money my relatives sent me for the holiday into what I called the New Guitar Fund. I wanted it to be a secret. Stan deserved something really personal and really special from me. Now that he was really becoming more devoted to his music, I figured I’d save until I could afford the best.
Because he was already giving me the best of everything. Maybe the best part of studying abroad, I realized, was being able to come back home. It was at least a lesson in that I never would have made it going to a different university entirely from Stan. He was my logic and reason and common sense, and everything.
On New Year’s Eve, we met up with other friends at Clyde’s (as he had won some kind of multi-tiered, convoluted coin toss game that we’d devised in order to figure out where we should all go), but by 11:45 we were cuddled up together on the sofa in Clyde’s rec room, underneath two fleece blankets and armed with Bebe’s hot toddies, completely oblivious to the party going on around us. We shared a kiss at midnight, sharing the buzz from the toddies, and silently made a little promise that we would make this year wonderful for each other.
As his new year’s resolution, my boyfriend admitted, he wanted to write me a song. I told him he didn’t have to (lie, lie, lie; do it, do it, do it!), but Stan insisted. “It might take me a while,” he said, “but that’s what I’m gonna do.”
My own resolution was to not force experiences on myself, which Stan approved of pretty wholeheartedly. No more stupid decisions, if I could avoid them. Pack them all away in that carpet bag, and move on. Move in with my boyfriend, and move on to something wonderful.
My eyes stung with tears both good and bad as I zipped up the variety of items I was ready to pass on into the carpet bag. For a while, when I remembered the better times that came after that semester abroad, I thought about keeping it just for that, but it held more of the down part of that year than up, so it could stay behind. I couldn’t turn into a memory hoarder.
Looking at that carpet bag, though, and realizing now, in retrospect, that things could have turned out a lot worse, I made a mental note to myself to thank Bebe for handing it off to me, since I’d kind of figured out what it really symbolized. She’d given it to me after she’d moved on from needing it, as she and Clyde were clearing out and making way for new things. Having that with me, that one semester, had been something like a clear transition: now that I had a place to store everything that I could move on without, I could pass it off to somebody else as well.
I glanced over at Stan’s boring old duffel bag, all full up with things I couldn’t move away without, and grinned. Amazing how a couple plain old bags could mean such different things. Yes; I’d thank Bebe later. I had to keep on packing for now.
I’d already started loading up the large brown trunk Dad had unearthed from the garage. He’d found it while my parents were doing some cleaning of their own in our communal storage spaces; apparently it had been his in college, and he had meant to give it to me for my four years of higher education, but since it had been buried at the time, he figured this move was just as good a time to pass it on as any.
Trunk Without A Padlock
Dad had found a padlock for the trunk, too, but as I started packing things up in it, I realized I didn’t want it. I’d save it for something else, I decided; just not the trunk. Because I knew that if I put something important in there, I’d inevitably lose the key and have to deal with picking the lock or forgetting what was in there or forging a friendship with a local locksmith. No, the trunk would stay unlocked and useful. Best to leave the top open for now, give the things in there air until the last minute.
Some clothes went in there, but for the most part, I filled it with books. Books I didn’t want I left in the cardboard boxes, but those that I did went straight into the brown trunk. Which I knew was probably a stupid idea since Dad (or Ike… probably Dad) and I would have to carry it down the stairs later, and then I’d have to lug it into my new apartment, but whatever. It looked like it needed books. It was one of those old military trunks, probably from an army resale store or something, and it smelled of antiquity, telling me that it was much, much older than my father. The musty smell made me think of the older books in the school’s libraries, and the couple of old books that had fallen into my possession over the years.
I’d procured a few 19th-century volumes of Plato and Dante in school. I didn’t really care for Dante much, but I liked the look of the book and figured that it’d look nice on a shelf someday. Plus, I never knew when I’d feel like reading an epic poem (probably never, but still). Bebe and I had found the Plato volume bargain book hunting while she, Clyde, Stan and I had been scouring downtown Fort Collins for much, much cheaper versions of the books we had needed for the second semester of our junior year. I wrapped the volumes in scarves—why the fuck did I own so many scarves?!—and continued packing.
One book that most certainly did not make it into the trunk was a volume from my Engineering department, bound together by the staff and listing off various internships. There were chapters in there about writing a good cover letter, why internships matter, all that kind of thing. Now that I was on my way to a damn good internship, I didn’t need that book anymore. Plus, it was the source of, honestly, every other problem I faced for the remainder of my college career. Motherfucking internships. I should have just applied for a job.
Oh, well, no going back now. But… ugh. Maybe I wouldn’t just junk that book. Maybe I’d get some satisfaction out of shredding it, for it threatening to shred me.
The beginning of junior year had sucked to a new degree. The second half of junior year started off… to keep using the word, beautifully. I moved into 1600 West Plum along with Stan, Kenny and Clyde, and became quickly acquainted to “Bebe’s shelf” (which was actually a full, though tiny, bookshelf on the ground floor by the TV, stock fucking full of bridal planners) and to Kenny’s new whiteboard. Whenever Kenny and Red were in for the night, the whiteboard on his bedroom door would bear messages like, “Hi, you’ve reached Kenny McCormick. I’m fucking my girlfriend’s brains out, but feel free to leave a message,” or, “Experimental Kink In Progress, Please Stand By. Actually Don’t.”
Sharing a room with Stan was exciting as hell, even though we were kind of tight on closet space and only had one desk, but the open downstairs kind of made up for that. Stan did, I soon discovered, operate at all times during the school year on football time still, which meant that he would wake up before God and have all this energy for no reason other than the fact that it had literally been drilled into him. I was usually able to get back to sleep, though, and after Stan would go for his morning jog or whatever, he usually came back to kiss me awake and offer to make me breakfast.
Yeah, this was working out pretty nicely.
I liked the apartment much, much better than the dorms, since I could actually use the common space as a study area, and wasn’t bothered. Having a kitchen was wonderful, too, and I was pleasantly surprised with Stan’s quick taking to culinary experimentation. Sometimes it didn’t work at all, and we just shoved a frozen pizza in the oven, but some nights, he’d make some pretty brilliant dinners. I took up cooking a little, and at the very least perfected the art of the omelette. Kenny was probably the best cook of all of us, from all his years of providing just for himself and his sister after they’d moved away from their parents, and would sometimes cook for everyone, if we pitched in. Clyde had a talent for burning spaghetti (figure that one out), but was actually pretty proficient in baking, and could therefore usually be talked into scraping together brownies and the like, especially when Bebe offered her help. It also usually fell on Clyde to make sure the alcohol content of the house was in check… by his and Kenny’s standards, at least. For the two of them to get what they wanted—since, even though they drank, neither had a fake i.d.—they’d have to do us favors. Otherwise, their choice was red or white, and neither was a wine guy.
Clyde did tease me and Stan (me much moreso, though) about the fine wine deal. Stan was the only one who could legally buy alcohol, which meant he got to pick the labels… and by he, I mean me, but still; same thing, when it came to wine. Clyde teased me relentlessly, and usually had to do something like take the trash out for two weeks in order for Stan to “just fucking buy S’more Schnapps like a normal person, holy shit.” He could make fun all he wanted, but he knew as well as any of us that he was savoring the fifteen-dollar-and-up bottles we splurged on just as much as we were.
The best part was… yeah… I was living with my boyfriend, in a much closer environment than we’d ever had. Just like it was becoming for Clyde and Bebe: everything was ours, more than just mine or his. And after missing each other so Goddamn much that first semester, nothing really got on our nerves… or, well, if something did, we kept it to ourselves (which, in the long run, would prove to not have been the best idea).
Also, Stan really was making good on his decision to be a guitarist. We went out on dates to different venues, so Stan could get a feel for particular scenes, and figure out which people to talk to in order to get the real scoop on things. I was taking eighteen credits, had put my study abroad experience behind me, and let myself slow down. I made friends with a couple of the baristas at the downtown coffee shops Stan had liked best as prospective open mic places, and even played around on my boyfriend’s guitar a little, though for the most part I left it up to him.
Stan brought a keyboard back from South Park, too, since he needed it for his theory class. Not to mention for the music minor he’d decided to really go for now that football wasn’t a distraction. All sorts of notions started swimming around in my head, of the possibility of Stan finally recording a demo of sorts, of him composing an album’s worth of material that he could tote around to our usual haunts downtown or—and this was my biggest fantasy—radio stations. He wasn’t quite ready for something that big, he admitted, but, all the same, that semester was filled with music.
That was when Stan really started to find himself. And I was able to find myself a part in everything he did. Maybe I had spent my sophomore year both secretly and not-so-secretly searching for an outlet for myself, for something to set me apart and give me some kind of ‘experience,’ but that late winter into early spring made me able to let go of any stress I’d heaped onto myself from all of that, and enjoy being a part of something better.
I had missed Stan’s twenty-first birthday by going abroad, but our fourth anniversary more than made up for it. Over a month sharing a room, and things had been wonderful thus far. That particular February twentieth was a class-filled day for us both, but neither of us had anywhere to be until the class we took together at eleven, so Stan had set the alarm for eight, and woke me half an hour later, knowing that I would promptly ignore any alarm set before I absolutely needed to be awake.
“Good morning,” he said blithely, from his relaxed position of leaning at a slight angle over me.
“Hi,” was my half-awake reply. He leaned in to rouse me with a kiss, which still carried a breeze of his intensity from the night before. I had been more in the mood to let him dominate, lately, and to Stan, that was challenge accepted, and he most certainly did not disappoint.
“Four years.” My boyfriend’s smile could stop the world; he pressed warmly against me, and I shifted to sit up as he began to work his fingers intricately through my hair. I had gotten into a habit of styling my hair almost every other day, lately, even though the straightening process I brought down on my curls generally held them in waves for a couple weeks. The styling generally left my hair pretty soft, though, so it was all out of my little love of feeling Stan massage and pet his fingers through.
“Mmhmm.” I smiled into his next kiss. Sitting up away from the sheets had hit my skin with a shock of winter air; to combat it, I draped my arms over Stan’s shoulders and pulled him closer. He was always warmest in the early morning. Routine had found him knowing exactly how to stop me from shivering during those early wake-ups… the way he slid his arms around me and rubbed my back with the friction to start a little fire. I laughed when he started in on that, and kissed him again. “What’s the plan?”
“Aww, do we need a plan? Let’s just take on the day and see what happens.”
“I like it.”
When we were both functionally awake, I could hardly pry myself off of him. We threw on shirts and flannel pants and made our way downstairs, where Kenny was already more or less awake and sitting with an open book at the kitchen counter. He gave us a knowing smirk as we crossed into the kitchen, then said nonchalantly, “Don’t worry, I already made coffee.”
“I always wanted a live-in butler, Kenny,” I taunted, “thanks.”
He flipped me off and went back to his book. “Enjoy your day, guys. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“There’s not an awful lot you wouldn’t do, dude,” Stan pointed out.
“You’re welcome. Consider that my gift to you. That and coffee.”
I remained pretty much glued to Stan’s side as he cracked a few eggs for breakfast, and only dislodged to shower before preparing for the day and grabbing his hand as we walked to our morning English class. For the fun of it, I brought along the English notebook he’d given me freshman year, since there were still a couple of pages left in the back just begging to be the site of written conversations during Principles of Literary Criticism.
The English majors were having a fundraising book sale outside of the building, so once we left class, we perused the tables a little, in search of interesting titles. Dante, or translations thereof, had been a topic in class lately, and when I found a 19th-century copy of the text, I had to pick it up. “It’d be cool to read an older translation,” I said in defense of dropping ten dollars for it. “Plus it might be fun to start an old book collection, y’know?”
“Yeah. I’ve kinda been thinking the same thing about records,” Stan admitted. “Like, I found a couple up in my attic last summer, all I need is a player at some point. And to, you know, actually start the collection.”
“Don’t let your dad know you’re actually interested in his old stuff now,” I laughed. “He might get the wrong idea and go off on some crazy revival again.”
Stan rolled his eyes. “Dad can do whatever. When I went home last Thanksgiving, I started talking about, y’know, quitting football and keeping up more with my guitar, and he got going off on some anecdote. I think that’s when I figured I should just really tune him out and do it.”
“Wait,” I said quickly, pressing a hand to my boyfriend’s chest before we could start walking off in the direction of my next class. “Did your dad seriously try to stop you?”
“Um… I didn’t tell you this, but he kinda has been,” Stan admitted.
“Dude! Since when?”
“Like, last spring, maybe fall sophomore year.” Stan took hold of my hand as we began walking, slowly, along the path that would curl me around to the Economics building I still had plenty of time to get to. “It’s so weird what my parents choose to tell me to go for or give up.”
“Well, what’d he do?” Furthermore, I was wondering why Stan decided to hide that tidbit of information from me. Being a sensitive person, Stan did sometimes have the tendency to let what other people said shape his thinking. Not that I’m without fault in that respect, but even given that it took us years of feeling like creativity in either of us would just get squandered and that we should just be critics and cynics forever, both of us spent our high school years trying to get our heads wrapped around what we wanted. Which, generally, went against what the town would rally for or against, with Stan’s dad being one of the odder voices around town. Randy Marsh would get sucked into fads or sucked into nostalgia, and did so to such extremes that Stan, as he repeated a couple times a year, tried his best to not be his father. So the guitar, I realized, must have been kind of a touchy subject, since it was never certain what kind of musical venture Randy would be overwhelmed about.
“I dunno,” Stan sighed, “it was just, like… he automatically assumed that because I was starting taking theory and playing more that I obviously just want to be a professional musician, and I keep saying no, I want to go into conservation and I just like having my guitar as an outlet and stuff. And, like, yeah I like playing around in different places, but… sorry, I really should’ve told you this, huh?”
“It’s just that this is why I didn’t go to too many open mic nights and stuff,” he confessed.
“Well, don’t let what your dad says get to you.”
“Easier said than done, dude.”
“I guess. At least you didn’t get so wrapped up in something stupid that you went abroad for no reason. Oh, wait.”
Stan grinned, and bent to kiss my cheek. “I’m glad you can laugh about that,” he told me.
“If I don’t, I’ll just keep saying, oh, God, I want that four months of my life back, and I don’t think you really need me doing that.” It was just as Stan had said. We all make mistakes. Only took me till I was twenty to figure that out. And I’ll probably forget again and re-learn it at thirty. If for no other reason than that I’m from South Park, and it’s been beaten into me that I can only learn lessons from extreme situations.
We strode on in silence for a couple minutes, and then when my building came into view, I said, “Stan, for what it’s worth, I think you could do anything you wanted with your music. I love it. I think you could really go somewhere with it, and I’m really proud of you for playing more.”
“It’s worth a lot,” was his honest answer. “Thanks, Kyle.” We paused to kiss before I had to rush off to class, his hands clinging to my waist. “See you… what, like six?”
“6:45?” I joked.
“Funny. Don’t commit to that. I want you as early as I can have you.”
As did I. I distracted myself by reading over our old conversations in that English notebook in between my classes, and when my phone buzzed with a reminder I’d written myself to pick up a few things at the grocery store, I listened to a mix of Stan’s musical inspirations in the car. I ended up making two grocery runs, having forgotten a couple of essentials the first trip around, and texted Stan to assure him I was on my way.
I hadn’t exactly calculated my second purchase before I was actually at the counter and realized what I was buying. Or, more like, when the self check-out monitor girl made me realize I was buying by doing a very obvious stare at my items on the weigh station for purchase, and following that with a slow glance up at me. And then the awkward eyebrow raise and accompanying smirk.
Now, see, this is exactly why I generally go to the self check-out at places anyway (a luxury we did not have in South Park): nobody to make dumb conversation or poke around at whatever you’re buying. So check-out monitor girl was standing there eyeing my items, her expression clearly asking, “So you use protection when you masturbate? That’s cute.” The only thing I could do was narrate it for her, since she wasn’t about to let up.
“We were out of bread,” I said, scanning that item in, “and peanut butter. And by we I mean me and my boyfriend,” I scanned the condoms, “who, unlike me, does not have seasonal allergies,” I finished, scanning the tissues.
The girl looked like she didn’t know whether to laugh or whip out her phone to Tweet what I’d just said, so I just swiped my card and got the hell out of there. Incidentally, that was my last trip to that particular grocery store. Again, a nice luxury we didn’t have in South Park: multiple options and people who don’t necessarily know who you are, even after a couple encounters.
I returned from that ridiculous grocery run to an impromptu serenade. It had been a while since Stan had taken out his guitar to play in the common room. He blamed it on not wanting to sound out of practice, even though I knew he’d return to his guitar after every time that songwriting class called for something to be written on the piano. I didn’t care when or how or why he took out that guitar. I just liked hearing him play. He was seated on the edge of the recliner, keeping time with a tambourine, which circled his right ankle; when he saw me, he ticked his head up in a nod hello and flashed a smile, bright and white enough for the cover of GQ.
I grinned back, then meandered reluctantly into the kitchen to shelve my recent purchases. Slowly, in the other room, Stan began to add words to his music. It wasn’t a song I could recognize, and he was fading in and out, which was a dead giveaway that he probably wrote it. Stan still had some secrets he was keeping from me, and one, I knew, was his unfinished work. When he wanted feedback, he’d play a couple bars or so, but for the most part, he hid them away until he could show me the finished piece. I’ve always loved it that way, though. I’m just proud of the fact that he’s always creating something.
I was folding up the bag and stashing it in the pantry when Stan started strumming a different, punk-inspired string of chords, and sang purposefully out of tune to it: “Kyle—get your pretty ass in he—re! Didn’t see you all day, yeah, need my fix, yeah, it’s cle—ar! Need my dose, yeah, baby, gotta take a hit, take a hit, take a hit, get high on you—!” He paused, for effect, and then slammed on the chords and sang out again, “Ky—le!”
My ribs hurt, I was laughing so hard by the time my feet carried me around into the living room. Stan looked up from his guitar and grinned. “Aw, sweet!” he said. “It worked!”
“What are you on today?” I laughed, walking over to plant myself beside him, on the arm of that large cushioned chair, which either Clyde or Bebe (now in the ‘oh my God, household feng shui’ phase of their relationship) had re-aligned so that it was angled in the corner to the left of the window.
“Awww,” he mock-groaned, “didn’t you listen to the song? You’re my drug, babe.”
“Yeah, fantastic imagery,” I added to the joke, leaning over him and laying my arms around his shoulders. “Or similes or whatever. And surely nothing that anyone has ever written into a rock song before. I think you’ve got a Top 40 hit in there.”
“I’m thinking about calling it, ‘The Greatest Goddamn Love Song You’ll Ever Hear,’ but that might be stalking creepy hipster territory,” Stan laughed, setting the guitar aside.
“Well, you are in college,” I pointed out.
“Hmm, that’s true. Actually,” he said, sitting further back and sliding me down onto his lap, “I’ll just put it on my first record’s B-side tracks.”
“The special edition,” I added.
“Naturally. With extended Blu-Ray footage.”
“What the fuck are we talking about?”
“I have no idea.”
I found myself close to laughing again, when my boyfriend started nuzzling against my cheek. I could detect the sweet scent of spearmint on his breath, and only hoped the coffee I had earlier wasn’t ruining mine. My lips parted against his skin to invite him in, and he took the offer, sliding his left hand up the back of my neck until his fingers maneuvered their way up into my hair. His thumb began stroking a soothing line and pressure under my ear and against the hinge of my jaw, and I sank down against him as his tongue glided along mine, soothing me, coaxing me away from the strain and stress of the day.
Stan turned a little, and I pushed him down against the right arm of the chair; he used his elbows to prop himself up on it for a second, then lay back and settled in. When I placed a kiss just below his jaw, he tilted his head back, exposing his neck to invite me to trace a line of small, wet marks down to his collarbone. He then let out a light, satisfied vocal sigh, and hugged me down against him. “So, guess what?” he said, gently drumming his fingers into my back.
“Hmm?” I wondered as I welcomed the slight massage.
“Kenny and Clyde’re out all night.”
“That mean you’re gonna serenade me again?”
“You want me to?” Stan asked. I detected nerves, and propped myself up a bit so I could see if I was right. He had no reason to be nervous.
“Yeah,” I said, blithely but pulling out all the stops to sound exactly as aroused as I truly was whenever he had that guitar out of its case. Honest to God; his music really fucking got me. It was the fact of watching him enjoy himself so much. It really was stunning.
I bent to kiss him again, to entice him further.
When Stan shifted, so that his left leg had been positioned under me in order for that knee to provide a little extra, and welcome, pressure against my right side, the tambourine stayed looped around his right ankle, causing a little rustling of a jingle as Stan made himself comfortable, now almost entirely underneath me. Another shift of his leg, and I realized he still had that damn tambourine laced around his ankle, and he hadn’t bothered to kick it off while he adjusted.
“Fucking tambourine,” I said lightly, nudging Stan’s nose with mine as I went for another kiss.
“Mmmmh, we keep going, it will be the ‘fucking’ tambourine,” Stan grinned against me, which was so hilariously uncalled for, I bit down on his lip to issue a warning. But I had a feeling that neither of us was going to be too serious for that evening, so we both kept going with it.
“Stan, that’s so unnecessary,” I said, staring him down with a leer as I crossed my arms over his chest.
“What?” he smirked. “All the cool kids have random-ass sex toys, why can’t we?”
“Because it’s stupid. And gross. And unsanitary.”
“Aww, come on,” he fake-pleaded. Stan bent his right knee up so he could grab the tambourine off of his ankle, then stretched his leg out over the arm of the chair, thus trapping me, and began to beat the tambourine against my hip in quarter time and sang to the tune of that oft-bastardized Beatles’ song, “You can’t resist the fucking tambourine, the fucking tambourine, the fucking tambourine—”
“Oh, my God, Stan, what the fuck?” I started laughing. Sometimes he got like this—just so stupidly and almost adolescently flirty and ridiculous (which was probably, and luckily, one of the only traits he’d kept that he’d picked up from his bizarre father), and the thing about his falling into this state was that he always had it so perfectly timed to days when I was feeling absurd enough to either jokingly dismiss him or deal it right back. I took it as a pretty good sign that one of those days just happened to be our fourth anniversary.
He lowered the tambourine and gave me a fluttering kiss, indicating that he wasn’t going to give up the silly act anytime soon. Tapping me on the shoulder to get me to sit back, he stood, reclaimed the instrument, then stepped back once so that he was at an angle with me, and, cocking one eyebrow in a purposefully mock-seductive way, he positioned the tambourine so that it encircled his crotch, then beat time by thrusting into it and singing again, “The fucking tambourine—”
“Oh, my—Stan, that’s fucking nasty,” I scolded him, finding it hard not to laugh all the same. I scrambled to stand up from my still slightly reclined position, then took the instrument away from him and hid it behind my back.
“Aww-awww,” he whined. “That was totally going somewhere good, I promise.”
“I’m gonna doubt that,” I smirked, keeping my face just inches away from his.
“We were just getting to the good part.”
“Ooooh, sorry, no deal, no chance for a boner now, since you had to go kill everything with that damn tambourine dance,” I said, prodding his chest with one index finger as I issued his (absolutely fake) punishment.
“No Chance for a Boner is totally the name of the album I’m putting that song on,” Stan joked back.
“It’ll sell millions,” I said, rolling my eyes, “but for now, we are so done talking about it.”
“Fine,” my boyfriend gave in, still grinning.
Some other afternoon, maybe, I could’ve gone on to some other activity that needed doing after that, but nothing gave to the fact that I did just feel like staying inside and keeping warm with Stan, however we chose to go about doing so. Neither of us ever usually thought to cut right to the sex (that’s right, Kenny, other couples do exist who think that way), since we enjoyed the intimacy that came beforehand too much. Plus, the little things, and then the foreplay—all of that would factor into who’d take control for the rest of the evening. With us, it had always been, and would always be, just a case of boys being boys: we’d start up a contest, and spoils to whoever won the game.
So I took away Stan’s tambourine rights completely by tossing the instrument back onto the sofa behind me; then, slowly, lightly brushed my right hand up against his thigh, working up toward his waist, then back down, nudging his shirt up a bit to graze the skin of his back before letting my hand fall so I could give his ass just enough of a pinch and squeeze to keep him going.
He hummed into me and started up a little sway. I rocked into him, letting him move me. As the movements grew more fluid, Stan tucked his head down, so that I could feel his breath on the side of my neck. Every movement was a breath. And he started to hum. It was the same basic tune he had been tinkering around with when I had first walked in. Something original; something brand new; something he probably hadn’t shared with anyone else yet. I loved the fact that I was the first to hear it, and hoped I could encourage him to write even more. I would always, always be his positive reinforcement.
I told him that, too, much later into the evening. After we had battled each other up the stairs and tripped twice. After the bedroom door had slammed and I’d torn off everything we’d both been wearing, after I’d begun to devour him with his back pressed against the door, after he’d pushed me through the room, after I had nearly broken the headboard with him. After we’d become functional humans again, carnal instincts satisfied, afterglow attained.
“You are writing music,” I asked him breathlessly as I marked his neck once for good measure, “right?”
“Hmm? Mmhmm,” was his choice answer.
He looked brilliant. Even more alive than he had in every other year I had known him. Stan had seen his share of existential crises throughout childhood and adolescence (so it seemed only fitting that my major one would wait until my sophomore and junior fucking years of college), but was steadily settling into the person I’d always known he’d become. Selfless, sweet, and highly, highly creative. He’d found and abandoned substances, fiddled through fads, scorned and savored many different kinds of music to find just the right kind of inspiration for his own work. Now that he was really being active about it… there was culmination there. I believed that Stan could find himself in music. And I could find myself in… something. I just had to keep looking.
I curled in beside him, letting his warmth wrap around me like a thick blanket. “I want to help you,” I told him. “If I can, I mean.”
“If I can.”
“Then stand by,” he said with a wide, white grin. “I’ll make sure I come to you before I can hit up the absinthe like the old artists used to do.”
“And still do,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “I wouldn’t touch that shit if you paid me.”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“It fucks you up.”
“Remember when we did cough syrup?”
I snickered and smacked his shoulder a little. “What?” Stan defended himself. “We did plenty of weird shit when we were kids.”
That much was true. Between the ages of eight and ten, I’d done more weird shit with substances than I had between the ages of eighteen and twenty. “Ugh, dude, is that why the guys think I’m boring?” I wondered.
“Nobody thinks you’re boring.”
“I think Clyde secretly does.”
“You’re just paranoid.” Stan kissed my hair to make me stop thinking.
“I know, I know.”
Stan distracted himself away from the randomness of that conversation, and graced my skin with a few kisses again. Anniversaries, to us, had never been so much about a big-to-do, no big party or gifts or anything. Anniversaries were affirmations. Another year we’d been together as a couple, and things were still running smoothly. We were lovers and still best friends. We didn’t need big celebrations, just a night together to reflect on that.
I could remember being so afraid, first going into the relationship, that we might fuck up somewhere. I honestly thought that my choice to study abroad might have been that fuckup. Or that I’d do us in later in the aftermath. But here we were, fine as ever, maybe even better. Stan on the path to creating the music he’d been a little too worried to venture into, and I ready to back him in any way I could.
Stan sat up a little to prop himself up over me. Like a light breeze, his left hand brushed back my hair with a life of its own. I could have stared up at him forever. “Can we do this again next year?”
“I… was unaware that we were on a once a year schedule.”
“Not like that, don’t play that,” he smirked. “I mean, like, keep the apartment like this.”
“Don’t see why we wouldn’t,” I said. I traced my fingers along his collarbone, and walked them over his shoulder, every curve, every contour.
“So we keep living together?” He looked so sweet and eager. For being one of the oldest among our group of friends, Stan, I’d thought for quite some time, was one of the most youthful. Maybe it was the younger sibling thing, or maybe it was just the way I saw him, but at twenty-one, Stan may as well have still been seventeen—eager and hopeful, cautious about taking new steps. It was all so sweet. His youthfulness helped me feel often kind of protectively responsible for him, and I loved that. We looked out for each other in different ways. After all, everything had started with the promise to protect each other, no matter what.
“Yeah.” I lifted my hand from his shoulder to take a light hold of his wrist instead, and then hold his own hand against me. I rocked my head into his palm and squeezed his fingers between mine. “You don’t have to ask.”
“Yeah I do.” Stan sighed, kissed the corner of my eye, and nestled back in beside me. I turned my entire body to face him, and watched his eyes glimmer and shift as he spoke. “Totally not pillow-talk, but going off what I got talking about earlier, I feel like a lot of times I have to really make myself clear to get through to people. It’s never been like that with you, though. Sorry I can’t shake the habit.”
“Kyle?” he asked again after a silent second.
“I can tell you anything, right?”
My lips spread and parted into an automatic smile. Kissing the bridge of his nose, I said, “Four years and then some, Stan.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He drew in a deep breath. A spot of heat rose on my right arm where he ticked his thumb back and forth along my skin. His young features paled with a wave of nerves as he continued: “Do you ever get scared of the future?”
“Like, after this. I’ve been getting kinda thinking about it lately.” I felt his pulse speed up, and when I inched closer it quickened still. “I’ve been taking this creative writing class, right? And we got talking about how we define points of time.”
“I think about that stuff all the time,” I told him. “My brain’s a file cabinet, you know that. Here’s before, here’s after.”
“Right? I’ve been like that lately, too,” said Stan. “Only, I don’t know if I’m as much of a file cabinet as like… suitcases.”
“Suitcases?” I wrinkled my nose at the notion that I thought, at the time, was at once odd and alluring. I had no way of knowing how literally I would adopt it.
“Okay, so, it’s like this.” Stan sat up to illustrate his point. He was such a kinetic learner, retaining information best when he had the full display right there in front of him, even if it was an imaginary illustration in the air over our tousled bedsheets. “So kind of going off of what you were talking about. Before—” he swept his left hand out over the edge of the bed, “and after—” he drew a circle in the air with his right index finger somewhere over where his right knee touched my left. “Let’s take it like, New Year’s Eve and then New Year’s Day. One year goes into one suitcase, and then you open up another one.”
“Huh. Why suitcases?”
“Because I carry everything with me. Remember when we were little and Wendy kinda called me out for being a hoarder?” I nodded. “Well, I stopped that physically but never mentally. That make sense?”
“Kind of?” I leaned up against him and looked from one of his hands to the other, trying to see what he saw.
“Like… I’m a mental hoarder,” said Stan. “It sounds stupid but… okay, so, like, a file cabinet you can go back to if you feel like it. If you carry around suitcases in your brain, eventually one of them’ll open. And you get sucked into the things you packed in there.”
“So… wait,” I said, “do you mean like, how people say they have mental baggage?”
Stan shook his head. “No, because baggage makes it sound like a burden. If you’re carrying suitcases, Kyle, you have a destination. That’s the difference.”
“Wow,” I remarked, mulling the thought over. “I never really thought of it like that.”
“That’s kinda why I want to write music,” Stan admitted. “So I can choose how I carry that stuff around, and when I decide to open things. I guess one thing I’m saying is sorry it’s taking me so long to write you your song,” he laughed. “I’m trying to pick and choose the right stuff.”
“It’s okay,” I grinned. “I still can’t believe you’re doing that.” I kissed his cheek to emphasize my excitement for the eventual finished product.
Stan blushed modestly, and brought his hands back from his imaginary diagram.
“I can kind of get what you mean,” I decided. “I don’t re-visit so much as like, overanalyze until I can’t anymore, but there’s a lot I guess…”
“I like how sometimes it seems like all we do is keep each other from going insane,” my boyfriend laughed, lying back against the headboard.
“Better than driving each other that way,” I pointed out. I rested over him, and nuzzled his neck. “So… do you have different suitcases for me?”
“Kinda, yeah.” Stan ran a hand down my spine. “Kinda the same subject, but that same class, we had to talk about five important things we consider constants, and come up with five adjectives, and then synonyms until we just literally could not write anymore. Free-write kind of thing.”
“Want to know yours?”
I laughed. “I’m one of your five constants?”
“Kyle, you were the first one I thought of.” Sitting back up to match my level, he kissed the hinge of my jaw and said, “Intelligent—” kiss below the ear, “sweet—” kiss on the cheek, “gorgeous… selfless—” kiss over my eye, “fearless…”
“Fearless?” I wondered.
“You think I’m fearless?”
Stan pressed his lips to mine, and kept his face close to mine as he spoke. “You actually had the courage to go overseas. You have no idea how much I wanted to do that with you. Or do all sorts of things. You don’t let things stop you.”
“I… do sometimes,” I said. “I wouldn’t call me ‘fearless.’”
“Well… maybe you’re a lot of things to me.”
“So,” he said before I could begin my analyzing, “don’t let anything try to, okay? Stop you, I mean. Or, what I mean about the future is, like… Kyle, if something like that happens again, don’t be afraid to go for it. I get this feeling like you’ll get more stuff like that available. Just… I don’t know, you’re so smart, you’re so good, so, don’t let me hold you back from anyth—”
I stopped him with a kiss. “Stan,” I told him firmly, “nothing involving you could ever hold me back. Okay?”
“Promise me you’ll really go for things, too,” I asked, studying his mixed expression. “I mean, say and do what you want about your music, but don’t let things hold you back. All right?”
“Mmhmm.” His heartbeat and breath both slowing as he stroked back my hair, my boyfriend showed a glowing, winning smile, and said, “Here’s to another full suitcase of you keeping me sane.”
I almost left the rest of the brown trunk empty of physical items in order to leave it full of thought. When I reminded myself that, no, Kyle, this is a real, actual suitcase and it needs to be filled with physical things for your apartment, crazy, I caved and continued filling it, mostly with reminders of that golden semester. The rest of it had been just as wonderful as the start. Stan and I grew closer, and understood new limits of when to encourage each other and when to let things be.
The One With All The Holes And Patches
Luckily, I was able to find a lot in my room that I could do without. Items went into various cardboard boxes that I would at random points hike up to the attic or downstairs for my mother to sort through. When I did travel downstairs, my mom usually greeted me with food or coffee, which I probably would have forgotten about myself, given that somehow my brain had decided to go ahead and have me re-live all four years of college again in a single day.
I thought about texting Stan as I sorted through my things, but it seemed kind of redundant to do that if I was just going to be having dinner with him that night anyway. We could talk and reminisce and everything later. Besides, I knew what every single one of his texts back to me would be: Dude stop thinking. Or something along those lines. I was overanalyzing my own past and I knew it, but when I returned to my room after lugging down two boxes of clothes I didn’t need and an enormous bag of trash that had gone straight out to the bin, all I could do was stare at that brown trunk.
It was full up now, nothing else could squeeze in there and still be moveable by human hands, but it was the one that made me remember Stan’s old illustration of how his mind filed memories.
Two physical suitcases left to go until I’d reach my limit on what I was allowing myself to move out with. I’d brought the carpet bag down earlier and explained to my mother that she could keep it if she really wanted, but that I just couldn’t hold onto it. That left me with the trunk, the black suitcase, Stan’s old duffel bag, and a couple of others, one of which was this awful Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, a messenger bag dating back to sophomore year of high school that had served as both a backpack and a suitcase before.
It had originally been olive green, but had been repaired over the years with patches of brown, grey, and even a denim scrap from an old pair of jeans I’d been tossing out anyway and decided would make a fine cover for a pretty prominent hole at the bottom. There were stitches of various colors from Bebe’s sewing kit that she’d kept on hand in college, one of which was a scar of blue thread across the flap opening. I grinned, and ran my thumb over it. “This thing has so many band-aids,” Bebe had said when she’d sewn that one up, “but at least it has character. God, why do things always have to break during senior year?”
One of those broken items in question had been pretty pivotal to an event that could have been an awful dent in the rest of my college experience, and had come about at the very start of senior year.
Which, I mean, had started out fine. Stan, Kenny, Clyde and I were back at 1600 West Plum, and started the year off with an enormous celebration that Clyde called the Thank God We Haven’t Killed Each Other Yet party. “I swear to God, Kyle,” he laughed at me while I shrugged off his Coors Light offer in favor of a glass of Coppola Riesling, “I am going to get you to drink something way less lame. Mark my words, dude. Before the end of this year.”
“It isn’t lame, it’s sophisticated.”
“You can’t play beer pong with bitch wine!”
“Well, that’s probably why I don’t play beer pong,” I argued. It was hard to keep a straight face.
Clyde just laughed. “Lighten up, dude,” he teasingly commanded, grinding his knuckles into my shoulder. “Come to think of it, have you even been to one party these whole four years? Like, voluntarily?”
“Oh, jeez, oops, every single one I was scheduled to go to was during that semester I rotted abroad,” I snipped back.
“I am so going to show you it’s actually that thing we call fun before this year’s over,” Clyde vowed.
“Clyde, stop it.” Bebe had, of course, been in attendance, and called over her warning to her fiancé from the kitchen counter, where she was laying out an enormous bowl of nachos that she and Red had just prepared for the small party. “You know there isn’t going to be any of your cheap crap at our wedding.”
“Exactly why I’ve gotta drink it now.”
“You are so gross.”
“Only the best for you, babe.”
Bebe simply rolled her eyes and poured herself a glass of the same wine I was drinking. A double major in business and dance, Bebe had always been someone poised and pragmatic, but was becoming even moreso through her college years. With Wendy, her best friend from back home, gone away to school out of state, Bebe had grown closer with Red, and had, especially over the past semester, warmed up to me as a closer friend as well. We’d all been in the same friendship net since freshman year—the South Park crowd, and we knew it, but had long since stopped caring—and she’d sought me out to help her study during the first couple years. She was also somehow under the impression that, because I was organized, I was kind of domestic, and would ask me, whenever she was around in the apartment, wedding questions. I’d usually get flustered and not have an answer, but generally just told her that her ideas looked good.
Midway during the year-opening party, Stan hauled out his guitar and covered Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End of Love. It was after a couple glasses of wine, and he got cross over fucking up a couple of chords, but I attacked him with a kiss afterward, lauding him for playing.
“I feel like I choose such lame songs, though,” he said, setting his guitar aside and sliding me onto his lap instead.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. I brushed his cheek with multiple small kisses and went on, “You always sound great. Play till you really can’t, Stan.”
That fucking phrase. I just had to say that. And then feel like I jinxed something.
Because a couple weeks later, his guitar broke.
It was an old instrument, and he had been iffy about the quality anyway, but it produced sound and it produced it well. It did not, however, react well to having accidentally been left out in the sunny back seat of his car one too many times over the summer. It had been a damn busy summer, too, since we knew, with internships and jobs and Clyde and Bebe’s wedding and all, that it was the last one all of us in our circle of friends could really have together (not to mention that there had been a great deal of us helping Mysterion out with a few things one last time, too), so other things had fallen by the wayside. Once we got back to school, Stan had been taking out and tuning and re-tuning that guitar so much, both inside and outdoors, carted it around so often that it eventually just couldn’t take any more wear.
It happened at the end of September. I heard the snap from the kitchen and froze. I didn’t move until Stan’s outburst of, “FUCK!”
Fast as I could, I bolted out into the common room and was unable to hold back a gasp. The neglect had finally taken its toll. The body had cracked, and every one of the strings had snapped. I said nothing, afraid that anything I might utter could be taken the wrong way. A broken instrument, to Stan, was a sign of a crack in creativity.
He set the broken guitar on the coffee table and stood glaring down at it, arms folded over his chest, his face a contorted mesh of dismay and disgust… and complete, utter loss. “Fuck,” he said again, muttering this time. He bit his lower lip, then started pacing around the table. “Of course,” he went on muttering, “of course this had to fucking happen… fucking senior year… God fucking damn it. Fuck.” Just as I was wondering how aware of my presence he could have been, Stan turned to look at me, only to gesture down at the guitar. “You see this?” he asked me. “Dude, what the fuck do I do?!”
“I… I don’t know,” I stammered, “can you fix it?”
Stan shook his head furiously. His lips pressed together, he glowered down at the broken guitar, the greatest look of unease painted upon his face. Stan worked on his music in varying degrees of contemplation, but I had not seen much (if any) stress in him at all, certainly never to this degree.
“I can’t fix it,” Stan muttered, still shaking his head in disbelief. “Fuck.” He crouched to take a closer look, his eyes almost insultingly dry. Very carefully, he touched his fingertips to the cracked guitar, examining it from a couple different angles. Finally, the verdict was obvious. “Nope, there’s no repairing that.”
“It’s fine,” he said hurriedly, waving it all off. “It’s fine, it’s fine. Just—it’s fine.”
It wasn’t, really, but neither of us said that. The guitar was broken and there was nothing either of us could do about it. Or so we both thought until I remembered the New Guitar Fund I had started. With Stan’s birthday approaching, I figured that now was probably the best time to make good on that. Especially when Stan started shutting down a bit. He’d mess around on his keyboard a little, but it wasn’t the same to him; he didn’t have that same kind of connection.
The new guitar came courtesy of an added bit of help from Stan’s older sister, Shelly, who had been the first person I’d called to see if Stan had mentioned anything of a different kind of guitar body he’d been secretly wanting. “Tell you what,” Shelly had offered over the phone. “I’ll throw in some money. I’m making it, you’re not. Just make sure Stan gets it before he can get depressed again.”
“Again?” I wondered.
“You should know,” Shelly sighed, already bored of talking. It wasn’t just me, she gets bored of talking to anyone for an extended period of time. Which kind of made her perfect in sales, her choice of business post-college, since she got straight to the point of things and did so efficiently. “It hadn’t happened for a long time.”
“Did something happen when I went away?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Well, he stopped playing guitar for a while.” God, he was really attached to that thing now, wasn’t he? I had to get him a new one. He just simply could not go without. “Like a month. But then he picked it up again and I swear to God he didn’t put that stupid thing down all Thanksgiving.”
“Yeah, I think it pissed Dad off cuz Dad was never that good.” Well, that explained one thing.
“Did you talk to him about it at all?” I asked. Shelly went quiet but for the snapping of her gum. “Shelly, please.”
“Kyle,” she began slowly, “there’s a lot of stuff my brother wants but can’t ask for.”
My stomach flipped as my pulse quickened. Stan and Shelly had never been the closest of siblings, not as close as I was with Ike or Kenny was with Karen, anyway, but recent years had seen them talking more, and checking in on each other a lot. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the things Stan still hadn’t talked to me about could have been things that his sister would know. “Like… like what?” I wondered.
“Get him to tell you himself. Look. I’ll send you a check, okay? I think he’s gonna be fine. I mean, you probably know what he wants and needs more than I do now. I think he said something about wanting a walnut one. Good luck.”
I had a feeling that Shelly was probably just being nervous for her brother; of course Stan could go into those down moments, but college had so far been free of them. He hadn’t really hit a down patch since he was sixteen, before he came out to me. After that, things had gone on getting better. Though I did take it as my job to make sure that better was how it stayed. Plus, Shelly knew something I didn’t. Stan was keeping quiet about something, and probably would unless I did something soon.
It had to start with the guitar.
I bought it in secret, too. It was a whole covert operation. Done with Kenny and Bebe, oddly enough, but it still felt like a secret mission. Clyde was off at a meeting with other sports med. minors (most of whom, like him, were probably nutrition majors, too), and Kenny and Red had kind of hit a lull, so he’d gotten into my car before I’d even told him where I was going; Bebe we met up with once we found the music store. She’d been out for some reason or other (I never know what she’s shopping for and when) and had started tagging along.
“What’re you guys doing?” she asked, meeting up with us at a cross street near the Alley Cat, iced chai latte in hand.
“Yeah, dude, what are we doing?” Kenny wondered.
“You didn’t listen while I was driving down here?” Not that this was surprising.
“I was too distracted by trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of the band you had the CD case out for.”
“If that’s it. Dude, you listen to weird shit.”
“Kenny, you can sing opera,” I argued. “You shut up.” He grinned at Bebe, who ignored his false come-on, and to whom I explained, “I’m getting Stan a new guitar for his birthday.”
Bebe promptly squealed. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God, that’s so romantic. That’s so sweet. Oh, my God.”
“Your God, maybe,” Kenny taunted, “but what about mine?”
“Kenny, you’re so weird,” Bebe made a show of muttering. “Okay,” she then decided, linking her arm around mine. “I am so coming with you. I, like, don’t know music stuff at all but I love looking at instruments. Oh! Oh!” she added as the three of us continued our walk. “Hey, have Stan talk to Clyde about this, okay? Don’t tell him it came from me, Clyde doesn’t know I know.”
“Um… try to plant this in Stan’s head, okay?” Bebe was blushing, sipping her spiced milky tea through her straw with girlish delight. The wedding seemed to be every other thing she spoke of lately, but with good reason. They were close to pinning down a date, if things went right at the church back home for bookings. Her bookshelf on our lower floor now had turned from planning ideas to samples of the real thing, as well as postmarked envelopes from Wendy, who, despite the distance, had still been asked to be maid of honor once the date came. “Clyde wants to be the one to officially ask, so I figure partner asking partner doesn’t hurt. We’d love it if Stan could play for us.”
“What, for the wedding?” I hadn’t even thought of that. Then again, I hadn’t really been to a wedding since I was a kid, so I’d forgotten a lot of the different elements that had to go into it. Clyde certainly didn’t talk too much about the planning around the apartment, it was mostly all Bebe, Red, and, over the phone, Wendy.
“Holy shit,” Kenny laughed. “Are you coming with so you can match floral arrangements to the instrument?”
“Kenny,” I commented, “it will never cease to amaze me how well you can read women.”
“It wasn’t, but that’s a good idea!” Bebe sang. She’d been giddy as hell all year. I hardly heard her speak on a flat tone anymore. She must have been as stressed as the rest of us with classes and whatnot, but the wedding was lifting her up like crazy. Maybe there was some kind of secret upper in so much as being engaged. My heart hit my feet when I had that thought, but I got over it. That wasn’t something we were thinking of, hadn’t even mentioned it. I didn’t have to think about something like that. Just the guitar, start with the guitar.
At the music center, I deliberated over the choices for nearly an hour. This was not a rush decision. Since I played a little, I was able to give the models a try, while Kenny oggled over drum sets and Bebe turned down the employees who tried to hit on her by flashing the rock Clyde was probably still paying off loans for. He’d said back when he’d bought the ring, though, that it had been worth everything; he’d even more or less written himself a scholarship in order to waive other possible loans.
God, everyone around me seemed so put-together. It was one of those times when I was sure I was just fine, but couldn’t help but wonder if I’d end up boring. Or late to the party, or something. Realize I’d missed something somewhere along the line.
Nope, stop thinking—just focus on the guitar.
It was an easy sale, based on high employee recommendations, positive encouragement from my friends, and just the gut feeling that it was the right way to go.
Sleek black walnut, brand new case, ready to be played acoustically or plugged into an amp. And, Jesus, did it sound gorgeous. It was a better-quality instrument than Stan’s old guitar had been, by a long shot. I’d saved up a fair amount, but I was beyond grateful for Shelly’s added contribution, since it had kind of been the deal-breaker for buying the one I’d finally decided upon.
Stan loved it. Loved it. Couldn’t stop talking about it, from the second I’d brought it home. It was the night before his birthday, since I’d already told him I’d take him to dinner on the 19th itself, and I wanted to make sure the day was perfect; his spirits were so highly lifted by the gift from the night before, I knew I’d made the right choice.
“Kyle, how much was this?” he eventually asked me, after picking out five songs and gushing over the sound quality.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him.
“Dude, how’d you afford it?”
“I had some money saved, really, don’t worry about it.” I grinned and ruffled his hair, mirroring an action he had always delighted in doing to me. “I’m just glad you like it!”
“Like it? Kyle, this thing is going to help me finish writing like…” Stan blushed before he could finish his sentence. He plucked a few strings with the delicate ease of a cat tiptoeing around a corner; the guitar responded with a deep, resonant sound, its timbre lower than that of Stan’s own smooth baritone, and a perfect compliment. Yes, that had been the right guitar. Maybe I hadn’t found it; it had found me.
“Writing what?” We were in the common room, Kenny studying off in the corner by the kitchen counter while the two of us took up the center of the sofa, and Clyde was swearing at the grilled cheese he was making himself for dinner. Our sofa was probably the most relaxed of the three disparate atmospheres in the room, but that was kind of comforting to know. I leaned up against Stan’s shoulder to prod an answer out of him.
“I’m… you know, I’m writing a few songs…”
“A few?!” He was in the second level of music theory, and had continued with creative writing classes, but I still hadn’t heard or seen any indication that Stan had been anywhere near finishing even one song of his own. Summer had obviously not been the time to hit up any open mics, but I had hope for the coming semester.
Stan strummed an F chord, and then a complimentary D. I hummed out the low A from the second chord, and nuzzled Stan’s neck. “Can I hear one?” I ventured.
“Um… when—when it’s done, okay?” He sounded both confident and unsure. “Few more things I’ve gotta do, y’know?”
“Mmhmm, sure!” I was just excited to know that something was probably coming.
I nudged Stan to ask Clyde how the wedding plans were going, since—this was the best setup I could come up with—I had talked to Bebe earlier and mentioned that we should probably know what date they wanted in case it conflicted with internships. By the end of the evening, Stan had agreed to play at the wedding, provided that Clyde and Bebe choose the music, since, he admitted, he was kind of nervous about choosing sets on his own. “Oh, I’m sure Bebe has a catalogue picked out,” Clyde laughed to that. “You can probably pick some out from there. Thanks, man, that’s huge.”
“No problem. Must be kinda cool getting close to the real thing, huh?” Stan asked our roommate.
Clyde bit into his half-charcoaled grilled cheese. I had no idea how that had been possible, but he’d managed. “Yup. Hoping it’ll be a good kinda reunion thing for all of us, too, y’know? I gotta find Craig and talk more about it. And, like, Butters and them.”
“Oh, God,” Stan realized. “Are you inviting—”
“Cartman? We kinda have to, he’d crash it anyway.”
“I’m surprised he hasn’t crashed this campus more, honestly,” Kenny commented from off to the side.
“Well, we should all count ourselves fortunate for that,” I said.
Life had been pretty… nice and normal, actually, now that we only had to deal with Cartman a couple times out of the year. His was a name rarely spoken once we were at school for a full semester, and though he’d called to pester a few times freshman year, he’d kind of let up. The world hadn’t exploded, so he was probably actually immersed in studies, which would be kind of a miracle, but, then again, it wasn’t our problem; we were removed from it. As far as college social scenes, I realized, things could have been a lot worse.
Clyde did still say that I had to loosen up and “experience” college a little more, whatever that meant… and I did obsess and worry about that some, wondering if I had made all the right choices.
Well, at least the guitar was the right choice. I did obsess somewhat about Shelly’s own worry regarding Stan possibly feeling depressed again, but was able to let that go.
If Stan ever did start to feel down, I began to associate it with the fact that he must have just opened the wrong suitcase that day, and would take the time I needed to figure out how to repair it for him. His imagery stuck with me, and I kind of hoped he’d turn it into a song somehow. But, then again, I’d be happy with whatever he was secretly writing. Or, at least, that I hoped he was secretly writing.
It happened later into the semester. He’d get into modes of what he called creative constipation, and could sometimes go for days without picking up his guitar or trilling a single chord on the keyboard.
And it was all because of internships.
I came back to the apartment one afternoon with my patched-up messenger bag just absolutely overflowing with a bunch of information from the office of advancement, from my Engineering advisor, and from a table they’d had set up in Morgan Library. Once midterms were over, the school had apparently decided, it was time to stress the seniors out even further by starting up all of the internship pressure at once.
The bag ripped promptly upon my entering the townhouse, but luckily Bebe was around, and stitched up my bag for me while Clyde, set up on the sofa, flipped through his and Bebe’s contact book for addresses to send invites to, and while I sorted out the internship papers over the kitchen counter.
“This thing has so many band-aids,” Bebe said, “but at least it has character. God, why do things always have to break during senior year?”
“Because 400-level classes, thesis projects, internships and parental oh my God-ing just wouldn’t be enough,” I remarked in return.
Bebe tittered a little. “I hear that,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind blue thread.”
“Any color works,” I told her. “I don’t even know what color that thing even is anymore, so go for it.”
I decided that it should become my internship bag, right then and there, only not to carry quite so many papers in it at one time. It would be my contemplating more than 50% and definites bag. I’d carried around college applications in that thing in high school; it seemed only fitting. Then again, I had more or less known I was going to go to CSU back then. Now, I had absolutely no clue where I wanted to apply for internships.
After talking it over with Stan, and after my almost getting a heart attack from thinking too much about it, we came to the conclusion that we both definitely wanted to apply for internships, and that we would only apply to those that would allow us to be in the same town.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” I confessed, “from study abroad, it’s that I just really don’t want to live too far from you at any given time.”
“I… yeah,” Stan said as he shuffled through the pamphlets we had spread out over our bed. “I’m totally the same way, Kyle. But—” he bit his lip, and I could see him contemplating exactly how to phrase his next thought, then sighed. “Kyle… really, if anything does just, y’know, happen, with internships, I want to say this right now. Don’t let anything hold you back from really going for something, okay?”
“I just don’t want you to discount anything.” He commanded eye contact, to make sure I was listening to his every word. I knew he was right, that I should apply myself for everything, no matter what. But the main problem with internships was just what they entailed: life after college. We hadn’t talked about it. About where we’d end up, if we wanted to go in on an apartment together, anything.
We’d been living with Kenny and Clyde since the beginning of college. Those two were both staying in South Park after this, while Stan and I wanted to get out. We wanted internships, we wanted to uproot a little. Within reason, I guessed. Wouldn’t know till we heard from the internships we’d be applying to. But the question was still there.
What the fuck kind of suitcase were we opening up to be filled now? Where were we going to go? Would we be going together? For how long?
It got worse once we actually applied. And started hearing back. Every day was a new pit in the stomach. Every day was a new after. Before hearing back, and after. Before sending letters, and after. Before period of major emotional and physical stress to the point of two hours of sleep and nothing but frozen taquitos for dinner and after.
Stan and I both applied to places in Denver (his top choice), Asheville, North Carolina (my top choice if we had to go to another state), New York (eeeehhhhh), Colorado Springs (it’d do), Boulder (sure why not), and, for the hell of it, Montpelier, Vermont (totally out there, but Stan was all about land trust issues and conservation, and I could pretty much find engineering work wherever; Vermont was about as green as Stan could get).
But even though Stan wrote one hell of a cover letter, he didn’t get into the program in Asheville.
“No big deal,” we said. “We’ll wait to hear from the rest of them.”
Both rejected from New York. Okay, fine. I was rejected from Montpelier. Vermont was really far away anyway, even though we had heard great things about the skiing (not that we really cared much for skiing). He was rejected from Boulder and I hadn’t heard back yet. We were both rejected from Colorado Springs. That left Denver.
It kept us waiting up until winter break. Stan got in. I hadn’t heard back.
Cue the panic.
The thing was… yes, okay, the Asheville internship—paid. Well. Very, very well. The one in Denver would pay, too, and had room for growth and all, but the thing was, I had someone I could technically say yes to if the Denver internship fell through. But saying yes to the internship would mean being nearly twenty-four hours away from Stan. For a year.
He asked me on a daily basis if I’d heard from the Denver office yet, which only choked me up even more. There was absolutely no certainty in my future. I had until mid-March to say yes or no to Asheville. I hadn’t even kept my parents abreast of the situation, which was driving them crazy. But everything came back to Stan, and how we might have to just… grin and bear it, for lack of a better awful thing to say about it. One full year this time, with me hopefully getting time off and flights back for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. It was definitely looking that way.
Just before finals, Stan and I sat down at the kitchen counter to talk about it. Kenny was in the common room studying, but had his headphones on so we figured it was fine to talk without bothering him, or him bothering us. The question was laid out: “What do we do?”
“If I don’t get accepted to Denver,” I clarified.
“I mean, you’d… go to North Carolina, right?” Stan guessed. He was picking at a knick in the countertop, which was most likely left over by one of Clyde’s friends from the last (the very last, I’d put my foot down) time he’d actually hosted a party in the apartment (no, really, I could not remember why the fuck we’d all agreed to let him do that). Stan couldn’t hide disappointment very well. Sure, he could say all he wanted that he’d support whatever move I would have to make, but the signs were there. He wasn’t playing his guitar or keyboard much. He was getting quiet. He told Clyde and Kenny to keep whatever beer or other alcohol they’d bring home in their respective rooms… but even then, I’d catch him drinking. He’d put whatever bottle he had away once I caught on, but even he knew that that was a bad sign.
Plain and simple. He didn’t want me to go.
“I’ll figure something out, if you don’t want me to,” I offered.
Stan brushed his fingers along the back of my hand, but didn’t look at me. “I don’t—” He shook his head, then finally lifted his eyes. “Kyle, I really don’t want you to pass up any opportunities, okay? Think about what it is you want. If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, all three and a half years of this school so far, it’s just to go for what you want. That internship isn’t the same thing as BME, babe.”
“What?” He usually only nicknamed me when he got drunk, which was, honestly, not very often… but enough so I’d know.
“Look, it’s kind of a tough call,” I argued.
“It’s not the same as other stuff, Kyle!” Stan insisted. “You had a shitty study abroad experience. It happens. Let that go, okay? That’s done. Did you even read the list of starting salaries of the guys who’ve gone through that program in Asheville?”
“Money doesn’t matter, Stan.”
“WHAT?! Since when do you care?”
“I don’t know—I mean, I’m glad my Denver internship has good pay, cuz otherwise I’d just be… what, playing on the street for tips? That’s a way to live.”
“With what guitar?!” I ended up exploding. “I haven’t heard you play in forever!”
“Well, maybe it’s because my motivation’s lacking!” Stan shouted back.
“What’s your motivation, then?” I challenged.
“What do you think?!”
“Nothing! Never mind! Look, Kyle, it’s—we can look at this a bunch of different ways, and… in the end, I want us to do whatever’d be better for us if we—” He cut himself off. His face paled, and I could see him actually swallow a word or two back. Stan hated yelling, especially with me. Neither of us could handle down patches very well. When we were kids and we fought, sometimes it got pretty dire. The relationship was the healing element that tied it all together, so for the most part we always knew we’d end up fine. But it just always had to fucking come down to distance. Distance had never been an issue before. Not growing up in South Park, Colorado. If we went out of town, we were usually going together, back then.
We both hated blank slates.
We had no idea what to do with empty suitcases. Maybe because we just couldn’t fill them alone.
“If we what?” I just had to prompt him, though.
“I said, never mind,” Stan muttered.
He pushed past me and trudged up the stairs. I was left stunned and wondering how long would be too long before I went up to try to talk to him again. The harsh fluorescent kitchen light started to irritate my eyes, so I sternly flicked off the switch, which caught Kenny’s attention in the other room.
Kenny slid his headphones off, stood to flick on the lamp beside the sofa, then sternly ticked his head in the direction of the stairs. I shook my head no. “Dude, just do it,” Kenny groaned at me.
“Were you listening?” I guessed.
“My iPod ran out of battery like five minutes ago. Yes. I heard the whole thing. Go fucking talk to him. And turn that light back on.”
“You shouldn’t have fluorescents on while you’re studying, it’s bad for your eyes,” I grumbled. I left the light off when I walked around to the stairs, but I heard Kenny click it back on, and the familiar awful hum of the ceiling light a split second after. Even though it made me cringe a little, I left it alone.
When I got to the room, I knocked softly, and when Stan didn’t answer, I let myself in. I was about to announce myself, or start to say something, but stopped when I saw that he had his guitar out. His back was to me; he sat on his side of the bed, gently strumming the well-tuned strings, pouring his own soul out through the hollow body of that walnut guitar.
I thought back to the ‘talk’ we’d just had, mostly transfixed on wondering if any of what I had said could have upset him. Obviously, the subject of distance was touchy. Had I rushed him for any reason? Maybe. Highly probably. I had at least cut him off, and maybe pressured him out of saying something; that was bad enough.
Still thinking it through, I walked over to take a seat on my side of the bed. My back to his; his to mine. My eyes on my hands, his on his guitar. I tucked my legs up so that I had my feet resting on the frame of the bed, and leaned forward onto my knees. Taking a look around the room, I listened for the light strums of deeply resonant strings. None came. The silence hurt my ears.
“Stan?” I prompted, without turning. It was as if we were testing the distance already. It might not work. Distance might not work. We both knew it; neither of us said it. If I didn’t hear back from Denver, or if I was rejected, I had no clue what the fuck to do. “I, um… I think I cut you off, maybe. Sorry, what’d you want to—”
He started playing again. This time, the absentminded strums began to weave together into measures and meters, chord progressions and modulations. Something he’d written, I could already tell. It carried a hint of mountain tradition, a little on the country side of roots or regional music, but personal enough for me to know that it defied genre.
“Please,” he sang, “say you won’t leave me…”
“I like that,” I told him. I glanced over my shoulder, to see that he’d turned his body in profile to me. I could see him concentrating on his fingering for the chords… but there was an added, sad distance in his eyes, that just hurt to see. “It’s nice,” I tried to keep the conversation on the song. But the song was the conversation. “…Stan…?”
Measured my life
In mountains and valleys
Been soaked in the fires
And fought through ashes and alleys
I felt my eyes tear up, and very cautiously, I leaned back on the bed, to be closer to him and the sound. I didn’t look at Stan after he’d sung that first measure; I almost couldn’t. That one verse alone must have destroyed him to write, but his chords hadn’t stopped. He kept on pouring out his thoughts, his fears; so many secrets I hadn’t heard until now.
Breathed in the smoke
Frozen; burst into flames
But you banished the demons
By speaking my name
Don’t leave me standing here
On the shore high and dry
Oh, I can’t swim
But darling, you can fly
Say you won’t leave me
Oh, I’d try to talk it out, but I might fall
Baby, catch me and keep me
Love and complete me
“It’s you,” he spoke the last line, strumming out one of the two final chords, his voice trembling too much to allow him to sing the melody any further, “or nothing at all.”
“Stan—” I said.
But as soon as I turned, he set down his guitar, stood, and quietly left the room. His right hand brushed the doorframe as he took the last couple of steps out into the hallway, as if to make him pause and reflect on a thought, but a few seconds later he was gone, down the stairs and out of both sight and earshot.
Stan slept on the couch that night.
The following morning, I woke up with a headache, and a stiffness in just about every joint I had. This was partially due to how long I’d spent stressing and crying the night before, but a great deal of it had to do with the fact that, for some reason, I’d decided that the floor was a perfectly good place to sleep. As I stared up at the ceiling, I could vaguely remember the events of the earlier morning: Stan had come back into the room at five or six in the morning to grab his running gear, and, feeling like shit the second he left again, I’d taken my yoga mat out of the closet and trudged downstairs, where I’d gotten about as far as laying the mat down and telling myself to stretch out in child’s pose… and then passed out asleep again.
I could still hear the melody of Stan’s song playing out in my head, and I covered my face with both of my hands as I began to wonder how the hell I was going to start patching this one up. As I was coming up with as many self-deprecating synonyms for ‘asshole’ with which to describe how I felt about myself the day before as I could, heavy footsteps plodded down the stairs, and I tucked my feet up just before they could be tripped over.
“Dude,” I heard Kenny say. I lifted my left hand off of my face so I could look over at my housemate, and extended my feet out again. Kenny glared back at me, confused and concerned, and said, “Why the fuck’re you sleeping on your yoga mat?”
“Sleep yoga,” I muttered.
“Fuck that shit, why didn’t you sleep on the couch?”
“Stan slept on the couch.” I groaned. “Kenny, I’m an asshole.”
Kenny rolled his eyes. After a few seconds of mentally fighting himself, he stepped over to offer me a hand up. “Because—why?” I took his hand doubtfully, only for him to haul me up just enough to sit me down onto the couch. Kenny then took a seat on the couch arm beside me and nudged my shoulder until I gave him an answer.
Kenny McCormick has a talent for being able to not only tell what is wrong with someone, but be able to extract all the right information to possibly even turn things around. It was probably due to his taking his hero personality pretty seriously over the past several years; it’s an admirable quality, and one of the things that made him such a great roommate through the years. I’d almost forgotten how easy he was to talk to, due to, despite our living situation, how infrequently I actually saw him.
“I think I just ruined something,” I admitted.
The sound of footsteps trudging down the stairs signaled Clyde’s arrival on the scene, and he stopped mid-stride in order to glare over at me. “Dude, what happened to you?” I looked that great, huh? Clyde chucked his bag aside and started toward the kitchen, where he grabbed a protein bar and unwrapped it for breakfast.
“I hit an iceberg and sank my relationship,” I muttered, “how are you?”
“Not awake enough to make stupid allusions or whatever the fuck grammar word it is for the thing you just said.”
“I’m not awake. But what the fuck, Kyle?”
I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t say I wasn’t grateful for a little bit of Clyde stupidity that morning. “Okay. So Stan and I applied to internships in the same town, he heard back from one, I heard back from the other one—”
“The different town.”
Clyde nodded like a disinterested psychiatrist. I didn’t look at Kenny, but he was probably rolling his eyes again. It was probably no secret that I was the most easily wound up, of the four of us roommates; I’m sure there were plenty of bored glares and eye rolls I hadn’t seen. Whatever. “Anyway, so he’s all it’s fine if you go somewhere else, but he’s totally fucking lying about that, and I can’t tell what the fuck he wants and he slept on the couch last night and I can’t get through to him and—”
“Oh, shit,” said Clyde. Then, with a smirk over to Kenny, he walked over and sat down on the sofa cushion beside me after grinding his knuckles into Kenny’s shoulder, and said, “Okay, dude, time for a patented Donovan-McCormick bro intervention!”
“Which is…?” I prompted.
“Me and Kenny’re gonna get your sorry skinny ass off this fucking couch so you can go man up and talk to your boyfriend instead of sitting here being a pussy about it.”
“Yeah, man,” Kenny said, lightly kicking my side. “Stan just hates confrontation and bringing shit up himself, right? Maybe apologize.”
“I don’t know what I did!” I said, throwing my hands out in front of me in defeat.
“Then backtrack, dude!” Kenny nudged me, hard. I gave him a slight, disapproving scowl for that, but he just took it and kept going. “What happened yesterday?”
There was nothing else to do but sigh. My head was practically between my knees as I dug my fingers into my scalp for some kind of pressure to get my brain working properly.
“It was just… ugh, I don’t want to use the word awkward,” I grumbled, “but that’s the only—”
“Then there’s nothing wrong.” I stared Clyde down for that comment, and he just shrugged. “Have you guys, like, ever fought? About serious things.”
“As opposed to?”
“I don’t know, dumb shit like dinner.”
“I don’t—yeah?” I said, shirking away. “I guess. Well, that was a fight. I mean, you remember. I really fucked up with the study abroad thing, and—”
“Kyle, it’s not the end of the fucking world,” said Kenny. “You guys are stressed, okay? We all fucking are. Don’t make it that big a deal. It’s not. What’s the worst fucking thing that’s happened?”
My eyes started misting up, and stress set in, stripping my brain down to every raw emotion that had sat in tension since this whole damn internship thing had started. Forced to do nothing but obsess over it, of course I’d stop handling things rationally. In a way, I still couldn’t tell what I wanted. That was more worrisome than anything else. “He’s been super withdrawn lately,” I answered. “Are you noticing that at all?”
“I haven’t noticed anything lately except Red and this slip of paper saying I had better not get a C in my marketing class.” Kenny’s comment was laced with sarcasm, but I knew it was the truth, too.
“Good point. But seriously. He says one thing and then mopes around about it until I can get him to admit he means something else.”
Clyde started laughing. “What?” I demanded.
“You sure he’s not dropping hints about anything?”
“Well, dude, what else is there?” I burst. I tossed my hands out in front of me and was nearly shouting as I continued, “He’s pissed about us maybe having to go to separate states! I don’t want to but I really want to do an internship before I just plain look for a job, you know?”
“I dunno, I guess. So you hit a rough patch. Dude, we hit rough patches, too,” said Clyde, patting my shoulder, “but I’m still gonna marry Bebe. Haven’t changed my mind about that since high school.” I lifted my head and sniffed to try holding back how fucking runny my entire face probably was, and managed to glance at Clyde… who just had to add, semi-jokingly: “Hey, yo, we should totally have a double wedding!”
Yes, he was just kidding, but the comment threw me through a loop. My stomach flipped, and I could have sworn my vision went black for a few seconds. That had not even graced my mind as an option. I had no idea if that was a good sign or bad, but it wasn’t something I really had time to debate at the moment. “Oh, God!” I yelped. “I-I-I’m not ready to… to get married, like, no offense, but I don’t wanna get married too young.”
“But d’you wanna marry Stan?” Kenny asked me. Prodded, was more like it.
“Yes!” I yelped, then, upon realizing how emphatic that outburst was, buried my head in my hands and leaned over my knees, letting out a longer scream into my sweaty palms.
“Ah, okay,” said Kenny, sounding kinder. He set a hand on my back and rubbed up and down my spine, in that protective older brother way he’d developed over years of comforting his little sister in the same way. “Here we go, now we’re getting somewhere.”
And I did, I realized. I did. Even at just twenty-one, I knew. One of these days, not any time soon… give it time, let it settle, be smart about it first, yeah, but someday, God, yes, I wanted to marry Stan. We could, if we stayed in Colorado, where, thanks to a study we’d done in fourth grade, same-sex marriages were legal. If we—
Jesus Christ, I was so stupid. If I took the internship in Asheville… it wasn’t just a different state thing. It wasn’t just a distance thing. Stan wanted to get married. Stan wanted us to get fucking married, and of course that wasn’t something he’d bring up blatantly. He’d always respected the fact that I needed plenty of time to sort myself out, to weigh every option, to take whichever path was most logical, based on where I was coming from and where I figured I was going.
“Holy shit,” I heard myself start saying in a cracked voice I could hardly recognize as mine. “Oh, shit. Holy fucking shit. Guys, what the fuck.”
“Yep, that’s about my thought process before I finally sucked it up and asked Bebe,” said Clyde.
“Oh, my God.” I dug my fingers into my scalp, unsure of exactly what to think or how to react.
Clyde dismissed himself to grab two packets of Pop-Tarts on his way out the door to class (I really did not get how that guy was going to pass for a nutritionist), and a few minutes later, Red stopped by to pick up her boyfriend. “You gonna be good, dude?” Kenny checked up on me before heading out.
“Yeah, I’ve just gotta take some time to think.” I lifted my head and managed enough of a smile to convince even myself.
“Go find Stan.”
In other words, stop thinking. I got it, I got it. It was a hell of a lot to process.
“Soooo, you worked that one out,” said Kenny, thumping me on the back again.
“Dude, did you know?” I wondered.
“If Stan wanted to…”
“What, like, did he say anything to me?” I nodded. “Nah, man, I had no fuckin’ clue.”
“Oh, Jesus,” I groaned, burrowing my face in my hands again.
“Dude, would you stop that?” said Kenny, yanking my hands down. “Come on.”
“I know! I know. I just—dude, I think Shelly knows,” I realized.
“Shelly, Stan’s sister, Shelly—she knows about this and she didn’t tell me either.”
“Well,” Kenny shrugged, “obviously it’s not something Stan feels like he needs to bring up yet.”
“Yeah, I guess, just—holy shit.”
I could almost hear Kenny rolling his eyes now. “Okay, dude, I’m out until you start saying something else, all right?” he said. I sat up to give him a slight grin in thanks for the help that he’d given, and when Kenny noticed I had the potential of pulling myself back together, he leaned in and asked, “Just one question. If you guys do go for it, which one of you, in the, you know, traditional sense, would ask the—”
“You are not going to find out, Kenny,” I restated.
“Goddammit, you are not making this easy!”
I just laughed.
As I went about the mindless, simple task of getting myself up and ready for the day, I worked through the things I knew I absolutely had to address to Stan. First of all, it was my place to apologize, since somewhere along the line, I knew I must have said something wrong or at least misleading. Plus, Stan was working through his own position, too.
The main thing was: Clyde’s comment had shocked me into figuring out a truth that must have been there for quite some time. God, I always take so fucking long to figure things out, especially pertaining to my own damn thoughts. It had taken me a couple of weeks back in high school to just shut my head up and figure out that I loved Stan in the first place. If every one of my huge self-realizations was going to be like this, I probably had some crazy-looking mental baggage, I thought. Using Stan’s description of memories as suitcases, I wondered how many lay open for me now.
When the morning had passed, I’d come at least to the conclusion to not bring up the whole marriage issue unless Stan did, since I didn’t want him to feel put on the spot. It was kind of exciting to think about though, even if it nerved me up to no end. I could obsess about it later, though. I had plenty stressing me out already.
Finding Stan was easy enough. This time of day, after his morning run—which I must have just missed him on, so I was kind of beating myself up about that—he was always one of three places: the music building (but he’d left his guitar in our room, so that was a no), the café in Morgan Library, or the Cube, pretending to study—or, on occasion, actually studying. Stan just got distracted, and usually needed someone to study with, so I knew that when he’d found his way to the Cube alone, he was really only there to stare at his notebooks and think.
It was relatively un-crowded in the enormous glass building (the fishbowl, or fish-cube, some were known to call it), and even the forcefully silent study space seemed deathly quiet. But Stan was easily found, at a table on his own, far away from the vast clear walls overlooking campus; he was bent over a notebook, chewing on the end of a pencil, with a couple of books stacked up beside him. I felt a tiny grin creep up onto my face—maybe he really was studying, or putting in his best effort to. Or maybe he was working on lyrics.
I walked up behind him, and gently set a hand on his back as I slid into the seat on his right. Stan jumped a little, then gave me a guilty look, like a dog in the wrong, so I smiled to assure him that everything was fine, and rubbed his back as I reached forward to take his spare pencil. Noticing that he was on a blank page of his notebook, I wrapped my left arm around him, then rested my head on his shoulder as I wrote out, I’m sorry, followed by a simple outline of a heart. It was cheesy as hell, but I knew Stan would appreciate the little extra scribble. He did smile when he saw that, and started looking slightly less guilty, so I added another note: Coffee?
Stan nodded, then closed the notebook and stood, scooping the few books he had with him into his bag, and taking hold of my hand as we started out into the main part of the library to head down to the café. “Sorry about yesterday,” I said once we were out of the you must be quiet or we’ll hack your dick off zone. (No, really, some of the students got really pissed off when anyone said so much as ‘hi’ in the Cube.) “I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s okay, I wasn’t mad at you,” Stan admitted.
“No, I was pissed at myself for how I reacted,” he told me, holding the door to the staircase open for me. Our footsteps echoed as we tracked residual gravel down the stairs—which was unavoidable no matter how many times those stairs were swept due to the grassy shortcuts every student would take—and he continued, “That fucking song, man. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, it really was a great song,” I said, glancing slightly up at him to convince him of that.
Stan shook his head. “It just wasn’t the one I really wanted you to hear first.”
My heart fluttered a little when he admitted to that, and, excited now, not to mention flattered, I asked, “You really are writing a song for me? More than one?”
“Yeah,” my boyfriend said, flushing red. “I just… okay, there’s this one, I just haven’t finished it yet. I don’t want you to hear it till it’s done, but I wanted that to be the first one, so I kinda fucked up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, taking hold of his arm with my free hand. “I already know I’m gonna love it.”
Things started looking up a bit after that. Other than the fact that we didn’t speak much about the internship problem. We said we’d talk about it again once I actually heard from Denver. Then we could figure it out.
But in the meantime… there was absolutely something hanging over our heads. When both of us knew something but neither of us addressed it, that thing was probably a pretty serious issue. The future is a serious issue. Everything was becoming an after. College was almost over, and we had to figure out our directions.
We clung to each other like crazy over winter break. I saw Shelly, who made only a passing comment again about Stan and her worries that he might get depressed again. But just the fact that she’d mentioned it—and not the whole I’m pretty sure he just wants to get married thing—worried me. I felt responsible for him, just as I knew he felt responsible for me. We’d had something great going, for coming up on five years. Distance couldn’t break that.
Whatever happened, our final semester… we had to fill it. Write all over the blank slate, fill the suitcase and go with it, get past the last after and focus on a new before.
Just stay sane.
The Guitar Case
Quite possibly the most unconventional suitcase I owned was not a suitcase at all. It was Stan’s old guitar case. After his old guitar had broken, the case had laid untouched under our bed for a while. It had come up as a necessity in roughly the same way the duffel bag had. Stan told me I could use it, so I did. I ended up loving that guitar case much more than the duffel bag (case in point that I’d been confused in finding the first old thing), and it was still packed full of things from senior year.
I wasn’t about to unpack it.
Totally forgetting to take a look at the clock to check my timing, I made my way downstairs, almost alarmed to find myself in my own house, for a couple small things to eat to keep me going. I started up another pot of Alley Cat coffee again, as well, and when my mother caught the scent of it wafting through the house, she yelled at me, “Don’t you be drinking too much coffee, bubbe, it’s bad for your system and it’s an awful habit.”
“Gotcha, Ma,” I called back to wherever she was. By this point, Ike and I kind of agreed, Sheila Broflovski was basically dwelling in every wall of that house.
Once the coffee was brewed and fixed in an enormous mug to my liking, I waited to indulge in the first sip until I went back upstairs. My room was making pretty good progress. I could have my moment, and just sit down with that guitar case. It paired well with my coffee, since that first guitar had seen a few open mics at Alley Cat before Stan had started heading to a couple other venues, and before he’d begun using his second guitar.
I fished out the old English notebook again after a thought hit me, and flipped to one of the back pages. Couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about that.
It was a page full of notes from the day of Stan’s twenty-second birthday, our morning English class that neither of us had paid much attention in. Circle preference, Stan had written: D Major/ F Major. I had circled D, and scrawled under it the note, Doesn’t help this makes me think letter grades.
G Major then, Stan had written.
Is this for a song? My handwriting.
Maybe! A few lines down, Stan had then written, Love the new guitar.
I grinned and flipped through the pages again. So many of our notes were about music. What he should play, where we should go for open mic next.
Should we do Tues or Fri next week? / Which one asked if we could head back in next month? / Should we do the ’80s cover night or is that lame? / We need a new amp.
He’d always written we. I wasn’t sure if I’d caught that before. “Oh, my God,” I breathed out.
Yep. Everywhere, wherever his guitar playing was mentioned in our little notes, he’d never written I. Always we.
He’d had a plan the entire time.
I took out my phone, set down my coffee, and stared at the screen, wondering how I should compose my next text.
Once back from that final winter break, things started to get tense. January saw us both diving back into 400-level classes, and the caffeine intake at 1600 West Plum could have been functionally legendary. Kenny was out a fair deal, either with Red or seeking out help from student aides so he wouldn’t fall below his scholarship-required GPA, but pulled a good amount of study time at the apartment as well. Clyde was probably the least stressed academically, but Bebe’s push to get married directly after graduation had upped his coffee intake from three cups to six or seven, as he’d pull late hours with his fiancée in full planning mode.
Being housemates with a guy just months away from marriage put a little extra stress on the rest of us, as well. Beyond there being no known hell quite like one’s final semester in college, there was simply an air around our apartment, thick and murky, that started putting a strain on many things that had earlier been working out so well.
As January drew to a close, my fifth anniversary with Stan was right around the corner, and then midterms, thesis projects, and other academic necessities that threatened our social and personal lives. Stan started spending hours in the music building, claiming it was for his theory class, but I knew that a part of it was his thinking he didn’t want to bother me (or Clyde or Kenny for that matter) with practicing his guitar in the apartment. I couldn’t stress enough, though, that I was beyond fine with anything and everything he played. But I didn’t make a big deal of it. He’d share when he wanted to.
I got the sense that Stan was still scared, if not terrified, about the subject of internships. He shied away from the topic the way a dog winces back from a stranger’s hand. Not that I wasn’t feeling stress enough from it. Studying abroad had been awful.
What the fuck did I want to do?
The subject of marriage wasn’t one that came up much, either, other than in the context of Clyde and Bebe’s impending nuptials. I knew it was coming, though. Which stressed me out even more.
I hadn’t talked to anyone about it. Not Kenny or Clyde, after the first mention, not my parents, not my brother, and certainly not Stan. If it was still on his mind, I had no idea. Maybe I had read too far into it. Too hard to tell. Too stressed out by other things to worry about it.
We got to a point, eventually, at which we had to plan dates around schedules and homework. That was when both of us snapped. Even if we were driving ourselves crazy much more than we were each other, worry set in.
There was yelling. There were nights that I stayed on the couch and nights that he did. There were make ups and makeouts and not enough sex or sometimes too much.
Ultimately, it all came down to a night right before Valentine’s Day. We didn’t really care about Valentine’s Day—never had—since our anniversary was right around the corner, but Stan insisted on taking me out. And dinner was nice. Fantastic, actually. Because it wasn’t actually the holiday yet, places weren’t too terribly crowded, and after eating out, we took a long, slow walk through our snow-covered college town, and finally sat down for coffee back in the apartment.
Once back in the apartment setting, though, that awful air that filled it set in, and we came face to face with our pre-existing anxieties about life after graduation. I had no idea whether or not I wanted to bring it up. The fact that I knew… or that I at least had an inkling. I really wanted him to be the first to talk about it, but since he hadn’t said anything, I was at a loss.
So instead of talking about anything like that, I ran my mouth complaining about the internship. “Stan, I really have to figure this thing out,” I babbled on. “It’s starting to get to me, and I’m sorry I’ve been so stressed out, I just—”
“Kyle, I keep saying, it’ll be fine,” Stan reiterated, “no matter what happens.”
“Stan, stop it. Stop it, stop, you don’t actually mean that, so stop,” I rambled.
“You don’t! Right?! You don’t want me to go.”
“I mean, ideally, no, but—”
“But it’s your life.”
“Right, but—” For some reason, the words, and I want to live it out with you, or something akin to them, just were not able to find their way out over my tongue. All I was spouting was incoherency and nothingness.
“Okay, no, let’s both stop,” Stan suggested. “Let’s both stop and just worry about now. All right? Right now, where are we? We’re still in college, there’s still time t—”
“Ugh,” I found myself groaning, “what even is college?”
Stan paused to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Oh, God.”
“No, I’m serious. What the fuck even is it? Clyde—Clyde and Kenny and them all know college. I faked it. I’m a fucking senior and I feel like I faked it the whole way.”
“Oh, my God, Kyle, you do not!” Stan argued. “You’re just stressed.”
“No, dude, I’m actually fucked!” I yanked my phone out of my pocket. The heat from the battery felt like it could burn the palm of my hand. “I’m gonna call that damn internship again.”
“That’ll make four times this week, stop it.”
I glared up at him, and gestured every other word or so with the phone. “Stan, I have to call, because if I don’t I’ll be thinking about that instead of studying and if I don’t study my grades are gonna slip and if my grades slip I’m not gonna get the internship anyway and if—”
Stan took the phone from me, set it to the side, then grabbed hold of my shoulders over the counter and shook me. My immediate response was to shake him off and make a dive for my phone, but he held me back.
“You don’t have to fight all your own battles, Kyle,” he told me, grasping my hands tightly. “I’m right here for you, okay? I feel like you just take on so much, and that’s great and everything, but don’t think you have to do it all alone.”
“Stan,” I sighed, “I’m sorry. That’s just… like… for the most part, that’s just how I work.”
“I know. And I love that about you. Really. I’m just afraid you might, I dunno, you might be pushing yourself a little too hard…”
Given my present mindset, I heard only the negatives in that statement. I hate the idea of astrology, but especially at times like that, I really can be such a Gemini. “Are you saying I’m losing it because I’m motivated?” I blurt out. Once I’d spoken the words, I couldn’t even wish them back.
“What?” Stan wondered, looking plenty confused. As he should have been. I realize in retrospect how little sense I was making, but at the time I really was under so much pressure that I plowed through my words like a bull on the streets of Madrid. I went until I had to be stopped. “That’s not what I’m saying. At all. I’m saying don’t be afraid to come talk to me, but now I’m worried that you don’t even listen.”
“Oh, Jesus,” I sighed out harshly.
“No. No, not ‘oh, Jesus.’ We really, really need to talk, Kyle.”
There was desperation in his expression. I knew it; I felt it. We had both become so busy that the only thing we seemed to have had time to do that semester was complain about something or other, which didn’t ever help anything in the long run. Thinking about internships made us both clam up. There were things we were afraid to address, or just plain say. And when one fear comes along, others pile up.
“It’s okay,” I said quickly. “It’s fine. We’re fine. I’m sorry, I’m just stressed.”
“Okay,” my boyfriend said cautiously. “So, is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, I’ve got it.”
Ugh. And that was the problem. Me. I was the problem. But hell if I wanted to accept it.
Stan glared at me across the counter. He’d gone from confused to plain old displeased. I glared back.
No. No, no, no, we could not start feeling stale. We could not start feeling fed up with anything. Not now, no; it had to just be stress. Stan had asked me, once each year, I remembered, what scared me. The underlying answer was always the same, for both of us. We feared destroying anything, because it could mean a chain reaction. It could mean destroying everything.
We were not allowed to feel stale over something like this. Something as petty as this. We’d survived much, much worse.
He moved first. Slowly, he swept around to my side of the counter, then slid his right hand around my waist. I could not think of a single thing to say; I looked him over, silently asking a question I wasn’t sure how to phrase. Essentially, though… were we okay? Or had I completely fucked up? Stan let out a sigh and pulled me closer, closing his arms around me in a light hug.
“Kyle,” he said, “I love you. And I worry about you.” When he pulled back, it was difficult to make eye contact. I knew I was the problem, I just really did not want to say it. Nor did I want to hear it from him; I’d feel even worse. I was stressed. He was stressed. There were things he still wouldn’t tell me, things he’d been keeping secret for some reason. I knew he had good reason, so I didn’t pry.
I didn’t pry because deep down I just wanted to say some of those things, too.
“Listen,” Stan went on, “Shelly called me this morning. She’s coming through town anyway, and she wanted to pick me up so we could kinda go on a trip. Like a brother-sister thing before I graduate, cuz if I do get that internship, it’s gonna start right after graduation.” For some reason, the words stung. Stan sounded so sure of himself. Full of direction; he was confident about his prospects. But. But I hadn’t heard him play his guitar in ages. I knew he’d go to the music building a lot… but I hadn’t heard him play. I’d been inundated with silence again and I really hated that. I couldn’t even explain why. I just really hated silence between us, I couldn’t deal with it. I’d thought that, maybe, it had been the major part of his secrets; now I had no idea.
All out of stress and worry, I was bringing myself down, and refused to address why.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m gonna be gone Thursday into Saturday.”
“Thursday?” I wondered, shocked. “Dude, you can’t just leave classes!”
“I only have two on Thursdays anyway, and I’ll make it up. It’s not like I’m not planning for this, I’m playing it smart, all right?” Stan said. His voice was strained, since he was trying to let this not escalate into a fight. “I think maybe if I go away for a few days, you might—”
“What?” I insisted.
“Jesus, Kyle, never mind!” he gave in. Stan placed his palms flat out in front of him, shook his head, and took a step back. “Look, do you need some space? I do. I have stuff I need to work through. I’m sure you do, too. Just, like… breathe, okay?”
I groaned and leaned onto the counter. “Stan, I don’t want this to be a fight,” I told him.
“I know,” he said, “neither do I. I’ll be back on Saturday. We can talk then.”
And that was more or less that. Stan let me have the bed that night, and Thursday morning, Shelly came to pick him up before I was even awake. I thought I might have heard him leave, and say something to me quietly, but I wasn’t sure if that was real or invented in the last hour or so of sleep. Kenny was out, and Clyde woke up even later than I did, so Thursday pretty much was just me alone.
For the most part, I let the pressures I’d been feeling get to me. I was late for two of my four classes, lost concentration on a quiz because I’d fucked up which class to study for, and in the midst of it all, forgot to eat, which just wore me down even further. Sometimes on Thursdays, Stan would make dinner; that day, I was so fucking hungry I grabbed an English muffin, didn’t bother to toast it, slapped some peanut butter on it and ate both halves while staring into the refrigerator waiting for something to jump out at me.
Nothing did, so I grabbed the homework I still needed to do for the following day, and went downtown to Alley Cat, where the barista—Georgeanne, her name was… and she just so happened to be both a CSU student and one of Bebe’s roommates—practically had the vanilla cappuccino finished by the time I walked in the door. I ordered a turkey melt from the guy at the counter, and when I picked up my coffee from Georgeanne at the espresso station, she asked in her tight Dallas accent, “You here alone tonight?”
“Yeah,” I said, wondering if I was showing any kind of sign of worry about separation. “Stan’s off doing stuff with his sister this weekend.”
“That sounds cool.”
“Hey, when he comes back, will you ask him to come in?” the bleached-blonde barista smiled. “The owner was here last time he played at open mic, and wants to talk to him about maybe doing more of a set. You should totally have him make business cards or a demo or something!”
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks, I’ll let him know.”
I couldn’t fathom why Stan hadn’t done a demo yet; or, as Georgeanne had mentioned, made business cards. Just… something. Well, at least he’d be playing at Clyde and Bebe’s wedding, that was even more than something, in my opinion. I just knew that it meant a lot to him.
So of course, that thought distracted me while I stared at my obsessively-highlighted Quantum Mechanics II book. All the numbers and logic in the world couldn’t provide any answers for the things that really mattered.
I drowned myself in books all day, but nothing academic gripped me. I was left, while Stan was gone with Shelly, figuring things out. Figuring out what I wanted… figure out how important certain factors in my life were when weighed against others. Before anything else, once I got back that evening, I did a quick circle around the bedroom I shared with Stan—which really had not seen much action recently—and discovered that his guitar was gone. He must have taken it with him on his trip with Shelly, and I just hadn’t noticed.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t really said where they were going. Just, a brother-sister weekend. I assumed somewhere nearby… maybe to a mountain to ski or just relax. That seemed most plausible. Unless I was totally off the mark and they’d gone back to South Park for a couple days. I’d ask later.
By early Friday evening, I was lying on my stomach over the covers in bed, with my laptop open in front of me. My email was open on the screen, with one message open in its own window. A not-really-reply reply from the Denver internship. “Mr. Broflovski, We are writing to inform you that your materials have been received. We will be reviewing your information for consideration and will get back to you in due time. Please be advised that we receive many cover letters per year, and that processing may take up to two months.”
“Fuck your two months so fucking hard,” I muttered. When staring got to be too much, I rolled out of bed and trudged downstairs to find something to drink. Kenny and Clyde were both keeping themselves busy; the first at the kitchen counter and the second, along with Bebe, on the sofa.
Kenny was midterm cramming, hunched over his laptop with a highlighted book opened on the counter to his left. Bebe had a newspaper opened to the horoscope (she’d been reading them like crazy lately) and two binders in front of her, one labeled Thesis and the other, more decorative than the other, labeled Plans. She picked up the Plans binder and cuddled up against Clyde, who dropped his own work in order to leaf through it with her.
I started brewing a pot of coffee and offered it up to the others; Kenny was the only taker. “I’m probably gonna be up all night anyway,” he grinned. “Gonna be worth it, though.”
“Dude, how are your classes going?” I wondered.
“Whoever invented level 450 needs to fucking die,” Kenny muttered, “but other than that, it’s all good.”
“Hey, um… are you going for an internship?” I asked. “I just realized I never asked you. I feel like I don’t even fucking see you lately. Aside from, like, just this past week.”
“Right?” Kenny laughed. He closed his laptop and slid it to the side. “Gotta give my eyes a break anyway,” he said. “Anyway, dude, no, I’m not doin’ an internship. None of the ones I could actually get into were paid.”
“Oh, man, that sucks.”
“Kinda, but, like, I know so many people in fucking South Park, dude, I’m just gonna interview like crazy once I get home.” There wasn’t even a hint of a sigh in his voice. Kenny wanted to be in South Park. He had kind of staked a claim on the town a long time ago. While I felt that I needed to get out in order to figure out who I was and what I wanted, Kenny was taking what he had and turning it all around right in one place. I will never stop admiring him for that. “How about you and Stan, what’d you decide?”
“Dude, I still haven’t fucking heard back.”
“From the one in Denver?”
“That blows a load.”
Kenny began tapping his pencil against the countertop. “So… like, what would you do if you didn’t get it? Go to, where’s the other one? North Carolina?”
I groaned and leaned against the opposite end of the counter. Bowing my head and ruffling my hands through my hair, I admitted, “I don’t know.” I thought again about what Kenny had said earlier. About how I invented drama when there wasn’t any. This was the major one, this was the thing that was turning me into an obsessive asshole. When I took too much time to think, I fucked up. Plain and simple. If I gave myself room to obsess, I would. And the outcome would probably not be right until I just plain fucking made a decision and went with it. That was the only way for me to get ahead and do anything.
“Well, dude, I mean… do whatever’s right for you, right?” said Kenny.
“I guess. It’s just hard to decide.”
Kenny was silent for a minute after that, probably having turned back to his book, so I waited to continue our conversation until the coffee was done. At that point, claiming they didn’t want to be too distracting, Clyde and Bebe, hand in hand (and Bebe’s other hand on that precious binder), ascended the stairs to his room. Kenny just started laughing. “Holy shit, man,” he said. “Okay, so either those two have fucking ninja master sex or they don’t fuck at all, because these walls are not thick.”
“Ninja master sex?”
“That’s fucking stupid.”
“I know,” Kenny grinned. It was kind of true, though. While Kenny and his girlfriend generally made us all wish we had padded walls (and we’d finally gotten to the point of giving them the damn apartment to themselves a lot), and while it was true that sometimes Stan and I would completely forget we lived with other people, Clyde and Bebe were never very loud. Or loud at all. Which was almost weird. At least mystifying, if nothing else. Maybe they saved the kinky stuff for being at Bebe’s. We’d never know.
“Not everyone’s as loud as we are,” I blurt out before I knew it, which just got Kenny laughing again. “You guys win by the way.”
“I can tell.”
“Anyway, dude, what’s up with you and Stan?” Kenny wanted to know. I passed him his mug of black coffee and tried not to get too flustered as I walked over to the fridge for cream to put in mine. As soon as I’d wandered back, Kenny hit my arm. “Where the hell even is he?”
“He and Shelly are doing some brother-sister thing,” I said, stirring the cream into my drink. “We had some kind of a pseudo-fight a few days ago, and like… I don’t know, dude, I feel like I’ve been kind of fucking up a lot.”
Kenny shrugged and blew on his coffee to cool the liquid down. “Is it cuz you totally trip out and put way too much pressure on yourself?” he guessed.
“See, that’s exactly what he said!” I exclaimed, tossing my free hand up in the air while trying not to spill the coffee clutched in the other. “That is fucking exactly what Stan told me and I totally reamed him out.”
“Of course you did.”
“Dude, fuck you.”
“No, I mean, like, fucking everyone bitches more at whoever they love than anyone else,” said Kenny, going guru on me again. “Red throws fits at me for the tiniest fucking things sometimes.”
“I don’t even want to tell you about our Mac versus PC argument. It was so fucking stupid.”
“Neither of you cares that much about computers,” I pointed out.
“Exactly,” Kenny grinned. “And then there was the time she wanked at me for saying fuck too much, or the time I got yellin’ at her for the fact that like every time we went out last semester it was for fucking sushi.”
“Yeah. My point is, dude, everyone fights,” said Kenny. “You guys’re no different from anyone else.”
I bit my lip. “I dunno, dude,” I said. Kenny rolled his eyes. “No, seriously! Like, we never used to fight! You know?”
“We didn’t, because shit like this didn’t get to us a—Kenny, look at me!” He’d gone back to his laptop and was typing something in.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, I couldn’t really hear any sense in what you were saying,” said Kenny, “so I figured I’d keep doing my work.”
“Kenny, I need help!” I practically shouted.
“I don’t know, I need someone to listen!”
“Right, that’s why you have a boyfriend,” said Kenny, rather forcibly.
“He’s out of town and I can’t.”
“So accept that you’ve got verbal constipation and fucking hold it!”
“Fuck you,” I snapped.
“Dude, you are fucking wound up,” Kenny noticed.
“No,” I argued, “I just have a whole bunch of shit I have to say and I can’t say it to him until he says it first because it’ll kill him if he doesn’t, but all this internship shit is killing me, and—”
“Okay!” Kenny erupted. He slammed his laptop shut, stood and dragged me around to the other side of the counter. “Seems like civil conversation’s not working anymore. I don’t wanna interrupt Clyde and Bebe so we’re going outside.”
“What?!” I yelped.
“Out-fucking-side, Kyle!” Kenny snapped, shoving me toward the door. “Someone needs to make you fucking see straight, might as well be me!”
“Kenny, stop it, this is fucking stupid,” I fought him. He overpowered me, though, and the whole walk to the door was a struggle. With deft precision, he held me back as he jostled the door open, and the winter air stung my skin as he tossed me out into the elements. In nothing but a thin sweater, I was freezing, and hollered back at Kenny, “Are you out of your mind?!”
“No,” he growled. “You are.”
“Jesus Christ, Kenny!” I shouted. “What the hell is this all about?”
“Look,” Kenny snapped, “I’m getting really kinda tired of this. I mean, I’m tired in general, but I’ve heard so many fucking sighs lately I swear to God the house is just gonna fall over one of these days. Get the fuck over it!”
“Over what?” I hollered. “There’s nothing to get over other than the fact that everything is fucked!”
“Whatever pretend shit this is you’re pulling!” Something about his intensity tore into me, and I had a feeling I was about to be shamed. Not wanting to take it from anyone, I stood my ground, more than ready to beat the living shit out of him. Especially when he said, “This is exactly the kind of bullshit I’d expect someone like you to say!”
“Someone like me?” I erupted. “What the fuck does that mean?!”
“Yeah!” Kenny barked. “Someone like you! Someone who fucking invents drama when there isn’t any. Someone who stresses out over every—minor—detail. And, gonna be honest here, dude, but I’m so sick of your bitching.”
“I don’t bitch!” I hollered.
“Kyle, you bitch more than a feminist poet on the rag. Shut up.”
“I don’t bitch!”
“Maybe you don’t think you do, but I’ve lived with you for how fucking long now? It can be minor, but bitching is bitching, dude. The internships. The little details. It’s not a big fucking deal! Just shut—up, and look at how fucking lucky you are for once!”
“Yes! Lucky!” Winded, Kenny stood back. He shook his head, then folded his arms and stared me down. “By ‘people like you,’ I mean—Jesus, Kyle, you know what I mean. You grew up in a good family. You got to take trips, never worried about money, and have had this one perfect relationship for—”
“Kenny, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship,” I stewed. “Believe me.”
“Oh, shut up!” he hollered. “What the fuck would you know about a bad relationship? Or even a mediocre one? I have seen shit, dude, you guys have got nothing to complain about. I’m sick of you two forcing problems on things! There is no reason for it. Jesus! How long have you and Stan been together?”
“What?” I yelped, still ready to punch him. He had no right to get in and tell me the hows and whys of my relationship. “I don’t get what—”
“How fucking long, dude?”
For a few beats, I just glared at Kenny, and he steamed and glowered right back. In the three plus years I had been Kenny’s roommate, we hadn’t really called each other out on anything. It made sense that the thing that’d do him in was the only thing that held major sway on my mind since college began.
I hated the silence that came when Stan was away. There was a pattern. I wouldn’t listen to music. Or reason. Not willingly. I shut down. When he wasn’t around I fucking shut down. And that was one of those things I’d forget when we were together and doing just fine.
He held onto me like crazy. He did almost too much, sometimes.
And I just realized, stuck in that forced silence, that I hadn’t thanked him lately. Someone give me a medal. Ugh.
“Almost five years,” I gave in.
“Now,” said Kenny, blankly, “name me one thing wrong with your relationship. One thing.”
“Give me one thing wrong with Stan.”
One thing? Fine. Come to think of it, Stan and I had never really addressed the nitpicky things. Maybe I did just have to get those annoyances off my chest. “Oh, sure!” I yelled. “He wakes up too early. He gets really clingy sometimes. He complains about this state and about animal rights but he’s not willing to travel or stop eating meat. He obsesses over his music like that guy in fucking RENT, but he never lets me hear a single line of it! And when he does he says it’s not good enough, but it is! It fucking is! Kenny, it’s good enough, it’s good enough, it’s better than that, and I keep trying to tell him, but he doesn’t listen!”
On the verge of breaking down, I let it all out. This was therapeutic… even if some of it was a little stretched. At least I trusted Kenny, but somehow that made the whole thing even harder. Kenny had inadvertently been the first person Stan had come out to, having guessed before my boyfriend could say a thing, and maybe a part of me resented Kenny for that. Which was completely unfair. Kenny was like a brother to both of us, so of course I caved when he called me on my shit. The McCormick kid can be quiet and observant, but he doesn’t observe just anything. And he’d pinned me down on this one. “He—he can be a hypocrite about a bunch of stuff. He doesn’t want me to move away but then he says I should go. S-sometimes he drinks a little too much…” Fuck, that hadn’t even happened in a really long time. I was digging now. For no reason.
For absolutely no reason.
“And?” Kenny prompted me, his poker face lending me to believe nothing and everything about what he really thought of my outburst.
Wouldn’t you know it. He’d fucking caught me. Or just knew the way to make me catch myself.
“And, I…” I started to answer, without really knowing what to say.
I groaned. “And he’s amazing,” I said. My voice had grown quieter on me, but I was fine with that. I felt awful. Honest to God, no, I had no right to complain.
If Eric Cartman had been there at that moment, he probably would have made some joke about me being on my period or something, and I would have punched him. Actually, I really did want to punch someone right then, so that would have been perfect if Cartman had been there, since I never would’ve been able to beat up Kenny, no matter how fucking mad I was. I’m not a crier—not around anyone other than Stan, anyway—and I’d already vented. Even if I was only angry at myself right now, I did kind of want to hit something.
Nothing was there, though, so instead, I just folded my arms across my chest and gave my own arms a bit of a hug in closer. That’d do.
“He’s amazing,” I repeated. And creativity takes time. And he really didn’t drink all that much. Of course he could be omnivorous and still love animals, what the fuck. Of course he could complain about Colorado but love it all the same.
That just got me thinking even more about Bebe and her stupid horoscopes. About me being dual-natured and Stan being the scales to keep me balanced. It was so fucking true. Goddammit, ancient Greeks. Goddammit.
I apologized to Kenny for having a tendency to bitch before knowing the circumstances, or not realizing when I did, and ushered him back inside.
“You good, dude?” Kenny asked me as we shut out the cold again. I nodded. “Just had to yell, am I right?”
“Pretty much,” I told him. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s all good.” Kenny shrugged, peered up the stairs to see if he could notice any lights on or hear anything, then ticked his head toward the kitchen. “Can I tell you something, though?”
“I think both you guys hate confrontation, so you might wanna get that checked,” said Kenny, which got a slight laugh out of me. “No, dude, I mean it. I can’t come ref you guys’ problems all the time.”
“I appreciate that, Kenny.”
Once in the kitchen, I brewed up some decaf tea (rather than coffee, since getting jittery was about all I needed), and let him talk for a little while. After thanking him again, of course.
I listened to Kenny’s future plans, and how he wanted desperately to include his girlfriend in them if that could be at all possible. About how he was going to work his ass of in whatever (legal) way that meant so that his sister could get a great college education as well, about how he and Red had been through a rough patch but things were constantly looking up. And he finished it all off with, “You guys really do have it pretty fuckin’ good, y’know. I’ve honestly been kinda worked up knowing you guys’re gonna be moving, wherever that’s gonna be.”
“Oh… shit, dude, yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. “Holy shit, we should hang out more before the year’s over.”
“Yo, how about tomorrow night?” Kenny asked with a grin. “You over being a bitch?”
“I’m over being a bitch.”
“Are you the bitch?” he asked with an obvious raise of his dark blonde eyebrows.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Kenny smacked the counter hard. “Fuck, man! I totally thought I was gonna get it out of you that time!”
“You’ll never know, dude,” I smirked.
“Does Ike know? I’ll just ask Karen.”
“You’re never going to know,” I reiterated. I casually sipped my tea for effect. “Anyway, what’s tomorrow?”
“Party hopping,” Kenny finished. “You in?”
“Then I’m tattooing bitch on your forehead.”
Kenny shrugged. “Come on. You’re always sober at those things anyway, just come have fun with us, all right?”
I sighed. And caved. I can’t remember why, but I did. “Fine,” I gave in. “Stan’s gonna be home tomorrow anyway, so—”
“So, see? There you go.” Kenny grinned broadly, then leaned up against the counter, cupping his tea in his hands. He hadn’t taken a drink, and I half didn’t even expect him to; Kenny was the kind of guy who’d just accept whatever he was offered, no matter what. “Hey, dude, sorry I had to go apeshit on you, but you do get strung pretty tight sometimes.”
“Gonna be honest, too, and say I seriously hope to God you get that damn Denver internship, because it’s messing you up. I’d say move there anyway,” he said, looking down at the hot drink, “but it’s all you guys’ call in the end, y’know?”
“Thanks, dude.” Kenny had always been good for support. I’d forgotten that recently, but told myself not to forget it again. “And, man, I really wish I could. I just don’t know if that could work.” He shot me a don’t you dare start again look. “I’ll work it out, though,” I said to finalize the thought.
It was the most inviting solution, but applying for a job over an internship would require a different set of skills from me, not to mention a different approach. I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to just plain head directly, green, into the working world; I wanted that internship atmosphere first. Well—I decided, no use dwelling on it. I’d figure out what I wanted when I talked to Stan.
“Hey, um,” I said, “if it’s not too much, can we have the apartment tomorrow night, like, after the… whatever party thing…?”
“Uh, I’m cool with it,” Kenny shrugged. “Talk to Clyde, dude, he’s in charge.”
“Sure.” I glanced over at the calendar I kept on the wall over the toaster at the end of the counter. February did just move right on through; my fifth anniversary with Stan was just a few days away. I was damn glad that I was working through all of my odd mental hiccups beforehand, but— “Wait. Oh, shit.”
My stomach flipped. “Dammit. Kenny, I haven’t gotten Stan anything yet.”
“Our anniversary, dude, I haven’t gotten him anything! I suck.”
“Nuh-uh. You got time.”
“Not much!” I realized. “Fuck…”
“I thought you guys didn’t buy into that too much.”
“I know,” I said, grabbing at my hair, “but it’s our fifth, and I wanted to do something a little more this time, and… dammit, dammit.”
“You got time,” Kenny reiterated. He opened up his laptop again, and said, “Talk to the chicks, man, they’ll help you out.”
“You think?” Kenny just shrugged, signaling that he was pretty spent for ideas. He’d already helped me a great deal that evening, though, just for calling me on my absurdity.
I did want to do something beyond ‘usual’ for Stan. Another dinner and a long talk didn’t seem right for this year. Five years was a milestone; an accomplishment. Yes, it was awful that we’d allowed ourselves to get stuck in a rut lately, since it brought other situations down, too, but I couldn’t let anything affect this. Just like with the guitar: Stan deserved something more from me.
That seemed like a key for everything, too. I was the one stressing more about the internships, about a lot of different factors in things; I was the one who really had to re-evaluate and make things work. I needed—so I told myself—to do something for him that could let him know, no matter what, that we’d be all right, no matter what the next year brought on. Or the year after that, or the year after that. While Stan had to be the one to divulge whatever secrets he’d been harboring, I was the one who needed to, essentially, lay out every last mental suitcase, and say that I’d gladly carry them all.
I texted him that night, saying, Hope you’re having fun w/Shelly. See you tomorrow!
To which he replied, Thanks! Yeah, good trip so far. Tomorrow: dinner?
YES, I texted back.
A couple seconds passed, and then I texted, and received, Sorry. Another second later, my phone rang. “Hi, Stan,” I said, picking up after half a ring.
“Hey,” I heard him say on the other line. Dammit, I really did not want to have to resort to nothing but telephone calls for a year. His end of the line sounded pretty full of activity, though I couldn't tell what exactly the atmosphere was. “Sorry, I can’t talk for too long, just cuz of where I am right now, but I wanted to call anyway.”
“That’s fine,” I told him. Taking in a deep breath, I added, “I’m sorry I’ve been really off lately.”
“It’s okay, I’ve been off, too,” Stan sighed. I heard someone calling him from a short distance—sounded like Shelly. “Hey, sorry, wow, I didn’t think I only had like one actual minute,” he half-complained. “Kyle?”
“See you tomorrow, okay?” I could hear the smile in his voice, which made me feel even calmer.
“Yeah. Dinner, right?”
“You got it.” A soft pause, and then, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The day Stan was scheduled to come home was the absolute strangest day of my entire four years of college.
The whole thing started when I had, for some reason, been dragged along on a wedding registry trip with Clyde and Bebe. It was all that fucking Craig Tucker’s fault—Clyde’s childhood best friend had been visiting the townhouse that morning to discuss a couple things with Clyde and Kenny, and I’d found myself in the middle of it. Since he was going to be Clyde’s best man, he was being dragged along on the trip, and he roped me into it with the apparently unavoidable invitation of, “Buy you a drink if you can stop me from making an asshole of myself in front of Bebe today.”
“Why would you?” I’d come back at him with. I didn’t know Craig very well. He also went to CSU, as a Film major (and psychology minor, I believe), but that was about all I knew. I thought I’d heard Bebe mention something about him handling some multimedia thing for the wedding, but mostly it was the best man stuff I knew about. Clyde still hung out with him quite a bit, even though Craig had branched off into other (read: stoner) crowds once he’d arrived at CSU.
“Because Bebe is under the impression that I am kind of an asshole.”
“And I am an asshole. Just come help me not be and I’ll buy you a drink.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll come if you buy me a drink, as long as it’s actually good wine.”
“Oh, wait, you’re into that pussy stuff, right?”
“As long as it’s good wine, Craig.”
He relented. “Deal.”
Stan wasn’t due to be back until late afternoon with Shelly, so I figured I had nothing much else to occupy my time with that day, and tagged along.
The wedding was becoming more and more of a real thing, for the engaged pair. Of course, it had been spoken of on and off since high school between and around them, but now they had their date set in stone, and many things in place. It was just a matter of waiting for graduation.
I gave myself a little time to watch them, that day. Clyde and Bebe had such a grounded, interesting connection. They were fully supportive of each other, and one another’s families. He’d always been highly protective of her, while she was very clued in on the topics Clyde was sensitive about, or the issues that meant most to him. They’d been on and off through middle school and into high school, until it finally became serious, and they’d hardly left each other’s sides since.
That day was such a testament to that. They worked off of each other, agreeing quickly on where to go, setting limits on the registry and talking very rationally about what was most important for them to think about needing in the very near future.
But, of course, sooner or later, Bebe dragged Clyde away from home and garden shopping and into a jewelry store. Craig and I hadn’t been paying attention to where we were going, and wound up following them in. One look around, though, and Craig booked it out of there, opting to instead head outside for a cigarette (which he’d been kindly avoiding doing all day, and risked rising on Bebe’s shit list for it, but I didn’t stop him), so it turned into just me pretending to browse the aisles while Bebe fawned over necklaces bearing her birthstone, and Clyde promising her something if she found just the right piece.
After a little while, Clyde told Bebe to keep browsing, and ducked outside to talk to Craig, which prompted the bride-to-be to rush up to me and latch onto my left arm. “Kyle! Help me shop, okay?” she requested, looking up at me with bright eyes. I couldn’t help but laugh a little, out of admiration for her extremely positive attitude on the upcoming nuptials.
She was so in love with the idea of getting married and so in love with Clyde that I could almost see her future folding out in front of her, and she was beaming with the prospects of it being bright, as long as she had her husband. I knew their plans. They were going to move back to South Park after graduation to start setting up their home. Clyde already had a job lined up, and Bebe was in talks for a few different things. While I was stressing out over a slight internship fiasco, the two of them had everything all worked out. I’m sure there must have been some drama going along with it, but I didn’t see it, not a bit. Because they were both just so positive. And being around them all day really started to make me want to emulate that.
“Sure thing,” I said to her with a grin. “Clyde’s really spoiling you today, huh?”
“He’s amazing,” Bebe cooed, leading me along through an aisle stocked with sparkling diamond earrings, necklaces and rings. “He’s so, so amazing. I can’t wait to get married, aahh!” She squealed, and hugged my arm tighter. “Oh, my God, I can’t wait till Wendy comes back, ugh, I wanna do bridesmaid stuff with her like right now.”
I laughed and patted her arm. “It’s gonna be a beautiful wedding, Bebe,” I told her. “You deserve it.”
“Thanks, Kyle,” she said softly. A few seconds later, she dropped my arm, and I could feel her watching me as I pretended to look in the cases. Jewelry completely eluded me, but, looking around at the other patrons, most of whom were couples, I could see how it could be appealing to some. “Hey,” Bebe said, “way to be super quiet all day, by the way.”
“Huh? Sorry,” I apologized. “I’m just kinda—I get totally overwhelmed in stores like this, and just, like… thinking about stuff like… never mind.”
Bebe flashed a calm smile, and caught up with me again. She nudged my arm with her shoulder and asked, “Where’re you standing, anyway?”
“With Stan,” she clarified. “What’s you guys’ next move?”
“Oh, um… I don’t… I don’t really know,” I told her. I was starting to feel flustered. Having a keen eye for that, Bebe swept me in another direction. “I have to wait for him to come home today, and, like, what I really have to wait for is that damn internship.”
“I keep hearing about that,” said Bebe. “You should just go drive to their offices and ask what the hell.”
“I’m about to,” I muttered. “I really want that one.”
“Yeah?” Bebe sounded like she was hinting at something. When I glanced at her, though, she feigned innocence.
For lack of anything to say, I shrugged lightly and glanced around again. Even talking to others, there was that silence again—uncomfortable and long.
I thought back to five years prior. Five and half, really, when it first started. And I watched myself. I watched myself at sixteen, pondering my choices, evaluating my life, just as I was doing now. A little over five years ago, Stan had come out to me, trusting me, as he had so many times before, with something personal before bringing it before his family. He hadn’t really cried, or shown fear; just stated fact. He was gay, he told me, and what set him on the path to realizing that were his feelings for me.
I’d gone into a state of over-evaluation after that… which I was afraid, especially at the time of it happening, might have hurt him. And though I’d learned from that particular over-thinking session that I’d been in love with him for quite some time as well, I still repeated myself, over and over. Every time that silence came, since silence had preceded Stan’s initial coming out, as well. He’d been too shy and nervous to say anything.
That was not something I wanted to loop around us ad infinitum. No patterns. No silence—confession—make-up routine. That would make us boring.
When we were kids, Stan and I got into every kind of trouble imaginable. With our parents, with other kids’ parents, with other kids, with people at school, with plenty of people we didn’t even know. But we’d gotten out of it okay, and helped each other through a number of situations. As we grew up, we continued helping each other along, and up until we’d left South Park, spontaneity had been kind of a key deciding factor in the way we’d push things forward.
The last spontaneous thing I’d done was go abroad. And as stupid as that had been for me at the time… yeah, we’d come out a little stronger because I’d done it.
…Was he just waiting for me to be spontaneous again? After all, I liked having my methodology, I liked having my logic, but still. I could still do that.
Anything to break that silence. And hear his music. Because I knew that had something to do with the things he hadn’t told me. He’d hinted at it himself.
“What’s up?” Bebe wondered, peering up at me as I caught myself blankly staring at a couple across the room.
“Huh? Oh, nothing,” I dismissed. “Nothing, just… I’m only like, a couple days away from it now and I still have no clue what to do for Stan for our anniversary. I feel awful. It’s like… this past week was all, he wanted space, I wanted space, we figured a little break might be good, but it’s scrambling my brain, Bebe, I’m totally lost.”
“How come?” Bebe pressed her cheek against my arm, friendly and supportive.
I sighed, and prepared to state the inevitable. “I missed him after a day,” I told her. “I’m kinda going crazy right now. I’ve just… I just don’t like not being around him. You know? I can’t wait till he gets back. Tonight,” I added, my blood rushing faster. God, how the hell would we handle it if we were in separate states for a year…?
Bebe laughed. “You still need an anniversary gift?”
“Yeah, there’s that.”
“Why don’t you get him a ring?” Bebe suggested.
My heart jumped up into my throat. “Excuse me?” I stammered.
“Not, like, an engagement ring, if you don’t want it to be,” she shrugged. “But like a promise kind of thing, you know?”
My brain went fucking haywire. Smack in the middle of a jewelry store and I hadn’t even thought of that. Of course I hadn’t. It wasn’t something I’d been really thinking about.
“Stan doesn’t wear jewelry.”
“It’s not jewelry,” Bebe laughed. “It’s a ring.”
Yeah, no kidding. Bebe smiled, and ticked her head down to the case we were standing over. She’d completely shepherded me over there, I knew it. The large, square glass case reflected the shop’s light up at me, until I finally got my eyes adjusted and managed to look inside.
Underneath the glass were arranged fine but weaving and spaced-out lines of rings. Some were of designer quality, some much, much too elaborate for my liking, some plain and simple, all of them designed for men. I was surprised at the number of designs, but, then again, it was really never anything I’d thought much about, so I didn’t have anything to go off of.
I forgot to breathe, choked, and reminded myself of what to do again. Okay. Breathing. Good. Now… basic facts, again—where was my basis for this? Yeah, I was pretty sure Stan wanted to eventually get married… I just kept forgetting that there was that whole engagement thing beforehand. Despite being the fucking housemate of a guy who’d been engaged the full four years. My brain had slowed down its processing speed on stuff like that to that of a half-wound clock. Sometimes I really just didn’t get it. So, for this, I had to ask myself, was there anything to get?
The door chimed, and I heard Red call out a hello to Bebe. My current enabler patted me on the arm, then, tossing back her thick blonde curls, she made a direct line back toward her friend, who hadn’t come in alone. I stood there, trying to process too much at once, staring at the case until I finally glanced over my shoulder to confirm that Kenny was also in the room; Bebe was whispering the obvious to Red, whose eyes lit up before the two could escort each other through the door.
“You can do it, Kyle!” the girls called back at me as they made their way out the door.
I felt all the blood in my body flush my cheeks; I must’ve been red as hell. There comes a time when I get so nervous, I can actually feel my blood vessels moving—this incident in particular. Perhaps just the fact that I’d started to feel that way was a clue enough that this was something I had to do.
“What’s up, man, what’re they all up about?” Kenny wondered, wandering up to me.
“Kenny, help me,” I half-begged.
“With wha—holy shit.” Kenny glanced down at the case, then at me. His eyes, a lighter, clearer blue than Stan’s, surveyed the contents, and then my expression. As the person who had called me out, and as a friend I had trusted for as long as I could remember, I wanted his input more than anything. While he’d been promiscuous in his youth, and played at still being so now, Kenny did have a resonant way of knowing what made certain couples tick. I trusted he’d know the right thing to do.
I bit my lip. “So, yeah,” I said.
“Dammit, Kenny, help me.”
“Dude, you shouldn’t even have to think about it.”
“Meaning which way? What? God! Augh.” I grabbed at my hair in frustration with myself, as Kenny’s simple laughter seemed to bounce over the polished glass and hit me in the chest. “I should?” I asked nervously.
“Kyle, look down,” Kenny instructed. “Look at that shelf, and do me a favor. Pretend I’m Stan.”
“Kenny, this isn’t—”
“Pretend I’m Stan, dude, what would you ask me right now? The answer isn’t ‘Should I?’ It’s—”
My fingers curled in, squeaking against the polished glass. I shot an apologetic glance at the Do Not Lean On Glass sign, stared back down into the case, and replied, “Which one do you want?”
“There ya go.”
“Is this seriously my life right now? Holy shit.”
“Dude,” said Kenny, “you knew it was coming, right?”
“I mean… I guess?”
“So just fuckin’ do it.”
“I don’t have any more money after that guitar…”
“Dude, Clyde didn’t have money, either, when—”
I was chewing my lip again. Overflowing with nerves. I felt a little pang in my temple and my head started to buzz with activity. Before I could get dizzy, I shook it off, and said, after almost forgetting to breathe, “I… oh, God. I have to do this.”
“Nice,” Kenny grinned.
At that point, a saleswoman, dressed in a clean, pressed black vest over a well-ironed white shirt, the very symbol of someone willing to help others set their lives in order, walked up to the other side of the case, and asked the inevitable, “Can I help you?”
To which I responded, frantically, “I’m in a panic, on a budget, and have never bought anything like this before.”
Kenny whacked my arm a little.
“The last thing I bought him was a guitar,” I rattled on.
“Him?” the woman asked, pointing to Kenny.
“No, my boyfriend.” Kenny laughed and took a step back. Somehow, I felt like I should have been making a bigger deal out of this crazy situation than I was. Then again, Kenny had just called me out on devising too much drama for my life, and, well, maybe I did. Maybe in the end things really could be simple.
Because, I mean, the facts were there, everything usually leading up to an engagement. Stan and I had been dating for five years. We were still best friends. We wanted to end up in the same place. I couldn’t deal with the silence that came with his or my being away. Maybe I didn’t have to boil it all down into befores and afters. Maybe things weren’t always so neat and tidy as file cabinets.
Oh, to hell with it. Open up every single suitcase, Kyle, and figure out where you’re going to take things.
“I want to buy him a ring.”
“An engagement ring?” the woman clarified.
“Yeah. Yeah, that.”
And, somehow, as spontaneity took over and I choked back every last nerve, I left that damn store with a small black box, inside which was nestled a ring I’d forced Kenny to try on—since his hands were the same size as Stan’s—twice, and which I kept secure in a pocket with a zipper in my lightweight green jacket. Once outside again, the sun glaring a late afternoon warning sheen against buildings and cars, I started getting another dizzy spell, only to be encircled by the group, other than Craig, who was finishing a cigarette.
Bebe grabbed my right arm, Red my left, and together, the girls prodded, “Well?!”
“I, uh… I’m gonna be paying it off for a while,” I said.
The girls, Bebe especially, squealed out their excitement and hugged me. Once they were persuaded to get off, Clyde punched my shoulder and said, “Nice going, dude, how’s that feel?”
“Like I ran sprints after chugging a gallon of milk.”
“Yep, sounds about right,” he laughed. “You know what’ll help?”
“Crown Pub!” Clyde exclaimed. I wasn’t as familiar with the pub scene as I was the coffee shops, but I trusted him to know the right ones.
Craig caught one look at Bebe and squelched the butt of his cigarette under his mucky Converse.
Bebe noticed and turned her nose up at the lingering smell of cigarette smoke that wafted around Craig, then cuddled up to Clyde as he wrapped an arm around her, and commented, batting her eyes up at her fiancé, “Ugh, you guys are going pub-crawling again?”
“Nah, not crawling,” said Clyde. “Just Crown, I’m hungry. You’re invited, too, babe.”
“Oh, I feel like a princess,” Bebe laughed, drumming her fingers across her fiancé’s chest. She slowly curled her arms around him and nuzzled her nose against his right breast pocket, half flirting, half trying to get as far away from Craig’s tobacco aura as possible. “Everything on you, of course?”
“Of course,” Clyde grinned, leaning down to kiss her hair. Once he’d lifted his face from her golden tangle, Clyde glanced over at me and asked, “You game for the pub, Kyle?”
“Craig owes me a drink,” I said with a smirk. “I’ll go at least for a while.”
“A while? Dude, weak.”
“Stan’s gonna be home tonight,” I reminded him. I weaved around to stand on the side of him Bebe wasn’t occupying like a leech, and drilled my knuckles into his shoulder. “I wanna get back and talk to him once he’s here.”
“I bet,” Clyde grinned. “Seriously. Good for you, dude. And what the hell, I’ll buy you a drink, too.”
“It’s your pre-bachelor party,” I reminded him.
“I buy you a drink of my choice then.”
“Am I allowed to generously refuse and let you drink it instead?”
Now, I was not only foreign to the pub scene, but I just completely felt alien in pub atmospheres. Sure, I’d gone to a couple bars in Hungary, and one or two here in Fort Collins and a couple in South Park, but they made me uneasy. A lot of it has to do with my unease around drunkenness. I hate getting drunk myself, and could proudly say that, at that point, I hadn’t.
At that point. There’s a first time for everything.
The atmosphere was as I expected: mostly college students at this time of day, with a few men in their thirties and forties wandering around, some with wives and girlfriends, others traveling in packs. Smoking in bars was blessedly illegal in Colorado, so there was at least clear enough air, even though I generally regard the atmospheres of all pubs with apathy. I care more for the cafés and such.
I agreed to, however, since I was the only other one without a date that early evening, play wingman for Craig. One honestly can’t help but feel sorry for the guy for just not having the ability to talk to girls. Or anyone, really, since he comes across so deadpan, and is honestly the kind of person to tell you outright exactly what he thinks of you. If he had a girlfriend who asked him if her ass looked big in that dress, well, chances are, he’d go on and tell her that her ass looked big in that dress. I never considered myself a great talker, but Kenny had always told me I had a kind of natural charm—my ass, I used to stumble over words all the time—so I didn’t mind starting up conversations for friends. I’d done it for plenty of guys in the engineering department (including one professor—that was a well-earned A).
When it came to the drink Craig owed me, the selection wasn’t great, so I went for a glass of the Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc, which got me scathing though well-meant glares from the guys and a look of admiration on the pronunciation from the girls.
We lingered at the pub for a couple hours, shooting the shit in ways I felt I hadn’t done in far too long. Everything around us lately had been so future-oriented, so ‘hurry up and get there,’ that we’d forgotten to step back and let time crawl. “For God’s sake, guys,” Kenny said at one point, “we’re fuckin’ seniors in college. When the fuck did that happen?”
“A few months ago,” said Clyde, as the waiter passed by with queries for more drink orders. “Come on,” he said. “One or two more rounds, here, guys, we’ve still got some fuckin’ living to do.”
So of course everyone turned to me. “Dude, I’m not the group parent, we’re not driving, we can stay,” I said.
“Sweet! Fun Kyle’s back!” Kenny mocked me, grinding his elbow into my rib.
“Ow! What the hell? I’m always fun.”
“Except when you’re a bitch.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“So, uh, one more round, guys?” the waiter asked.
I slammed my hands down on the table. “Yes!” I announced.
“Actually, uh, can’t do yours, I’m sorry,” the waiter told me. “Last bottle of Fume Blanc just got sold, but—”
Clyde glared at me with a dare, brown eyes intent on making me take up the challenge. Now, I had had nothing alcoholic to drink but real, good-quality wine for the past few years, and a sip or two of cocktails just to say I’d tried, but house wine was an adventure I’d yet to embark on. So I ordered one. “House white, then,” I said, staring Clyde down.
When the waiter walked off, I said, “I’m already being crazy today, might as well just go with it.”
“Kyle, that wine is, like, four dollars,” Red cautioned me. “Your last one was like ten.”
“So what?” My dizziness had gone from a real mental workout to a light, wine-influenced buzz. “I’m sure it might not be bad, maybe.”
Kenny smacked my arm and said, “Text your fuckin’ boyfriend and tell him to get his ass back over here. He can’t miss this shit.”
“What shit, me being absurd?” I guessed.
The absurdity lasted another two glasses of wine, which brought my total count up to roughly a full bottle right there at the table. The buzz that followed proved that I may as well have been mixing alcohols, I was so not used to non-reserve label wine. I’m not saying it was bad, just saying I wasn’t used to the less textured stuff. I texted Stan a few times, and he kept responding with the road signs he was passing, letting me know exactly how far away he was.
K so we’re leaving the bar, I texted him once Clyde and Bebe had ushered me to my feet and the lot of us were headed through the sunset back toward campus. Where are you?
“So what’s the story?” Kenny asked me.
“I dunno, but I want him to just get here,” I whined. Now that I had the ring in my pocket, a dent in my bank account, and the required rush of adrenaline I’d kind of been missing since becoming such a stress-bucket over the past few semesters, I wanted to get back on track with Stan more than ever. Not that we were ever really off, but I’d finally pieced together things from his perspective, and I desperately wanted to tell him that. The more we operated back on the same level, the better things would be. Different states for internships or not. The key was to just stay up about it. And know that, Goddammit, pretty soon, we’d have all our secrets laid right out, every suitcase open, every song composed, and be able to say that we’d take that next logical step, lift ourselves up again, and just go for it and get fucking married.
“You are the girl,” Kenny deduced. “Right?”
“Keep it up, dude, I dare you.”
“Kenny, come on.”
A few seconds later, Stan texted back: Um kinda fell behind.
“Aw-awwww,” I groaned, pouting at the message when my phone buzzed again with Stan’s explanation. Jesus Christ, just when I was really getting amped up for the welcome home, too.
Kenny snickered. “You even complain like him,” he pointed out.
“Dude, this really actually sucks, though,” I said, gesturing to my phone.
Shel’s tire went flat. :( Sorry! Gonna be there as soon as I can ok? Sorrysorrysorry!
Aww, I texted back, my fingers shaking on my screen. That sucks! How long for repair? XO I hardly ever texted hearts or little symbols like that, but I missed him like crazy, and just really wanted our stupid little road block to be completely smoothed over. The suspense was fucking killing me.
Truck’s taking us to place by CSU on Mom’s insurance. So I’ll be there in like 2 hours once he gets here. I’m so sorry!
I smiled a bit. Stan tended to get overly apologetic when he was feeling guilty, even if a situation was out of his control.
Want me to pick you up? I texted. Never mind that I was tipsy and that was a bad idea.
It’s ok, free shuttle thing and I don’t really know where the place is. Wanna see you tonight though.
Me too, I wrote. Then, after a second, I added, Miss you.
Miss you too. Really, though, sorry.
It’s ok. :) Love you. I grinned down at my message, and held my breath until he responded.
Love you too. See you soon.
I was fucking swooning and I knew it.
“Dude, the wine just hit you,” Kenny laughed, “or are you seriously that fucking smitten?”
“Um, both?” I ventured, shrugging and grinning over at him.
Kenny whistled skyward. “You guys are middle school girls!” he snorted. “You are such fucking middle school girls.”
“I’m gonna take that as code for you being jealous and wanting to fuck us both, asshole,” I chided him, pummeling his side.
“Only if there’s Catholic school skirts involved,” he dealt right back without missing a beat.
“Fucking sick!” I said, disgusted. To fully get back at him, I grabbed onto his shoulders and sprang up onto his back, where I yanked his hood down over his head and ground my knuckles in at an angle. Kenny started laughing and tried to catch me in place, but I jumped back before he could. He pushed his hood back again and shoved me with a smirk before Red caught his arm and pried him toward her.
Craig diverted from the group once we were back on campus, but I heard him and Clyde rustle up another plan. The idea of the evening was, according to the groom-to-be’s specifications, to hit up a couple different apartments, namely Bebe’s and Craig’s; he and Kenny had caved to let me have our townhouse alone with Stan so that we could work through anything else that needed to be worked through, and I had the feeling they’d want to be out longer than I would anyway.
Until Bebe’s roommate changed the entire course of everything.
Bebe had gone back to change her shoes, and Clyde ushered the rest of us up the two flights to her three-bedroom place, shared with Red and the Alley Cat barista Georgeanne, who already seemed to have something going in the common room we walked into. Clyde helped himself to a solo cup of beer, poured one for Kenny, and shoved one with a sampling of white wine into my hands. “Drink up,” he said.
“Dude, I dunno how much more I should have,” I told him. “I haven’t eaten anything and I might get sick.”
“We’ll eat at Craig’s, okay?”
“Does he have actual food there?” I muttered, sipping down the wine all the same.
“They always have at least, like, bread,” Clyde shrugged.
“Enthralling,” I said bitterly.
“Come on, loosen up.”
“You guys wanna really loosen up?” The voice belonged to Bebe’s third roommate. The southern belle staggered up onto her three-inch heels from a circle of almost two dozen heads in the common room, sandwiched between a large television and a faux-leather couch, and, once her footing had been found, clacked across the tiled floor toward those of us in the kitchen.
“We’re on our way out,” said Kenny. He took one look at the bottle the girl was holding, and his eyes widened. “Yeah, we’re leaving, like, now.”
“You sure? This stuff’s top-notch…” Georgeanne, usually a lot more demure at the coffee shop, shook her bottle between us guys. She wasn’t flirting—she knew we were all in committed relationships—but she was attempting to enable, and that was worse. The bottle was a rich green, of stout shape, and wrapped in a tight black braided net, making it impossible to read the label. Her fingernails clacked against the glass as she strummed them once. “If you’ve never tried it, you totally gotta.”
Bebe returned from her bedroom, new shoes acquired, Red following with a thicker sweater wrapped around her than before. The girls beelined toward us, but when Bebe caught sight of the bottle, she shot her roommate an awful glare. “That’s not—”
“What the hell is this?” I wondered, taking a whiff.
“What do you think?” Georgeanne giggled, displaying the green bottle with a Vanna White flick of the wrist. “It’s absinthe.”
“Oh, my God!” Bebe cried. “Gigi, no. No, no, no, nobody should ever fucking drink that! Where’d you even get that?”
“Internet,” the barista beamed. “It’s from Belgium!”
“I don’t care if it’s from fucking Mars, Gigi, I want that out of this apartment!” Bebe fumed, literally putting her foot down against the tiled kitchen floor.
“Chill, B, we’re just gonna drink teaspoons,” said Bebe’s roommate, as if that made the situation any better. Before Bebe could object any further, Georgeanne poured a splash into a tiny cup, handed it to me with a wink, then left for her bedroom holding the shimmering bottle over her head as she announced, “Anyone who wants a hit of the Green Fairy, follow my tinklin’ bells!” When she waved the bottle, an Indian charm bracelet round her wrist did indeed begin to chime with the movement, and a few attendees—five men and about eight women—crowded along behind her.
“You are so getting expelled!” Bebe screamed after her. “Guys, ugh, come on, I totally don’t want to even be in this building anymore.” She grabbed Clyde’s right arm and my left, and before we could be pulled away, Clyde finished what he was drinking.
And, stupidly, I did the same.
I’d never done absinthe before. I hated the idea of absinthe. I rarely drank anything other than wine and the occasional rum and Coke or bitters. A tame-ass melonball was the closest thing I’d ever had to anything both green and alcoholic, and it had been so watered down with ice by the time I got to it, it was hardly anything. But this was fucking…
Bebe stopped in her tracks and stared at me. “Oh. Oh, my God, no,” she said. “Kyle, please tell me you did not just drink that.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. I’m going to kill you!” Bebe screamed back at her roommate. She then grabbed my shoulders, stared into my eyes, and said, “How many glasses of wine did you have?”
It was a very, very bad night to lose my absinthe virginity. My buzz from the quickly-downed pub wine had started to wear off, but still had a lasting effect as I followed my friends out of Bebe’s apartment in the Aggie complex and toward the other end of the same, toward Craig’s. My vision went from slightly blurry to sharp as a fucking tack, and then my brain may have more or less exploded, and the events that carried me into Craig’s apartment remain just a blur.
Everything else was very muddled. We wound up somewhere else, at some friend of Clyde’s through his sports med program—one of the ones who was still convinced I was a Russian assassin—but my brain was too muddled to really register what was going on. When the host, a junior quarterback who was seeing more field time now that Stan was off the team, made some kind of wary comment about me, my brain did set off… hah, what if I was a Russian assassin? How awesome would that be? Before I could test that out, though, Bebe threw a bottle of water into my hands and instructed something to do with not letting it out of my sight.
So I clung to the freezing cold water bottle until we found ourselves at Craig’s, aware only that Bebe had not specifically said that I couldn’t drink anything else, so long as I held onto it, so I accepted a glass of white from a girl who clearly had no idea that I was in a homosexual relationship and started flirting with me. When I tried to talk to her, I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of, “Back when my boyfriend had a girlfriend, he used to puke on her.” She left me alone after that.
As the room spun (how the fuck was it doing that?), Kenny found me and hauled me into one of the apartment’s bedrooms, where a circle had gathered around a pile of… something, I couldn’t tell what. Before I knew it, I was sitting down, between Kenny and Red and surrounded by several others I either didn’t know or couldn’t place. Directly across from me, though, I noticed that familiar blue chullo cap which was now as well known on CSU campus as it was back home in South Park, and only then did I recognize what the fuck I was smelling.
“Oh, my God, Kenny, I gotta get outta here,” I panicked, grabbing onto my blonde friend for dear life.
“Relax, dude, you’ll feel better if you smoke a bowl.”
“No!” I protested, probably too loudly. “No bowls! Dude, Stan’s coming home and I don’t want to smell like weed.”
“You already smell like Bebe’s perfume and absinthe, dude, I’m pretty sure weed’s not gonna be that extra big of a deal,” said Kenny, grabbing a pipe from the middle of the circle.
“Dude, is this his first time?” one of Craig’s friends in the circle asked.
“Go easy, ’kay?” Kenny warned the guy. Red helped steady my position while I stared, dumbfounded and drunk, at Kenny as he lit up.
“I thought you didn’t use anymore,” I scolded him. It came out slurred.
“Just once in a while, dude, for stress,” Kenny assured me. “And, man, you’ve got some crazy stress, and we gotta knock you down before your boyfriend comes home.”
“Boyfriend?” one of the girls in the circle whined.
“Who’s your boyfriend?” another asked. “Maybe I know him, I know, like, everyone.”
“Stan Marsh,” Kenny responded casually for me. He was then preoccupied as the smell of burning pot filled the room and aggravated my nostrils and throat already. I hated being this close to pot, let alone anything you had to inhale like that.
Chain reaction. “Stan Marsh?! I know him from my Chaucer class! He’s so nice!”
“Wasn’t he on the football team last year with Clyde Donovan?” Those two were the girls again.
“Holy fuck, dude, you’re Kyle Bro—what’sitcalled?” another guy asked.
“Brof—Broflov—” Cock and balls, I was too drunk to pronounce my own name. Frustrated, I slapped my hand down on the ground and said firmly, “Marsh!”
I saw and felt Kenny and Red exchange a glance after that one. I was so fucking stupid and so fucking gone. I had no idea where my head was or what was going on. My vision felt sharp but my brain couldn’t keep up. It was like drowning in shallow water. I was shaking, and I wanted to get the hell away from these people I didn’t know and hug my boyfriend and tell him I was sorry for being an asshole and that I was sorry for drinking absinthe and that I wanted to marry him—
“Kenny, gimmie that!” I demanded.
And then Kenny was easing the glass into my hand and saying, “Inhale.”
I did, and fucking hell did it burn. Red grabbed the bowl away from me as I doubled over coughing. At least my head was off of how fucked up the absinthe was making me, now that I couldn’t feel my throat anymore. I have this thing about shit in my throat. I’ve had a few scares in my past that affected my lungs or trachea in some way. I’ve almost died a few times. I hated inhaling shit. I hated it. And I wanted to scream but I didn’t want to fuck up my voice. So I just kept coughing, and felt around me for the water bottle Bebe told me not to let go of. I couldn’t find it.
“Weak,” I heard Craig comment. “Dude, come here, you gotta try to shotgun first. You don’t inhale that fast.”
“How was I supposed to know?” I complained.
“Dude, do you want to calm down or not?” said Craig.
“Yeah I wanna calm down!”
“Oh, dude, I dunno,” Kenny warned.
“I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” one of the girls volunteered.
“No, shut up,” Craig bit at her.
The next thing I knew, I was leaning forward, and so was he. He took a hit from the joint he’d had in hand, then grabbed the back of my head, cranked my mouth open with his, and breathed the smoke from his joint into my mouth. I let it swirl around, and felt myself grow numb. I breathed the smoke out through my nostrils but otherwise didn’t move. Craig removed his hat and took another hit.
Stupid, stupid, stupid me—what the fuck…
In the dark, in my stupid mindset, desperate as I was, yeah, okay, yeah, Craig looked a little bit like Stan, thick black hair falling free. Like Stan would ever grow those awful, uneven sideburns, no, but I fucking missed him, and was fucking drunk, and Craig had his mouth on me again with more smoke to burn out the absinthe and make me stupid in a different way. I closed my lips around his once. Breathed out. Pried them open again with my tongue and dove in.
And hit his tongue ring.
I coughed, choked, coughed again, and fell backwards against Kenny and one of the guys I didn’t know. “Ummmmm, okay, we’re gonna go again,” Kenny decided. “Baby, you wanna stay?”
“Uh, I’ll be out in a minute,” Red decided.
“Kenny, I wanna throw up,” I told him as he coaxed me out of the room.
“I don’t doubt that, dude, come on, let’s get you outside.”
“No, no, no, no, bathroom first,” I said. “I just need a—”
“Fine, dude, fine, don’t hurt yourself in there, ’kay?” Kenny cautioned me. He steered me toward the bathroom, where my stomach churned and started to rebel. I grabbed Kenny and demanded that he stay outside, and as soon as I was in the bathroom alone, all I could do was stand with my back pressed to the door, my head both cloudy and overly focused, my entire world spinning as life swam around me.
It was a tiny bathroom, smaller than ours mostly in that it had only a standing shower. The sink was situated to my right, and a warning sign was pasted over the light switch, warning visitors to not attempt to turn it on. This was reinforced by a plastering of duct tape over the switch itself, and a couple of votive candles burning on either side of the sink.
I’d had way too much to drink that night. Even when I’d managed to relieve myself of a bit of the cause, I could not shake the lasting effects. I ended up staring at my hands under the running water in the sink for what felt like ten or twenty minutes, just watching the water pour down, like it could wash a layer of skin right off and make me start afresh. Which got me wondering: if I had a chance, would there be anything I’d do over?
Just about the only thing I could think of was I wouldn’t ask for the house wine. Not any of the other experiences I’d had in my life. Just today’s bad choice. Not any time in my childhood when I’d made a bad decision… not any time throughout my adolescence when I’d happened to let someone down, Stan in particular. Not study abroad, or any fights I’d had with friends or my parents. Just the wine.
Because I liked where I was. I liked where things had brought me. I liked the fact that there was a ring in a box in my jacket pocket. I liked the fact that Stan had taken his guitar with him on that trip with his sister.
I stopped paying attention to the sink, and glanced up at my reflection. The under-lighting from the candles did not help, but I still could’ve looked a lot worse. My hands still wet and the faucet still running, I tried to make a bit of an analysis of myself—completely absinthe-related, of course, I really didn’t have reason or time to do that. When I moved my left hand to shut off the sink, though, I accidentally hit the candle and knocked it over.
“OH FUCK,” I let out.
And rather than just set it back up and put out the slowly spreading melted wax and flame, I whirled and pounded on the door, shouting, “Kenny, open the door!”
“Dude, you’re the one inside,” Kenny called through. “Is something burning?”
“Just let me out!”
“Did you lock it?”
“Jesus Christ, okay, we’re never letting you get drunk again.”
“Thank you. Just open the damn door!”
He did, despite my perfect capacity to do so myself, and after I stumbled out and fell against the opposite wall, Kenny called over Craig’s roommate, some short blonde guy named Rory, to ask what the hell we should do about the fire. “No big deal,” was the answer, “I’ll take care of it.”
The fact that the fire alarm hadn’t gone off was a good thing, and from there, Kenny hauled me outside and sat me down on the landing outside the first-floor apartment, where I tucked my head between my knees, and groaned out, “Oh, shit.”
“Dude,” said Kenny.
“Where’s Stan? I’m gonna charge him for me having to babysit you.”
“Don’t,” I warned him. I knew he was kidding, but still. I withdrew my phone from my pocket to discover that I had six texts from Stan that I had not noticed or felt the alarm for. “Oh, crap,” I whimpered. “Oh, crap, oh, shit, he’s been texting me and I totally didn’t see, and—”
“Whatever, let me see.” Kenny leaned over to take a look at the texts, and read off, “Saying he just got to the car body place… they had to call in a shuttle… he’s gonna be here in… dude, you okay?”
“Huh?” I realized I was staring. At my phone. From needing reading glasses for schoolwork all these years, I’d fallen into the habit of even staring extra hard at my phone, even though I can enlarge the text. But one of the effects I was feeling from the intoxication that evening was a kind of keen focus. One that, if I didn’t keep, I’d lose and everything would get all muddled again. “Yeah, I—never want to drink that shit again.”
“I wouldn’t think so, no,” said Kenny. “Since you’re on it, though, you got any words of wisdom from it or anything?”
“I dunno,” I said. “I, like… I can…” Oh, God, I still wasn’t making sense. “Kenny, sometimes I’ve gotta stop thinking, but sometimes if I just keep thinking I can like… work it around and then it all just kinda…”
The keen focus was back, and I tucked my phone back into my pocket. I had to remember what I’d started speculating at the sink in the bathroom. That I wouldn’t do anything over, and…
“Kenny,” I said, grabbing his arm. “Kenny, everything I have done has led up to here.”
“Led up to you getting shitfaced?”
“No, no, no, not here-here, but, like this point, like, minus the drunk.”
“Yep, it’s called living life, Kyle,” said Kenny, straightforwardly.
“No, but, like… dude, like… if I’d done anything different—” I splayed my hands out in front of me, “it’s like… what’d they… butterfly effect. Why’s it named butterfly effect?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“But anyway, dude, it’s—it’s all just—suitcases.”
Kenny stared at me with the kind of skeptical yet slightly amused look one takes on when reading celebrity gossip magazines: every crevice of his face read, what the fuck? “’Kay, so that’s the absinthe,” he commented.
“No! No, Stan said it,” I argued. “See… Stan… Stan doesn’t need absi—abstin… Kenny, I almost said abstinence.”
“Whatever it’s called.”
“That, this, yeah, yeah, he doesn’t need it, cuz his brain is just more creative.” At the time, I thought I was making so much fucking sense I could write a thesis paper on the idea. Kenny probably just wished he had a camera on him. My hands were still out in front of me as I attempted to illustrate in the air for Kenny exactly the same thing Stan had spelled out for me. “Kenny, you pack your life in suitcases.”
“No, dude, listen. It’s what Stan thinks, and I think he’s right. It’s like… like, in your head, Kenny, in your head, you have all these thoughts and memories and possibilities, and some of ’em, you carry around in this one suitcase year after year, but then the older you get, the more backups you need, and you can go back and you pick and choose and you just keep going like that until the one you’re carrying just has everything you need, and the others are all packed and ready to be needed again someday.”
When I dropped my hands, my stomach flipped again, and the clarifying part of the buzz wore off, flipping back to the nauseous, swimming inebriation that had come with the four-dollar wine I’d drunk down too fast earlier. Eventually, I was so full up that my eyes welled up. I bowed my head, swallowed back some bile, and let my eyes itch. “Shit,” I said, “I hope I remember that later.”
“You do?” Kenny sounded doubtful.
“I just wanna tell Stan,” I said. I was at the edge; my last defense was about to give and I’d just collapse under the intoxication. “I wanna tell him… whole bunch of… oh, shit. Oh, shit, Kenny, I’m too fucked up to talk to him right now, and he’s coming home, and I’m so fucked up, and I never do this, I never do this, I don’t want him to think—”
“Dude, he’s been gone two days, chill,” Kenny said forcefully.
I shook my head, which made me dizzier. “I am fucked up and I did fuck up, and I—uuuuugh, Kenny, I fucking kissed Craig.” Cue the obvious regret. “Ugh, dude, I don’t even know Craig! He smells like cigarettes!”
“You are drunk,” Kenny stated.
“No kidding, but—”
“And people do dumb shit when they’re drunk.”
“That’s why I hate it,” I mumbled.
“Well, lucky for you, I don’t think Stan’s gonna judge.”
“Oh, fuck, what if he does?”
My phone started buzzing in my pocket, and the sheer sensation made me cry. I was so unstable. “Kenny, Kenny, my phone, oh fuck, oh fuck,” I began to panic.
“Is it Stan?” I withdrew my phone, checked the screen, felt my heart clog up my throat, and nodded. “So he just came back?”
“Yeah, but I can’t do this, oh shit, I can’t do this, I’m all… I can’t…”
“Gimmie, I’ll talk to him,” Kenny offered. “Text or call?”
“He’s calling… oh, shit… Kenny, I’m so fucked up…”
“It’s okay, dude, it’s okay, just… woah, for a minute, okay? Breathe, or something, kay?” he suggested.
“I want Stan,” I complained like a stubborn little kid, shoving my head into my hands as I bent over my knees. I was shaking again. My tongue felt numb. I never did anything like this. I had just been priding myself over the fact that I’d made it through college completely normally. I’d been to Europe and not gone to any dens over there. I’d been around all my friends who used, and remained clean. One night, one fucking night. I was going to kill Bebe’s roommate. I’m pretty sure Kenny, Clyde, Bebe and Red were about to as well.
“He’s on his way,” Kenny assured me. I listened in between my own muffled sobs as Kenny answered my phone. “Hey, dude. It’s Kenny. Why? Uh… kinda long story. We’re at Aggie. Yeah, at Craig and Rory’s. Kyle’s… um. Been better. A lot better. Did what? Yeah. He, uh… I dunno if you shou—o-okay… okay, dude, hold on.” Kenny nudged my shoulder, and I lifted my head, my eyes messy with tears and my head messy with absinthe and bad wine and pot and the awful pithy taste that had been Craig Tucker. I probably smelled like a fucking bar floor. My bangs stuck with sweat to my forehead, and my hands were still trembling when Kenny handed the phone back to me. “He wants to talk to you.”
“I can’t, dude, I can’t,” I protested.
“He wants to talk to you,” Kenny repeated.
Oh, fuck. He was going to yell at me. I was so dead. I was in so much trouble. He was going to hate me. Terrified, I choked back a sob, took hold of the phone, and said warily, “Hi… hi, Stan…”
I could hear the little smile in his voice when he responded calmly, “Hey, honey. You’re totally drunk, aren’t you?” All right, nerves again dispelled. Of course Stan wasn’t going to yell at me. I knew better… just not without a clear head.
“I’m not having a very good night,” I choked.
“No, doesn’t sound like it. You feel okay?”
“I’m back on campus,” Stan told me, still speaking with a gentle glide. “I’m gonna come get you, okay?”
“I’m really sorry,” I said weakly.
“Kyle, don’t worry about it,” my boyfriend said. “Okay? Don’t worry. I’m gonna come get you, and we’ll head home. Okay?”
“Home?” I slurred out. Yeah, I wanted to go home with him, I thought. Home to someplace where it could just be him and me, no matter what, just us together.
“Home to the apartment.”
“You want me to talk to you till I get there?”
I nodded. Kenny nudged me, which reminded me that Stan couldn’t actually see me right now, so I said, biting back another tearfest, “Yes.”
“Okay, no problem,” he said. “I’m not too far now, maybe like another minute. You outside where I can see you?”
“Kyle, don’t worry about anything, babe, we all do this,” Stan assured me. “You’ve come to get me, before, too, remember? Well, maybe you can’t right now, but you have, a couple times.”
“Are you angry?” I asked in a whisper.
“No, babe, I’m not angry.”
“Because we all do this. You’re gonna be fine.”
“I love you,” I cried into the phone.
“I love you, too, Kyle. I'm almost there.”
I sniffed, and tried to gather myself. Stan told me he was hanging up because he could see the apartment Kenny and I were sitting outside of, and I reluctantly hung up my end, locked my screen, and slid my phone back into my jacket pocket. A few seconds later, he came into view, and my heart did a swan dive. Fucking hell, it was going to take a lot for me to not make a total jackass of myself.
Stan crossed over the trimmed green lawn, hands in his pockets until he lifted one out to signal a wave to Kenny, and then the light over the apartment building’s roof pooled around him as he stopped in front of me and knelt. He took one look at me, his pretty blue eyes scanning my face as if he could read clearer than newsprint everything that had contributed to fucking me up over the past couple hours, then brushed his right hand back through my hair, smiled, and pulled me in close for a warm, comfortable, tight as hell hug.
I grabbed onto him, and instantly nuzzled my face into the crook of his shoulder.
“Hey, Kyle,” he said soothingly, his voice reverberating through me.
“Hi,” I got out. “I missed you.”
“Missed you, too, honey,” Stan told me, stroking back my hair. “How’re you feeling?”
“Stupid,” I garbled out.
“I hear ya,” he said. “Ready to go home?”
“I wanna go home with you,” I told him. I didn’t voice it well enough. Shit.
“I know, I’m gonna walk you there.” Stan adjusted his position so that he could wrap one arm around me and help me stand, and that alone started to make me feel better, and slightly more functional. Kenny offered a hand, but Stan kindly refused; we didn’t live far away, after all. Kenny did give him the run-down of what exactly had contributed to fucking me up, and after Stan thanked him, our housemate gave us his grinning good luck wishes, and started back inside to find his girlfriend. “You doing okay?” Stan checked on me after we’d made it away a few yards.
I’m pretty sure I nodded. “I mean it though,” I slurred. “I wanna go home with you.”
“Right, that’s what we’re doing.”
“No, like a home.”
“Like, South Park?”
“Noooo, Stan, like… a place where it’s like… Stan, I’m drunk.” No use fighting it. If I couldn’t even say my own last name, I sure as hell couldn’t figure out how to voice to Stan that I wanted us to move in together after college. Fucking dammit all to hell, I really had wanted tonight to be nice and simple and romantic and full of dismissed apologies and talks of new plans.
Romantic my ass. Next thing I knew, Stan was holding my hair back over the fucking toilet seat. My puke was green as the absinthe that had caused the upchuck in the first place. “Oooooohhhh, yeah, you did have a bad night,” Stan commented once I was done.
“I’ve never been puke-drunk before, Stan, this sucks!” I complained, leaning over to my left to rest my head on my arm. It seemed like a good enough pillow.
I had not, however, had the mind to calculate my angling versus how weak the toilet seat was, so the next thing I heard was a cavernous clattering of porcelain over my head, and I winced at the noise, only to hear, drowning it out, Stan saying, “Oh, no, uh-uh-uh, no, Kyle, pick your head up, babe, come on, don’t fall asleep in your vomit.”
“I’m not,” I insisted. “Falling asleep on my arm.”
“Which was dangerously close to the toilet bowl full of whatever the fuck it is you ate for dinner,” Stan scolded me. He started rubbing my back again, which settled my stomach a bit, but got my nerves acting up. “The lid almost just collapsed onto your head. You’ve gotta be careful.”
“I didn’t,” I slurred out, rolling my head to look at him.
“You weren’t careful?” he guessed.
I shook my head. “I didn’t eat.”
“Well, that probably didn’t help.” Stan managed to smile, then got me to sit up a little more. My stomach gurgled, but mostly from want of food, rather than the desire to spill out anything else that was already sitting in there.
He was being so good to sit there with me like that. I felt absolutely awful for having somehow gotten so damn carried away that night. Luckily, I was—very, very slowly—coming down from it; it was a wonder that I could remember everything I was saying, and everything others had said, too. Which got me focusing back on the immediate present, as I tried to sort through Stan’s words, a little bit of me fearing he might yet be mad at me.
He couldn’t have been, though, I realized. He was being so sweet, and… “You called me ‘babe,’” I noted, staring my boyfriend down as best I could with altered vision.
“Yeah, I did, Kyle, sometimes I like doing that.”
“But you usually don’t,” I recalled, “unless you’re drunk.” I fucking hate drunk logic. Especially when it’s my drunk logic. Because I hate sounding like an idiot. “But you’re not drunk,” I went on anyway. “I’m drunk.” Stan reached forward to right me, which was the only indication to me that I’d lost my balance. “Unless you are drunk.”
“I did some stupid shit tonight, Stan.”
“Yeah, Kyle, I can tell.” My boyfriend grinned a little, then said, “Come on. We’re gonna get you standing, we’re gonna rinse your mouth out, and then I’m gonna make you some coffee and get you something to eat.”
“I like coffee,” I felt it necessary to comment.
“I know you do. Now, hands on my shoulders, babe, we’re gonna stand up.”
I did as he asked and somehow got my motor functions triggered by a thought from my brain again; I placed my hands on his shoulders and felt the same surge in my chest when he placed his hands round my waist that I had felt for the past five years whenever I felt myself getting caught up and captivated by anything Stan did. “You called me ‘babe’ again,” I heard myself pointing out.
“I’ll stop if you want me to,” Stan offered. “On three.” He counted to three, then hoisted me up to standing. I stumbled forward against him, then forced myself to feel where my feet were on the floor as he walked me the few steps to the sink.
“No,” I said, as Stan took a dark blue facecloth from the basket beside the sink. The basket had been my idea; it kept things more organized. Kenny and Clyde never kept it up, but Stan and I did, which was probably why it was on our side of the counter. He turned the faucet on ice cold, and I listened to the rush as water hissed down from the silver tap onto the cloth, which Stan then wrung out and held up. “The room gets all flowy when you say that,” I added, before bowing my head to let the cold cloth touch my face. The sensation was incredible, and helped to further awaken my senses a little. I could register now that I was holding onto the smooth porcelain sink, rather than Stan’s shoulders, and that my toes were pointed inward, suggesting that I’d had a pretty weak grasp on what exactly this whole ‘walking’ thing was all about.
“I’m sure the room would get flowy no matter what I said, after you drink a whole bottle of cheap wine,” Stan commented. “Stand up.”
I straightened my back and, as if I were a little kid, Stan dabbed the cloth over my face, cleaning off the sweat from my forehead, and then the area around my mouth, which I’m sure probably looked sublime. He then cast away the first cloth, wet another, and ran that one over my skin as well, this time leaning in to leave a kiss at the corner of my eye. “I mean I like it,” I told Stan. He drew back, left the wet cloth dangling over the faucet to dry, and poured a capful of mouthwash to hold up for me. “Not that,” I corrected, glaring at the toxic-looking green stuff. I did not want to drink any more green anything. Ever.
“You’ve got to, Kyle, or you’ll regret it,” Stan said calmly.
I made a fuss about groaning over the crap, then swigged down the liquid and sloshed it around in my battlezone of a mouth. It stung every nook and cranny until I couldn’t bear it anymore, and then Stan was holding my hair back again as I spat it out into the sink. One more stinging, swishing capful later, and he deemed me fit enough to head downstairs, clean and puke-free.
“I mean I like when you—” I started again. Before I could finish, Stan scooped me up and began carrying me down the stairs to the kitchen. “I can walk,” I protested.
“Up the stairs and on flat ground, maybe. I don’t trust you going down the stairs, I don’t want you breaking an ankle or anything,” he said. Having been on the other side of a puke-drunk fiasco, I knew that the best way to handle things was to stay straightforward and solid, and now I understood why. Hearing Stan sound so sure of whatever was going on felt immensely comforting, to the point where I almost felt that I could just fall asleep and everything would be better.
Not that I necessarily wanted to sleep quite yet, though. I wanted to stay up, sober up, and talk. Make plans, smooth everything out, ask Stan how his weekend had gone… all sorts of things. I just had to get rustled back up to a conversational mode again.
Stan sat me down at one of the counter stools, started up the coffee maker, and asked if I had any preferences of what I needed to eat. “I dunno,” I said, “you decide.”
All of his movements seemed so precise, that night. He walked with purpose, keeping an eye on me at every turn. Even though all he was doing was making me toast and coffee, I settled in, relaxed, and just watched him move. If there was one thing the alcohol and pot were doing for me, it was allowing me to leave the unnecessary things out of my head. Internships weren’t a concern, so I didn’t think about them. I forgot about the afters. There was just now. It was kind of insulting to myself, I thought, that it took me so long to figure out how to live in the present again, but at least I’d eventually gotten there. At least things could only look up from here.
No other concerns. No problems. I just watched him, and thought back on how we’d found ourselves here. “Hey, Stan?” I said.
“Yeah?” He stretched up a little before selecting two coffee mugs from the cabinet above the stove. Porcelain clinked together like a clarifying chime. After shutting the cabinet door again, Stan set the coffee mugs down between us, his hands poised over the rims. “What’s up?”
I took hold of his hands, then drew them up so that I could study them. He had large, deft hands, suited for both heavy work and the delicate dexterity required of a guitarist. I kissed the knuckles of his left hand, then unfolded his fingers to kiss his fingertips, roughened from years of flying over strings of polymer. Despite the roughness of the pads of his fingertips, those hands of his always felt somewhat soft. And always warm. If they ever grew cold, I’d have reason to worry. But for the past five years, there’d been none of that. Just warmth.
He always tried. Even when I was being ridiculous, obsessive, easily swayed, weak, he’d still try. “How d’you do it?” I asked him, pressing his palm to my cheek.
“Hold things together.”
Stan looked slightly shocked, then simply smiled, kissed the corner of my right eye, and drew back so that he could pour us both coffee and butter my toast. I munched down on the crisp multigrain while he fixed both of our mugs with cream and sugar, and the second the food hit my stomach, my vision seemed to improve. “I’m not sure if I do,” was his eventual answer, “but if you feel like I do, then I guess I’ve been doing something right…”
“Stan, are you worried about something?” I guessed.
He paused for a second, then leaned up against his side of the L-shaped counter that divided kitchen and living room. I set down my coffee after a sip, while his mug remained yet untouched. As soon as my hands were free, Stan reached over and took hold of my wrists, focused his eyes directly on mine. “You sober enough to hear me be honest?” he asked.
“Um… is—is it bad?” I wondered.
“No.” Stan shook his head.
“So what’s up?”
After letting out a slight sigh, he said, “Sometimes I worry that I kinda… overkill. Or say the wrong thing, or don’t say the right thing in the right way. Like I lost something, or… something like that.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Spontaneity or something.”
I laughed. “I feel like I did, too.”
“Last couple days’ve been really telling for me,” I admitted.
“Okay, sweet, you are sobering up,” Stan grinned.
“I’ve got a headache,” I admitted, “but I feel better.” Swiftly, Stan patted my wrists, and walked at a diagonal back to the fridge to get me a bottle of water. When he returned with it, two sips of that cooling bottle had me back even more on the right track, so I continued. “I do feel like I lost something, too. But, like, that things’ve been building up to—something. To where we are.”
“Well,” Stan said blithely, “I’m glad we’re heading somewhere good.”
We lingered over coffee only a little while; Stan made me finish my toast, then led me over to the sofa, where I collapsed into the soft cushions, and then, my brain swimming with the very last dregs of my intoxication, rested my head in his lap, my heart keeping a steadier pace as he rubbed a hand along my back. “Sorry this was your welcome back,” I said.
“It’s all good, don’t worry about it,” Stan told me. “You’re recovering from it real well.”
“I just wanted to see you.”
What came from him wasn’t a vocal sigh but a musical decrescendo. It reverberated—all through the house, to the high ceilings and back, to the windows and back to where we sat, and through me and back through him again. With a little prompting, Stan got me to spell out in my own words what had happened, though Kenny had already given him the abbreviated version. I sat up so that I could think a little more clearly, but kept us connected, as close as possible. It was so embarrassing that I could still remember so many details of the evening. I omitted only one detail, and that was the subject of the little box in my jacket pocket.
“Kyle?” Stan said when I’d finished, beginning his thought a little warily.
“Yeah?” I wondered.
“I really wish I could’ve been here tonight,” Stan told me. “I feel bad.”
“You couldn’t help it, you guys broke down,” I said. I noticed a little wrinkle in the fabric of his shirt, and started to gently smooth it down, in this direction and that.
“What, so you wouldn’t’ve missed anything?” I half-laughed.
“So I could’ve taken care of you,” Stan corrected, kissing my hair.
“You don’t have to.”
“I like to.” That had started a long time ago, when we were little kids and faced with our wildest challenges.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “Stan, I don’t think I say thank you enough.”
“No?” He brushed against my cheek, his lips carrying a kiss he did not leave against my skin quite yet.
“I’m gonna try to more,” I promised.
“I’ve got more stuff I want to try harder on, too. Sorry again if I’ve been a little distant,” Stan told me, stroking back my hair.
“It’s okay,” I said, showing an honest smile. Bringing the air in the room back up to a more lighthearted speed, I added, “I’m sorry I made out with Craig.”
Stan laughed. “You didn’t make out with Craig, dude, you just did a shotgun, that’s all.” He paused when I didn’t agree. “Uh, right?”
“Unless a shotgun involves tongue and instant regret,” I said shyly.
The calming petting back of my hair turned into an aggressive tousling. “Damn,” my boyfriend commented. “What the hell kind of night was it?”
“Clyde’s prelude to the pre-party before the pre-party that comes before the actual bachelor party or something,” I said. “I don’t know.”
I looked back on the night again and laughed. I felt like looking at that was like watching someone else’s life. Well, at least now Clyde couldn’t tease me that I hadn’t ‘experienced college.’ I wasn’t mad at anyone (aside from maybe Bebe’s roommate and maybe myself a little), but I was also not about to repeat that again.
“Jesus,” I groaned, holding my hands over my face. “So, in the past four hours, I’ve gotten drunk on cheap wine and sick to my stomach, done absinthe, made out with a guy who isn’t my boyfriend and who chain smokes like it’s his job, smoked a bowl and lit school property on fire.”
“Only took you four years,” Stan laughed. “Congratulations on successfully completing college, Kyle.”
“There’s a time and place for everything,” I grinned sheepishly, quoting our old elementary school Chef. “I didn’t make out with any girls, though.”
“We’ve got the rest of the semester…”
“I think I’m good.”
I was just feeling a slight but functional buzz, now, and due to that was able to let our conversation drift to other things. Stan recalled his past couple of days with his sister, though he remained ambiguous on a couple of details, I could tell. They’d gone on a bit of a road trip, he told me, but would not say where. For the most part, they just wanted to have a bit of sibling time together, and I wondered if any of it had anything to do with Shelly giving him any indication of the fact that she and I had talked some in the past year, too.
The suitcase he’d brought with him on the trip was still in Shelly’s car; he’d only brought his guitar back to campus, having dropped it off in our townhouse prior to coming to pick me up. “Glad you prioritized,” I grinned.
“I wasn’t about to leave that anywhere, are you kidding me?” Stan said, looking over at the corner where he kept the instrument. “I love that guitar, Kyle.”
“You gonna play any more places this semester?” I wondered.
“Yeah, we should,” he said. “I want to, I mean. Couple things have to happen first.”
“What, like figuring this damn internship thing once and for all?” I guessed.
He nodded. “Hey um… if you’re up for it,” Stan said, “that’s, uh, that’s kind of what I’d like to talk about. You good to keep talking? D’you have a headache or anything?”
“No,” I assured him, “I’m fine. We can keep talking.”
“Okay, so, um… I’ve been thinking,” Stan sighed. “Dude… if the internship in Asheville is there for you, I mean… you should do it. You should go for it. I looked up the office, Kyle, it’d be a great thing for your résumé. I mean, I’d—yeah, I’d miss you, but I figure, you know, there’d be holidays and… you know, I’d pick you back up here and all, and…”
“You’re worried about what’s next,” I guessed, sliding my fingers between his.
The truth was, neither of us wanted me to go. My parents would never let me live it down, and I had no idea what I’d do if I went straight into the working world, or if I’d even be able to without the résumé I actually wanted, but… I couldn’t have everything. I had to pick and choose, and figure out what was really most important. I figured that, whatever happened, we’d figure it out once our anniversary had passed. There was sure to be a lot coming out then. “Honestly… yeah,” Stan admitted. He hung his head, and his grip on my hand tightened until our blood flowed in sync. To ease his tension, I pressed my forehead to his shoulder and nuzzled his upper arm, then bent to leave a kiss on the skin of his arm, just below the hem of his sleeve.
“What’s up?” I wondered, resting my head on his shoulder again.
“Just… I’ve always been scared, dude,” my boyfriend started. “Always. My whole life. I never let on to anyone, but I’m fucking petrified, Kyle.”
“Of the future?”
“Yeah. I mean, these past four years have been great, it’s like we were able to break from it a little, but what if we just get drawn right back in? Even if we leave, it’s gonna be with us.”
“Back home, you mean?”
“Can’t take the South Park outta the guy?” I guessed.
“Yes!” Stan agreed. “Dude, yes, Kyle—yeah. That’s… that’s exactly it. Like… everything’s… there. You know? We can leave, but what if we just get drawn back? Like my dad was. Like your dad was. Or, I mean… not even get sucked back there, but… I don’t know what I’m saying,” he groaned. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, you do,” I prompted. “Ready… set…”
“Stop thinking,” Stan and I said together. That got a grin out of him, but he made it fade away.
“I think,” I began, concentrating so that I’d make doubly sure my words registered and made coherent sense, “no matter what happens, Stan, it’ll be the right thing. I mean, maybe we will end up back there. Maybe not. You know what did start there, though?”
He gripped my hand tighter. “Yeah.”
“Look, I’ve worried on and off about the ‘being from such a crazy town’ thing, too, but… hey, in the end, maybe it isn’t such a bad little town, you know? What got you thinking about it, being with Shelly?”
“Yeah, probably,” Stan said dismissively. “I just think about stuff on and off.”
“You’re not your dad, Stan,” I reminded him again. “If we do end up back in South Park, it’ll be for our own reasons.” Maybe it’d be the first place we bought a house, I thought, feeling myself blush. Maybe after our year away, we’d go back, and maybe we’d stay, or move on again. “It can at least be home base, how’s that?”
“Like if we have to—separate for a year?” His hesitation hurt a little, but neither of us could get over it. I almost spilled it about the ring I’d bought, right then and there, but my heart skipped, telling me it wasn’t the right time to bring that up. Not now, not yet. It was much better to wait a couple more days.
“Yeah,” I ended up sighing. “How’s this? Okay, so we get more spontaneous, right?”
“Yeah, I’m good with that, yes.”
“And we just… whatever happens, we have home base. If we have to be away for a year, we meet back there at the end of it, and then figure out what happens.”
Another infectious grin on his part, and I knew that the air was clearer. “Thanks, babe,” he said, letting the nickname slip again. “You really do know what to say.” I laughed. “And I just said it again, didn’t I?”
“I don’t mind,” I told him.
“Really. Say it again,” I asked quietly. Stan’s eyes narrowed a bit in confusion, so I kissed his cheek and rested my chin on his shoulder, folding my hands in front so that I’d have a slight pillow. “I really do think I like it.”
“When you nickname me.” I could feel heat rise in my face, and throughout my body. It wasn’t the alcohol, I’d left all of that upstairs in the bathroom with the rest of my stupidity from the evening. This was just the same old comfort, the transformative kind of comfort that I’d been culling from him for the past several years.
“Yeah?” Stan grinned. His fingers twined their way into my hair, and he started to pet slowly, massaging my scalp with a well-timed, practiced ease. “Like… what, ‘babe?’” he wondered. He leaned closer, and kissed my forehead. “Honey?” he tried; another kiss. “Stuff like that?” A kiss over my right eyelid.
“You’ve been saying stuff all night,” I remembered, reaching one hand out so that I could begin stroking his cheek.
“Because I know I can without consequence when you’re drunk,” my boyfriend confessed, placing another kiss on my forehead.
“That’s verbal rape, Stan, that’s not very nice.”
“Verbal rape, my ass,” he half-laughed. “I love you. Is it okay if I call you something other than your name once in a while?”
It was so cute of him to ask. Stan is just like that. Especially around me, which I think is beautiful. Since we started going out, Stan always stepped lightly, wanting to do the right thing, not wanting to ever offend or hurt me. Sure, I could go on the defensive about that, but the truth was, I realized, I’d kind of struck gold. I couldn’t imagine, especially after listening to what Kenny had said earlier, that many people would be as willing as Stan to give so much and keep on giving. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing that for me. And especially at this point, looking back on the events of the last five years, I couldn’t imagine myself with anyone but Stan.
Calmly, happily, I rested my head on his, brushing his skin with a light kiss, and told him, “You can call me whatever you want.”
“You’re always all about befores and afters,” said Stan, “and natural progression and all. So, uh, is that our next step?” He laughed again, somewhat. “We’ve reached the pet-name stage?”
“Dude, that sounds really funny, kinda,” I pointed out.
“Dude still works,” he shrugged.
“No, no, I mean, it’s fine, whatever you want to say, whenever, it’s just funny to count it as a step.”
“Yeah, I guess. Well, I mean, what else is there?”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. Eleven thirty. “Our anniversary’s, like, coming right up,” I said, digging into my pocket for the little box. Thank God it was still there. “I should wait till then.”
“Till I tell you my idea for the next step.”
Stan’s eyes seemed to brighten. “Oooh, you’ve got secrets?”
“Maybe.” I cast him a prying sideways glance and wondered, “How about you? Any secrets?”
Stan settled back against the couch cushions, sinking in and leaning down just enough so that our eyes were perfectly level. His countenance was a thing of the art world, I swear. When we were younger, Stan would become easily disenchanted with everyday things. The past few years had seen him dealing with many activities and occurrences with some of his same old apathy or even annoyance, but what I had noticed, dating him, but constantly failed to mention—both to him and to myself—was that I’d seen a steady increase in how often he smiled. Year after year. The corners of his mouth were upward drawn, which could lead any observer to believe that there was always something good on his mind.
And that natural smile spread wider, as we sat there together that night, his eyes clear and focused, his natural scent smooth and clean. “Yeah,” he said, sliding his hand into mine, folding his fingers between, one at a time. “I’ve got some secrets. I’ve kinda been holding some stuff back, lately, Kyle, so sorry if that’s contributed to anything, but if I haven’t said anything, it’s because I’m saving it.”
“For the anniversary?”
“God.” I laughed and rested my head on his shoulder, perking up as he kissed my hair. “If you can hold secrets that long, you are way stronger than me. I have a hard time with it.”
“Just a couple more days, babe,” he reminded me.
My pulse quickened at the persistence of the nickname; I wrapped my free arm around his waist, and nestled in further. The rise and fall of his chest with each breath was steady and comforting.
“So, just so we’re clear,” I said. “Everything’s okay? We’re okay.”
“Of course we’re okay. And, you know, if you think I’m strong at all, Kyle, it’s because of you.”
“I might’ve given up my guitar a long time ago without you, for one thing,” my boyfriend admitted. I choked a bit when I realized he was probably right. Back in eighth grade, I’d been the one to ask if he wanted to try to start another band. In high school, I’d been the one to ask if he’d learned any new songs. Once we’d started dating, I’d asked him if I could put in requests. I loved Stan’s creativity. “More than just that, though,” Stan continued saying. He squeezed my hand, then, almost tepidly, rested his head on my shoulder, angled enough so that he could look up at me. I loved the feeling of having him there. Just as much as I had five years ago, when we’d made that pact to protect each other, no matter what. “Can I tell you why distance scares me?”
“Yeah. I mean, it scares me, too, but… yeah, why?”
“Well, maybe I don’t have a why so much as just a statement of fact,” said Stan. “It’s the primary thing I’m scared of. Like, at all.”
“Yeah.” He let out a little half-sigh as he began to pet back my hair, tucking the tousled, flattened curls behind my ears with that kind of ease that only he could achieve. “This is going to sound so lame, are you ready?”
“Ready for anything.” I felt myself hum a low tone when Stan kissed the hinge of my jaw.
“Being with you, Kyle… God, we’re coming up on five years, can you believe that?” His elation coaxed another hum out of me, and I nestled in against him, letting whatever was left of my buzz linger, just so that I could press and make it feel like there were no time obligations in the world. Stan hugged me in and continued, “I just feel like there’s not so much to worry about when I’m with you. Like you can level me out.”
“You’re way more level than me,” I complimented him.
“There’s still room with that, though,” he laughed. “You just make me feel safe. How’s that?”
“Well,” I said, “you, too.”
Stan showed a kind smile, kissed the top of my head, and said, “I’m… damn, I mean, I feel like I’ve been putting too much energy into being scared.”
“Then let’s stop it.” I laughed. “I mean it. I’ve got this feeling now, that, like… whatever happens, with this whole internship thing, I feel like something really good is coming.”
Oh, and was it ever. It was so hard to keep my new secret, but I only had to hold out a little longer.
We were both exhausted by that point, so I watched as Stan cleaned up the kitchen, then leaned on him for support as we ascended the stairs and made our way to bed. He had his back to me just long enough for me to find a new hiding spot for the ring box: his old guitar case, where it lay under the bed. He never checked in there, since it was all just my stuff, and as much as we did share, he was still very respectful of asking before going through anything.
From my kneeling position, though, he helped me up into bed. The sheets felt cool and calming against my skin, the pillow like a child’s cradle. I was exhausted, but at least I was falling asleep content. And even though I woke the following morning with a headache, I woke beside him; I awoke rejuvenated, reassured, and, despite my recent fallbacks, stronger.
I had new goals. Bring back the spontaneity. Keep on encouraging him. Keep a secret just a little longer. Take things as they came, and know that things would all work out in the end.
Confident, he’d told me. So I needed some confidence as well. And he was there to provide it.
I did not call the Denver internship the following morning, as I had been planning to. (I was, however, greeted in the kitchen that morning by Kenny giving me a gold star sticker from a collection Red must have left lying around somewhere. I didn’t even have to ask to know that it was some kind of commemoration of ‘losing my pot virginity’ or ‘congratulations on actually partying for once.’ My day was then spent thusly: 1/3 pretending to do homework, 1/3 doting on Stan, any second I got, and 1/3 figuring out how the hell to get back at Kenny for the sticker.) I did not call them the day after that, either.
On February 19th, the letter came.
When I picked it up from my student mailbox, I just stared at it. I couldn’t tell if it was a yes or no. Just an envelope. I tried to remember if Stan had gotten just an envelope when he was accepted, or a big packet. Then I told myself that was stupid, this wasn’t college we were applying to all over again. This was just yes or no: did I get the fucking internship?
Stan was in class, but I wanted to open that thing as soon as possible, so I darted over to the café in Morgan, where, upon receiving my cappuccino, I sat down and was instantly greeted by Bebe, coming up behind me with a hug.
“Hey,” I said, “what’s up?”
“Nothing much! How’re you?” Bebe wondered, sliding into the seat across from me with her iced tea.
“Pretty good today so far,” I said.
“Today so far? Oh, hey, by the way, I made Gigi get rid of the green fairy.”
The absinthe. Ugh. I’m glad she’d coded it; the word itself made me want to puke again. “Good. That was…”
“Unmentionable?” Bebe offered.
“Good word for it, yeah.” I managed a weak grin.
“She’s buying you and Stan a couple weeks’ worth of drinks at Alley Cat, PS. That and she offered to give Stan an extra-long set if he ever wants to play there more.” Well, that’d more than make up for it, that was sure. “So, anyway, what’s today so far mean?” she prompted. I held up the letter from Denver. “What’s that?”
“Oh my God! Did you get in?”
“Only one way to find out.” I held my breath as I prepared to tear open the off-white envelope. My entire future was riding on whatever was printed on the simple slip of paper I’d be extracting from inside. Too nervous to keep going, I set down the envelope to take a few sips of froth-laden espresso. When I picked it back up again, I ripped right into it, and read over the words, which all seemed to run together for a moment. Entire future.
My eyes misted up when I read it. I had to set the letter down in order to process; I’d read the rest later. I’d seen all I needed to see. “Well?” Bebe asked, looking worried.
When my heart decided to start beating again, when my voice box unearthed itself from the frightened pit my throat had become, my mouth remembered how to smile properly, and I managed to get out, “Don’t tell Stan yet. I have to tell him.”
“Sure thing. What’s the verdict?”
Pulse rushing almost too fast, I was able to finally say, “I get to move to Denver.”
Talk about a fucking weight off my shoulders.
For once in the past couple of years, I finally felt like I was heading in the exact direction I needed to be going. A solid after was attainable. I could not remember the last time I felt so happy about a single sheet of white paper.
“That’s awesome, Kyle, I’m so glad for you,” said Bebe, leaning across the table to give my arm a light squeeze. Her eyes were smiling and bright when she asked in more of a whisper, “Are you still gonna give him the, uh… you know?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Oh, I was still planning on that,” I told her. I still couldn’t fucking believe I’d bought that ring. “Holy shit, this just makes it even better.”
“Congratulations,” Bebe told me. Her voice was honest and her expression sweet and welcoming. She’d only been planning her own wedding for the past several years; it was a subject she enjoyed discussing. That was something nice about Bebe as a friend: she constantly had ways of being happy for everyone.
God, the rest of that day was such a breather. One of those phrases that seemed to follow everyone I knew, throughout college, was, someday things will just fall into place. And then all of college (and most of one’s twenties, I’ve heard…) is spent wondering just when the hell that’s going to be. For me, it started with getting that acceptance letter. From pretty much that second on, Denver became my new obsession. I had a definite new point. An after and the inklings of a new before. Sometimes it did still feel right to sort things like that, especially in the sense of where I was going to live.
Keeping my spirits up, I spent the bulk of my afternoon searching out potential apartments in Denver, eager for the point at which I’d be doing the same thing in Stan’s company. I found myself huddling over that computer screen—once, of course, I’d written back, as stipulated, an emailed confirmation that, hell yes, I was going to accept that internship… in more and better words, of course—just browsing apartments, looking at floor plans, taking virtual tours of the city, you name it. I was so fucking excited.
But I didn’t say a word.
I kept Denver a secret until our anniversary.
The morning of February 20th, Stan awoke early as usual, but allowed me to sleep in. My eyes opened to a room pale with the light of a snow-blown sunrise, to a tight, locked embrace, and to Stan’s calm breathing and spirited kiss, sincere and riveting. We exchanged low-voiced good-mornings, and when I nestled into the mattress and expressed a want to be able to stay there all day if I could, Stan smiled and said, “We could skip class.”
Tempting. Very tempting. “Should we?” I wondered, nudging his ankle with my freezing toes under the sheets.
“Spontaneous me says yes.” I sidled up even closer to him. Classes were the very last thing on my mind. After all, I’d gotten the Denver internship; there was nothing else to worry about. Just how to spend the day. Warm and relaxed, that’s all I wanted. I was over being stressed, over letting other thoughts scramble up my head, over wondering if there was any potential of feeling stagnant in my relationship with Stan.
We’d made it five years strong. Along the way, we’d both had our share of feeling lost, but the key was to really take a good look at where we both were coming from, to look back and remember where we’d started and what a great thing we’d managed to find in each other.
That much was music. Collaboration. That was art.
I had once had a fear that there was nothing particularly creative and interesting about me. I was on the steady path of being proven delightfully wrong.
“Wow, are we really going to do that?” Stan wondered.
“Up to you, honey.”
“Oh, you’re good.” He pressed in close and kissed me again, as I rested my arms around him and settled in for a long morning.
As we lay there together, our soundtrack the pattering of the wet snow hitting and clinging to the large square window off to the side of the room, we hardly spoke, but there was still no silence. When we did cave to conversation, it was focused on how we should spend the day, once we finally decided to wake up and get dressed, which were only a part of the plan since we knew we’d have to eat eventually.
The house was empty but for us. Kenny had already stated that his afternoon and evening was booked with extra cramming for tests (completed, of course, by staying in with his girlfriend), and Clyde’s plan wasn’t much different.
Stan cooked us a full breakfast of eggs and turkey bacon, orating a fake lesson the entire time to ‘make up for the class we were missing.’ “Dude, classes would be so much more interesting if they fed us,” I had to remark.
“The stoners would love it,” Stan agreed.
“We just figured out how to up retention rates at schools!” I exclaimed, then continued over Stan’s smart laughter, “Honest to God, we should market this shit!”
“Thus concludes our morning lecture,” Stan announced in a sonorous, false tone, “on correlation between what is learned within class time and without.”
“Teaching with flair:” I added, “how to improve students’ performance based on meals served during class time. A senior dissertation by Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski.”
“Yeah, mom, so that’s how me and Kyle decided to switch majors at the very last second and instead write our senior thesis on how to make everyone pass school,” Stan laughed into another fake conversation. “You’re welcome.”
“And we never worried about the future ever again because the program that the dissertation spawned was flawless and made a bunch of money and we got married and bought a mansion, the end,” I finished. And blushed immediately because I’d accidentally said it.
Prior to coming downstairs, when Stan had claimed the bathroom for part of the only few minutes since waking we’d so far spent alone, I had tucked my life-altering gift into my sweatshirt pocket. Just in case. It was a deep enough pocket that I was sure Stan wouldn’t notice, but I was giving myself away in other ways.
Stan was still laughing when he served up breakfast, but leaned over the counter to where I was sitting, blue eyes brighter than ever. “Would we?” he asked almost teasingly.
“Stan, we’re never going to pass that, that’s stupid,” I passed off.
“The other thing, the realistic thing.”
“Mansion? Not realistic.”
Stan shut me up with a kiss, which started off quick and jarring, but evenly slowed, like a rapid wave succumbing to a calmer tide. My heart raced, and I slid my right hand into my pocket, felt it close around the little hinged black box. So close. Almost but not quite.
Luckily enough, Stan did not keep the subject going, most likely because we were both too hungry to be coherent about it.
As the day rolled on, we eventually got tired of loafing around in the house, and threw on presentable clothes under thick winter layers. Venturing out into the snow that day felt like reliving childhood. It hadn’t snowed this hard yet in Fort Collins, not to the full extent of a good mountain blizzard. A couple of afternoon classes, we learned, had been postponed or called off, but neither of us grabbed a single book or a single bag. We had no intention of attempting classes, and neither, it seemed, did several others.
Our hands, wrapped, both sets, in faux-leather gloves, clasped as we made our way slowly across campus, the silver-white ground around us being constantly bludgeoned with large snowflakes and hints of hail. The hail wasn’t enough to be bothersome, though we did keep to the sanded-down paths. The usual quick walk into downtown felt like an all-day excursion, and we melted first inside the Alley Cat—where Georgeanne made good on her promise Bebe had mentioned: passed along to Stan the offer to play a long set whenever he was ready, and waived our charge, adding in an apology I could tell was honest—and then later on at one of the few restaurants that had remained open during the storm.
It was a fairly nice place, with cool lighting that complimented our winter surroundings. There was a place set up by the door to hang coats and scarves, to make cleanup minimal for the staff, I was sure, and after leaving my own thick wool jacket at the door, I secretively checked the inner pocket of the casual coat I’d worn underneath. I’d been carrying that box around all day. Still not the right time, though.
Stan insisted on paying, with the excuse that splitting the bill on our anniversary would be kind of ridiculous. “Can we, like, actually just get out of the habit of splitting the bill?” he asked me. “We should trade off more. Or, something.”
“Works for me,” I told him. It wasn’t like we’d had any kind of rule about it before, but voicing a want to make just one more thing more of a shared responsibility felt nice.
The walk back to campus was just as leisurely as the walk out, though this time I knew that once we returned to the apartment… that’d be it. The next logical step I’d planned on unveiling before. I was ready. We were ready.
Once back inside, we still had the place to ourselves. Stan made tea to keep us warm, and was the first one to bring up the topic of gifts. He sat me down on the couch, kissed my cheek, and said, “Want to hear a story?”
I laughed. “Sure,” I said, “what about?”
“Two boys and a guitar.”
“I like where this is going.”
Stan gave me a small kiss, backed up to take something out of his guitar gig bag, then sat back down beside me, placing the little parcel in my hands. Small, square, wrapped in the black cloth he kept in the gig bag to polish his guitar every now and then. My fingertips tingled as I held the little, simple item; I had a feeling what I’d unwrap was hardly simple at all.
“What… Stan, is this what I think it is?” I wondered.
“I told you I’d write you a song,” he said, his voice hinting shyness, but his eyes boasting confidence.
“So, last week, Kyle,” Stan added to preface the gift, “last Thursday… Shelly really was passing through town, and offered to take me to this recording studio, and—”
“No—way.” My eyes widened and my heart skipped.
“Sorry it had to be during us kinda feeling weird, but I wasn’t about to pass up that trip,” Stan told me. “Um. Happy five years, Kyle.”
“Can I open it?”
I was already grinning broadly. He nodded, and I carefully unfolded the black cloth, revealing a professionally-sealed jewel case. A yelp came out of my throat, and I laughed at myself for emitting such a weird noise, but I was still so focused on that CD. He’d done it. This was the thing he’d been hiding from me.
Stan hadn’t just written a song, he’d recorded an EP. The cover of the album was very simple, and all hand-done, the five recorded tracks all written out in Stan’s writing. “Oh, my God,” I said before I had any control over my voice again.
“Sorry I kind of kept this secret,” Stan said. “I kept thinking I might want to tell you about it, then told myself I’d just wait for this, since I could really do it right, and, like, before we went to open mics again and stuff, so…”
“I love it,” I told him, and caught his eyes. Stan smiled, and I grabbed his sleeve to draw him in for a light kiss. There were hardly words to describe my excitement. He’d really done it; he’d gone for it. I knew there was something coming of his music. Five years ago, I never would have guessed that he’d actually record; I was so proud of him, and I could tell from his expression that he was proud of his work, as well. “Can I listen to it?” I wondered, sitting back. I took a look at the hand-written track list again, just floored by the time and effort Stan must have put into everything.
All five were original compositions. He’d written out each track with very precise strokes of a black paint marker, and wrote under the original pieces in calligraphy pen the year and month he’d written the lyrics. One of them was from sophomore year, two others from the year after, and the last one from just a few months prior; January. I already knew they were wonderful, and I already started feeling a little hot in the face about the gift I still had to give to him.
The first track was completely instrumental, which he noted in absence of any lyric notes. The title: Before and After.
The second track, the first of Stan’s lyrical works, was entitled Seasons; the second, Stay. The third, I had a feeling, was the one I’d already heard a segment of, which he’d chosen to title High and Dry. The very last one was entitled Hands. I started to wonder if he’d ask if I had a favorite, or if there were any he should play in a set again. I just could not believe that he’d not only written out so much music, or even that he’d had it recorded, but that he was giving it to me.
Stan’s very last held secret—he was giving that to me.
“Actually,” Stan said, to answer my last question, “can I play one live first?”
I was beaming, I knew it. Stan brushed a hand against my cheek, and left the sofa to claim his guitar from the other side of the room. As the snow began to slow its course outside the window, Stan re-joined me, flushing slightly red as he set the black walnut guitar in his lap. My breath caught again. I hadn’t heard an original song of his yet, I realized. Not a complete one.
Sometimes, I had worried that I’d pressured him too much to keep playing, but seeing him so pleased and so happy himself, I knew that my encouragement had been just enough. That this was his outlet, and like any talent, he’d only ever needed the right amount of support in order to keep going. And now he’d recorded an EP.
He positioned his long, nimble fingers over the frets with practiced precision, then slowly strummed an F chord, then a modular third and modular fifth over that before returning to the F. Then, his fingers began to dance over the strings, and he plucked out a continuous string of chord progressions, note by note until the sound coming from that dark, polished walnut guitar seemed to emulate an entire string orchestra. It was the kind of pattering of notes that made me instantly think of the beating down of a light rain or snow. And then, after a few of these haunting scales, Stan started to sing:
Life and light and love and loss
Ditches dug and bridges crossed
Frozen ponds and skies of white and blue
Choruses of unknown voices
Town so full of wild choices
Spun and sung me round and round with you
Never knew the road ahead;
Oh, we walked that simple line
The snow came through—but still I knew
I had your hand in mine
I was hooked. The trilling scales took over again for a few beats, and then Stan continued with another verse and chorus. Every word of every line was a memory.
Years flew on, and ground was paved
Tears were cried and plans were made
Night fell and it held me down a while
Whispered words that can’t be spoken
Fixing what we knew was broken
When the sun came up, I saw you smile
Took the path that led us home
We forged that precious line
The snow beat down upon that town
Where I held your hand in mine
The key changed, and Stan strummed out a few simple chords, abandoning the earlier trills in favor of making his voice the more prominent instrument for the bridge:
For those who left and those who stayed
Those streets we walked and games we played
And everything so innocent it came in such a blur
Oh we’ll sing so we remember what we were
Back in came the snow-like undercurrent, which Stan played a little softer than before, in anticipation of the final verse of the song.
Fixed and forged and true and real
Time to love and time to heal
Waking up beside you all these years
Left that town but kept the memories
Hold you close as you protect me
Kiss your eyes, love, kiss away my fears
Take me down the road ahead;
Along that well-known line
That snow stings cold—well, I’m gettin’ old
But I still got your hand in mine
Yeah, still got your hand in mine
For a few seconds, I couldn’t even react. I had no idea if what I would do or say would be too much or not enough. But when he smiled at the end, when he set down the guitar, still warm with the reverberations of the song, when he turned his head to look at me again, I sprang for the first action that came to mind.
I set down the jewel case on the coffee table, then threw my arms around him, my head tucked into the crook of his shoulder, my hands both grasping tightly to the material of his overshirt. His breath quickened, and after a second, his arms were around me as well. “I love you,” I whispered. “Stan, I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he told me. When I fell speechless again, he began stroking back my hair, as he’d found comfort in doing for so many years.
“I love the song, too,” I managed to breathe out. “Stan, you actually recorded a so—an album.” I sat back a little, but stayed pressed against him. “I… that’s amazing…”
“You liked it?”
“I loved it!” I said again, encouragingly. “Stan, it’s gorgeous, and it—you really… I love hearing you sing, and you, I couldn’t write lyrics or anything for the life of me, Stan, you’ve… you should keep… I can’t, I’m sorry, I just, it’s wonderful. Thank you.”
He grinned winningly, and tucked his head in to kiss me. “Thank you,” he said in return. “I’m really glad you like it.”
“Mmhmm!” I nodded vigorously.
“Hey, um… so, after you listen to the other ones, too,” said Stan, taking hold of my hands, “maybe we can talk a little about, like… actually having these with us at sets and stuff…”
“You’d sell copies?” I wondered. “That’d be incredible! You should! People’re always asking if you have a demo or anything…”
“Yeah, I mean… I still don’t want it to be my full-time thing, but I just figure why not, you know?” he said, grinning a little. “I think I’d leave that song off, though, and maybe change the title. This is your title.”
“Yeah?” I hadn’t looked at the title of the EP yet, I was so caught up in how incredible it was to have Stan’s music recorded on a disc. “Oh… I like this title…”
Echoing the very first track of the album, the EP itself had been titled Suitcases of the Before and After.
“It’s not too lame?” Stan wondered.
“Stan, I’ve totally adopted your idea of how we pack things up and bring them with us like that, too,” I told him. “It’s perfect, it’s how you think. It’s how you’ve gotten me to think.”
“So that,” he said, kissing me briefly, “is why it’s gonna be just your title. I’ll just leave the real thing untitled or self-titled or something. Either way, I wanna keep getting your input.”
I kissed him again, and we sat against each other for another few quiet, but hardly silent minutes. I told him again how unabashedly proud of him I was for taking the step to record, and we talked about the possible dates we could get him back into playing open mics around town in the few months we had left in Fort Collins.
After a little while, we rose to refresh our tea. At the L-counter between the two sections of the first floor, Stan gently slid his arms around my waist from behind, and tucked his head in to kiss my neck. And kiss it again. “Hey, Kyle…?” he asked on a muted tone.
“I kinda have something else I’ve been keeping secret.”
“So’ve you, though, right?” he guessed. I turned in his arms so that I could look him in the eyes.
“Had a secret?” I guessed.
“I can kinda tell.”
I pressed closer, holding him around the waist as well, then kissed his jaw and admitted, “There’s something, yeah.”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, starting up a slight sway. Our tea cooled, abandoned, on the counter. It was going to stay there until the following morning.
“Plus,” I continued, “I still have something to give you, too.”
“It’s our fifth anniversary, Stan, of course I do,” I grinned. “But you first,” I prompted. “What’s the rest of your secret?”
He let out a little hum, and I watched his eyes focus on something distant before they met mine again. His heartbeat slowed. “Not really secret. Kinda just that…” He hung his head, only to rest it against mine. The times when Stan emulated such vulnerability were not uncommon, but I knew that they did not approach for no reason. He still had the fear of something going wrong. “Kyle, I know I’ve been kind of a hypocrite about it, I know I’ve said both things and I know it’s probably really annoying, but I don’t want you to move away again.”
He shook his head, then stood back a bit to really focus his eyes on me. “I really don’t want you to have to go,” he told me. “Not for a whole year. Not even for four months again. So if there’s anything we can do, I mean, or there’s something we could talk about, to…”
I smiled, pressed a kiss to his lips to relieve his worry, and stood back, ready to share my own secret. It matched his, after all. We might as well end this day on the best of notes—what better way? I nudged his neck a bit, taking in that scent of his I’d drowned in for the last five years. I pressed my hands to his chest, so that I could feel him breathe.
Then, with resolve, I stood back, and said, “You ready?”
“Hmm? For what, your—?” I nodded. “Yeah, sure.” His smile had not seemed to leave, all evening. All day.
“Okay,” I said, letting out a breath, “so this is, um… I haven’t had this thing on my mind specifically, but it’s the idea that I’ve been trying to work on, like… I don’t know, representing.” Laughing a bit, I added, “I got a little help, but… I hope you like it.”
“I’m sure I wi—” Stan choked on the rest of his word when I withdrew the gift from my dress coat’s inner pocket. His lips parted slightly, and then his mouth gaped further open as his eyes darted along to follow the path of my hand, and particularly the little box I held in it. “Kyle…?”
I hadn’t planned this exact moment. Hadn’t planned what to say, or how I could go about saying it. All I knew was that I wanted him to have that ring. I hadn’t thought about labels—God, it had taken us a while to even get used to the word boyfriend; I wasn’t sure if I was ready to say fiancé , but I was sure he’d be all right with that. I didn’t want us to rush into a marriage, either. I wanted us to get settled a little, but the point was, we’d be getting settled together. We’d be together. And as long as being right there with him was part of the plan, I didn’t care about any of the hows or whys.
I smiled, and said, to summarize everything going on in my mind, “Happy anniversary, Stan.”
“Oh, my God.” His reaction was an echo of my own, from having seen the EP. I offered the box up to him, and, still in a state of shock, Stan took hold of it, his eyes asking if he could open the lid. I gave him a light nod. My eyes itched again, and his looked close to misty as well. “Is this, honest to God…?” he asked me.
The snow picked up on a steady breeze outside, and it drummed against the window steadily, its pace like a calming metronome. It helped keep my own nerves down a little as I nodded. Poised and precarious, my boyfriend lifted back the lid of the box. There was something very innocent about the way he stared at it. At the lining, at the ring secured inside.
When Stan and I had started dating, when everything was still very, very new, we had so many moments of reflecting back and wondering if either of us could ever have called that we’d make it that far in our friendship. If either of us could have ever guessed we’d end up dating. I hadn’t seen that look in his eyes in quite a while, though it seemed to happen at least once a year, usually around our anniversary, when we’d have time to wonder again how we’d made it to where we found ourselves now.
The way we’d first defined what we had was, essentially, a pact to not lose one another. That established, of course it was hard when either of us went away for too long. That was time-tested, now. We functioned better when I had him to come back to; when he had me. It seemed simple, but simple was all that we really should have trusted. Kenny was right. I had no place inventing problems that weren’t there. I had Stan, Stan wanted to stay with me, and that was all I really needed. That was all I’d been building upon. And he’d just put all of that, all my mental over-analyzation and wanderings aside, into the physical form of that EP.
And I’d bought him a ring. “D’you like it?” I asked him, a little tepidly, stepping lightly. All he could do was nod. As every one of my vital organs rearranged positions inside me and then raced back to where they were supposed to be, I gathered up the nerve, and finally asked, “D’you wanna get married?”
“Holy shit.” Those were the first words Stan managed to crack out, half-voiced, his awe gliding over an otherwise broken tone.
“That’s an interesting answer,” I managed to laugh. A smile tugged at his lips as well, and he moistened them quickly by biting them in. His eyes caught the smile, though, and were still plastered to the gift. To release some of his tension, apparent especially in his shoulders, I placed my hands on his upper arms, and stroked them lightly, up and down, creating calming, easy movements.
“Kyle, this is—I mean, yeah. Yes.” He laughed a little, again. It was so, so comforting that we were so open, and that the air was so lighthearted that we could both be free to laugh.
That was part one down: I’d asked, he’d said yes. Oh, God, he’d said yes. I was so worked up and excited by that, I felt like I wouldn’t sleep for a week. I managed to keep myself contained, though. “All right. I… that’s awesome,” I said, finding it hard to form words.
“Can I tell you something?” Stan was just about glowing.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“I—Kyle, I’ve been kinda wondering if we could start talking about this,” he confessed, “and just, you know, talk it out, since I didn’t know if either of us would be able to just ask, and just—this is fucking incredible.”
I grinned. “Surprise,” I said. “You really do have a spontaneous boyfriend.”
“I guess!” Stan took his eyes off of the ring for a moment, and leaned in to kiss me. His right hand clung to the box, while his left he placed gingerly against the hinge of my jaw, where his fingertips pressed a light, welcoming touch.
“Thank you,” he said on a low tone, when he stood back.
“Yeah…” was all that managed to come out of me.
Stan’s eyes wandered back to the box. “When?” he wondered, running his thumb over the band.
“When’d I get it, or…?” Stan shook his head. I grinned, catching what he meant. “When should we? Honestly, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wait. Just a little bit. You know, get settled and everything…”
“Yeah, yeah, no, that makes sense, that definitely makes sense,” said Stan, blue eyes in perfect focus.
“But,” I added, running my left hand over his hip, “I did find a few great starter places in Denver online. Maybe we could go hunt them down before the internships start.”
“Yeah, we—Denver?” I nodded, and let my grip tighten and my grin broaden as Stan’s face lit right up. “You got the one in Denver?!”
“I got the one in Denver,” I confirmed.
Stan hauled me in, box still in one hand, and held me in a tight, powerful embrace. He surrounded me. With his arms around me and his breath paced with mine, with my head filled with prospects of our future and my senses alive with all he projected and all he provided, I was surrounded, and safe. And just as I’d felt before, it was all music. It was just the stuff of music.
I thought back on the last little fight we’d had, when I’d snapped at Stan, wondering what his inspiration was. It was moments. The little things he chose to pack and take with him. And this, both of us knew, was going to be one of them.
There was a rustle and a rush as he began to pet back my hair, as each breath he took seemed more alive than the last. “We’re moving to Denver?” He asked it for clarity, and I drew back in order to nod. “This is ridiculous,” he laughed. “And amazing. It’s so—holy shit…”
“Just so you know,” I said, “I was gonna give this to you anyway, even if I had to take the Asheville one. Cuz, like… if I had to leave, I wanted to—you know. Know you had that. I just… I always want to come home to you.” I paused a second, then cupped my hands over my face to hide how fucking red I must have gone after that, and groaned, “Oh, God, please tell me that was not as lame-sounding as I’m thinking it was. I hate when I get all weird and lame and—”
“Well, I love it when you’re lame,” Stan interrupted, grabbing me around the waist to get me to stop running my mouth like crazy. “I mean, dude, don’t even think of that as lame.”
“Banal, then,” I said. “Super-cliché.”
“I just made you an EP, Kyle,” Stan laughed. “I mean, like, what the fuck even is that? If I can go Medieval bard on your ass, you are not being cliché.”
I burst right out laughing, mostly at the mental image I conjured up of Stan actually penning bad Medieval poetry with a lute, then settled in, stepping closer so that I could nuzzle and rest my head in the crook of his shoulder. My olfactory sense went crazy; his scent was a mix of something crisp, clean and new, something lofty and wonderful, like the best of spring and autumn, summer and winter all in one. I pressed my hands flat against his chest, and drummed my fingers a little once I felt his heartbeat. Then, slowly, I worked my hands up onto his shoulders, only to drape my arms around and clasp my hands together, and drew my head back to get a good look at him.
“I love you,” I told him, quietly, almost secretly, as if we were still teenagers with something to hide.
“Even if I write lame songs?”
“Especially if you write lame songs.”
Stan smiled warmly, and leaned in for a kiss. My entire body felt like it was waking up, with that sensation. When he drew his head back, I simply admired him for a moment, then swept my hands across his shoulders and down his arms until I took hold of his nimble wrists. “You’re still holding the box,” I noticed.
He glanced down. “Oh!” he realized. “Yeah, I am. Uh…”
“Hey, sorry in advance if it doesn’t fit,” I said quickly. “I hope it does.”
“Mmhmm…” Stan half-said, as he lifted the little hinged lid of the box again. With a delicate, careful precision, he then extracted the ring from the lining, and held it out on its own to study. I was proud of it, and felt myself flush pretty hot once I saw the little thing out in the light again. Yes. That had been the right choice. That simple but stunning link of white and solid gold, different as they could be but absolutely wonderful together.
“Here,” I offered, when Stan froze again.
I could almost watch myself, in every action I then took. Even though the wedding itself would probably be a few years away yet, this moment felt like something even more than the real deal. I placed my hands over his until he lightly relinquished the ring, which I could barely even feel against my own skin before I’d slid it deftly onto his left ring finger.
His smile appeared slowly, and he ran his fingers over the ring, simple in design but just right for the two of us; it had been an easy choice at the shop, since it didn’t draw too much attention to itself, though it was still clear in its symbolism. No embellishments, just a sleek band, linked at the center, where the two metals met to create something whole. And he gave me a kind, doting look, as he asked me, very softly, almost elegantly, “You ready?”
To which I nodded, told him, “Yeah,” and swerved up against him.
A pink tint to his cheeks, a slight dampness to his ocean blue eyes, Stan, in that moment, radiated innocence. Every once in a while, I’d still see in him a little boy who wanted nothing more than to do the right thing. Stan would step around conflict, and sometimes hurt himself in the process of trying so hard not to hurt others, so I knew that a request like this was a hard one for him to make, but we were approaching an enormous stepping stone of our lives.
No more summers in South Park. No more month-long holiday breaks, or counting on mother-made beds and home-cooked meals. Mindless afternoons in friends’ basements would soon turn into desperate races to various interviews, and eventual punching of timecards or signing in from a half-hour lunch. Stress over grades would morph into stress over bills, rooms would be cleared out to find any possible source of extra money and a less cluttered closet, and years were sure to feel shorter than they ever had.
But no matter how strained things got, no matter what kind of stressful situations I was sure I’d find myself in, one thing would stay constant. I’d come to the conclusion back in high school that I wanted to keep Stan close and protect him for the rest of my life, and that thought hadn’t changed once in the five years we’d been together as a couple.
Reaching my hands up, I cradled Stan’s well-cut face in my palms, the arches of my hands fitting perfectly along his nearly square jaw, my fingertips pressing just lightly enough into his warm skin to give me a time-tested shock and thrill.
I would often find myself reflecting on the past, with Stan, whether he joined me in recalling childhood or whether it was something I’d muse about on my own. Sometimes, lying beside him at night, or taking his hand as we took the long way around campus to an unknown destination, I’d think back on the many years I’d known him. I’d remember his bright, eager eyes and how they’d dart around the room in preschool, taking in absolutely everything about the world around him. Or I would recall in detail the many ridiculous situations we two had found ourselves in during elementary school, or the look on Stan’s tired face when I would wake him up at night, when we were nine years old, and ramble out my issues or insecurities, regardless of whether he said he wanted to hear them. I could still perfectly see his every blushing, nervous movement, every fidget, every tick of his head as he thought about his words, on the day, when he was seventeen, that we’d been doing homework on his bedroom floor and he’d come out to me… and I could still remember his look of awe and adoration the morning we’d decided once and for all that we were a pair, no questions asked.
But that night, only a couple months away from the graduation ceremony that would send us spiraling out into the world as hopeful young professionals, I let my recollections of the past slip away and remain in the lyrics of Stan’s song, and focused instead on the future. On who we’d become. On the way we’d continue to help each other grow. I brushed my right hand back through his hair, rubbing my thumb through the unruly tufts just above his ear, and knew that someday I’d be watching that jet black hair of his go grey. And I knew I would love it. I’d be there through everything. And I didn’t know what would come between now and then, how many worries, how many fights, how many tests of each of our patience… but it would be worth it. It had always been worth it.
And it always will be.
The guitar case held in it a couple articles of clothing I couldn’t live without, a few hoarder-esque keepsakes from senior year, and most importantly, two gifts from Stan. I finally set the freshman-year English notebook in there on top of my staple hunter green scarf, and wrapped up delicately as it had been the day I’d received it was Stan’s EP in its self-designed jewel case.
I’d long since transferred the music onto my computer, iPod and phone, but there was no way to copy the handwritten sentiment of the leaflet he’d designed. Delicately, I took the EP out, and sat with it propped up in my hands. That CD felt like the final piece of the puzzle to me. Now, whenever I started to doubt myself, I could just simply look at it, or give it a listen, or even just try to hum a bar to get a song or two in my head.
I had come a long way. Both of us had. But we’d discovered together that sometimes the best things in life are right in plain sight. Sometimes you have to let go; others, you have to hold on. You can never completely pack something away and call it gone. I couldn’t pack up everything without taking a little of South Park with me; I didn’t want to. Not anymore. I loved the town that had helped shape who I was; the people who lived there had all had a hand in my growing up. I’d spent so much time trying to avoid projecting myself as being from this town, but you know, maybe it was just better to own it. Sure, I’d been away for four years, but in the end, this was where my life started. Suddenly, a few days hardly seemed like enough.
Briefcases: Blue and Grey
Hearing my mother’s voice calling up from the bottom of the stairs shocked me out of my current thoughts, and I whacked the back of my head against the post of my bed a bit. “Ow,” I muttered, rubbing the spot I’d hit as an automatic response to the jolt. Taking a look around my room, I noticed my progress, which was impressive considering how lost in thought I’d been the entire time. Things were falling into place; I felt a lot more prepared for the move now than I had that morning. Reminiscing had always been a good thing for me.
The key was to remember and honor my roots, not to lose anything vital, and know that freedom didn’t necessarily mean isolation. I was here in the between, surrounded by before, and… well, maybe after didn’t exist. After didn’t have to be a set point anymore. Remember what’s been, live for now, and welcome the future; that’s all. I glanced down at the CD I was still clenching, opened the jewel case, and read Stan’s hand-scrawled note again. Just as I was beginning to reflect again, I heard my mother repeat my name, louder this time.
I closed the jewel case. “Yeah?” I called down. I was almost surprised I was able to find my voice again so easily after a whole day of being clammed up in my room, doing nothing but humming occasionally, or muttering something here and there.
“It’s six o’clock, bubbe, aren’t you heading out soon?”
“SIX?!” I yelped. I whipped my head around to stare at my clock. Six indeed. A couple flashing seconds later and it was 6:01. “Aaah!” I scrambled to my feet, set Stan’s CD down on my bed, and hollered downstairs, “Thank you!”
My mother said something in response, but I didn’t listen. I tore down the hall to the bathroom and immediately started up the shower. My face flushed as I hurried, making sure there was a clean towel around and once again pausing in front of the mirror to wonder what the hell to do with my hair. “Fuck it… fuck it, fuck it, fuck it!” I said to myself, driving my hands through my hair just before tossing off my clothes and climbing into the shower. I let the hot water beat down on me and gave into a few seconds of indulgence under the steady stream before I picked up the pace again.
I went for the shampoo that would make straightening my hair easier; as I lathered it through, I started humming Stan’s song again, then got laughing at myself, thinking about everything that had led up to the first time I’d ever heard him play it. Oddly enough, I thought again about the time Stan had called me fearless. My biggest fear had always been, I realized, moving on without having accomplished anything. The fear of settling. The fear that I already had.
Settle? No, I hadn’t settled for anything. I had accomplished a lot, and I’d do more once we moved to Denver. After all, I’d graduated cum laude and still had time to go out and enjoy myself. I’d landed a coveted internship; that wasn’t nothing. I’d studied abroad and knew some Hungarian… which was a one-up on my brother (Australia and England, sure, but he was still speaking just English). Stan had found new directions for himself through music, and I realized… so had I. Even if he was the talent and I was the producer in that case, it still made sense. It was something we’d kind of pioneered together.
No fucking way I ever would’ve been able to take an internship out of state. Because I’d’ve inevitably realized that.
No regrets. (Okay, except maybe the absinthe. But that wasn’t all my fault.) Maybe I was in a between phase, but the between is where the best opportunities come in. The between is the discovery before the new beginning.
I totally should have double-majored in philosophy.
Though, then, that thought got me rolling my eyes at myself as I got out of the shower and returned to my room. Stan’s “stop thinking” mantra would probably have stopped working, and I’d be all shit out of luck, turned into an introvert with nothing but mental jumbles ever going on. Not that I didn’t have a million things in my head all the time anyway (as the cleaning and packing that day seemed to have proven). I just didn’t need more filling me up than I needed.
I realized I must have been totally lost the second I got to my closet.
“Oh, my God!” I yelled at myself, more out of shock than anything. “Did I seriously just pack all my clothes?!” That was what I got for running on slight autopilot, though. When I get distracted or at least otherwise occupied, I have that incredible talent of continuing to multitask… only minus any actual concentration.
I could laugh about this later, I was sure, but for now I was getting frantic, and my digital clock was burning the time 6:15 into the room, and I hadn’t even completely toweled off yet. With a burst of newfound energy, I rifled through the suitcase closest to my closet and, much to my relief, discovered enough of my good clothes to come up with something suitable to wear. (Another glance had me worriedly looking into my closet to make sure I hadn’t absentmindedly packed my suit for Clyde and Bebe’s wedding; I hadn’t.)
After laying clothes out for myself on my bed, the next objective was not leaving with soaking wet hair, so I pulled on my boxers and khakis and returned to the bathroom. “Shit,” I muttered upon remembering that not only did I need to wait for my straightener to heat up, I eventually had to pack that up as well; it wasn’t just my room. Phase two was going to be interesting… whittling down both my possessions and Stan’s, to figure out exactly how much was coming with us to Denver at the end of the week.
Experience had told me not to get distracted around hot objects, though, so I slipped back into the present as I shook the moisture from my curls and took the fully heated straightener to the first challenging thicket. I had this down to a science, though, and found the spray quickly enough so I wouldn’t stand there burning myself in that multitasking nightmare of searching for a misplaced object.
I did grumble over not wearing a watch, though, even though I knew that 6:45 was as lenient a time as they come. It was more out of want for spending the night with my boyfriend than anything, to be honest. The thought practically choked me up, in a cathartic way. Lifting my eyes a bit, I took a glance at my progress in the mirror, and was impressed by my own smile. Stan and I hadn’t even been alone in the same room for… God, four nights, really? Damn, I had no reason to be nervous about this move. Yes, we’d hit our trying times, but in the long run, we just plain enjoyed each other’s company so much. There was still so much more to be discovered. We had held each other up and helped each other along so far; no matter the trials ahead, we’d be able to move forward together.
Out of the house and hitting the pavement, I walked and fought the urge to jog down the street to Stan’s house, that hardly-modified two-storey green building I knew inside and out from years and years of frequenting almost every square foot of it. My feet crunched over dirt in the driveway, which his father seemed to have recently filled with new blacktop, and a few seconds later, I was catching my breath on the top step. I drew in a breath, knocked, and checked my timing on my phone.
I held my phone up just as the time was switching from 6:44 to 6:45, which was the very instant Stan opened the door. He glanced first at me, then at the time on my phone, at which point he gave me a put-on, judgmental glare. “Ha,” I declared.
“Smartass,” Stan responded, as he ushered me inside.
A smile spread across my face before I knew it, and I quickly tucked my phone away into my pocket so that I could latch my arms around Stan’s waist and haul him in close. I tucked my head into the crook of his shoulder the second his arms were around me as well, and inhaled him. His clean, natural scent was inundated with lemon and spices from whatever he’d been creating for dinner, plus a whiff of something smooth and delightful—a new cologne or aftershave, perhaps. Whatever it was, every bit of it was him.
“Hey,” he greeted me more formally. Stan has a different tone of voice for greetings like that… softer, smoother, intoxicating, inviting.
“Hi,” I said in return, pulling free just a little bit, so that I could keep my head bowed, and my forehead resting against his chin. Stan allowed us to hold that position for a few seconds, then let out a hum and tilted his head at an angle so he could kiss my cheek. “How’s your day been?” I asked him. I couldn’t even begin to shift my gaze. He’d been with me all day, in many ways, but now that I’d sorted through it all, opened and closed every mental suitcase of the last four years, I felt relieved to have him face to face again.
“Man, I can’t even say.” Stan laughed, and shifted his arms a little so he’d have a slightly more comfortable hold around my waist. “I feel like I spent all day, like, watching a movie of my life. I just sorted through so much shit, you don’t even know.”
I grinned. “You too, huh?”
Blue pools of eyes widened into oceans as Stan expressed the obvious: “Oh, God, did we just have the same day?”
Stan just laughed again, then took hold of my hand and started leading me back toward the kitchen. The welcoming aroma of spices I couldn’t define filled the room. Sharon’s finer dinnerware had been taken down, and was stacked up on the counters, waiting to be carted off to the dining table, next to a basket of braided bread, still letting off steam from the oven. Other platters were set further back on the counters, dinner secrets hiding under mismatched cotton towels to keep the heat in.
I was stunned. “Oh, my God,” I breathed. “Did you do all this?”
“Mom did some. I made the challah, though.”
“Stop being so domestic,” I smirked. Stan blushed; I gave him a lighthearted tap-hit on the arm. “You’re putting me to shame.”
“As long as one of us can cook,” he shrugged, “once we move to Denver.”
My breath caught. Jesus, that was actually an established place and time now, wasn’t it? In my mind, I transported us to that apartment we had found on our spring trip to the city we’d soon be calling home. My grip on Stan’s hand tightened, my heart rushed when he leaned in with a comforting kiss above my ear.
Before a discussion about the move, or life, or anything, really, Stan’s mother walked in, so he and I momentarily parted in order for proper hellos to be exchanged.
She caught me in a tight embrace, her arms providing that same warm assurance my own mother’s hugs always carried. It was wonderful being close with Stan’s family. I knew he thought the same of mine. There really is something to be said for being from a small town. It did seem, as my day of clearing both bedroom and mind had detailed, that if ever things got rough while away, there could always be some solace found in something from our hometown.
Four years in Fort Collins. An undetermined future in Denver. But we’d always just be a couple kids from South Park.
“Kyle,” Sharon greeted me, “sweetheart, how are you?”
“I’m well, Sharon, thanks. You?”
“Oh, gosh.” Sharon stood back to dry her eyes. Over the past few months, she had undergone a bit of rediscovery and re-evaluation herself, and had let her hair go salt-and-pepper grey, which gave her an added air of sophistication that both her children and her husband commented on positively. She hardly seemed to have aged a day since I was nine, though. (And, yes, I had hopes that her son would inherit that agelessness; it already seemed like he had.) “Both of my kids are all graduated and off on their own, now,” she said, her tone bittersweet. “Your mother must be feeling a bit of the same, hmm?”
“Yeah, a bit. Thanks for this dinner,” I added. “Everything smells great.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure.” Sharon beamed and hustled us out into the dining room as she set about getting everything with a practiced ease onto the table. “Happy graduation. And engagement! Oh, gosh, I still can’t believe it.”
“It’s—not gonna be for a while,” I reminded her.
Sharon smiled cordially. “Oh, I know. I’m just happy for you. I really am.”
The two of us thanked her simultaneously. After I made sure to get a little tap in against Stan’s arm as recognition of that, we both pulled our weight to help get things set for dinner. Stan’s father joined us and expressed his own post-graduation congratulations to me, and conversation almost instantly turned to the move.
“So, Kyle,” Randy prompted, “what is it you’re doing again?”
“Oh, in Denver?” I clarified. I took a sip of the wine Sharon had insisted on uncorking for the ‘delayed occasion’ (as she called it, being a few days past graduation), and continued. “It’s, like, software and programming. I figured the most lucrative use of my degree right now is computers; I feel like I can kinda start taking strides in that, you know? Keep the cogs running smoothly.”
“Now, I am just so thrilled,” Sharon said, “that you boys both found internships in your field. Denver is a great city.”
“I’m surprised a big city like that has a land trust,” Randy commented. “They are paying you, right, Stan?”
“Yeah, Dad,” my boyfriend said, almost too quickly. They’d had this conversation before. “Room to move up, too.” Stan had known talks like this were inevitable, his father being a geologist and all. He took it lightly. Twenty-two full years of Randy’s quirkiness had given Stan the idea of the right ways to discuss things with him. “Doesn’t happen much with non-profits, which is why I’m psyched for this one. Plus, land trust’s actually huge, there.” Stan nudged me and added, teasingly, “As long as computers keep taking over, us parks and rec guys have to save what’s left of that ‘nature’ thing.”
“Oh—” I started to scold him. I didn’t add an insult, just since I liked keeping things softer around Sharon, who already had her life full enough of that from her husband. I nudged Stan back for the joke, though. “I’ll have you know,” I did add, “once I go for a Master’s, it’s gonna be more of a push toward green engineering.”
“Master’s, huh?” Randy clearly liked the sound of that. He had such interesting ways of showing his approval of my early engagement to Stan. Even if he has strange ways of showing most things (particularly endearment), Randy cares a lot for the well-being of his kids. (To this day, he’s still trying to make things up to Shelly for a tragedy involving the boyfriend she’d had when she was thirteen.)
“Yeah, we’ll see,” I said, trying not to blush. The wine wasn’t helping with that. “If I stay with this company, y’know, see if they pay any for higher education, that kind of thing. It’s nice that UC Denver’s, y’know, kinda right there.”
Sharon was elated. When she was pleased with something, she tended to resemble my own mother even more: flustered and flattered, overly proud but understandably so. She was very sweet, and very supportive; it still felt almost foreign to realize she’d eventually be my mother-in-law. Then again, with Stan and I back and forth at each other’s houses all through our childhood, she was more or less already family. “Well, we’re going to be helping you both out for a while,” she said, “to get you on your feet, so both of you save as best you can.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Stan replied with a soft smile. He placed a hand on my back, warm from the first instant of contact. As he began an almost involuntary stroking of that hand along my spine, I caught myself gazing and daydreaming again for a few lingering seconds. I’d come right back around to how I’d been in our first couple years of dating: just so—well, as Kenny had put it—smitten.
His excitement for whatever it was he’d found and wanted to show me returned as soon as dinner had been cleared away and things had been all set properly downstairs. Randy settled in to watch ESPN in the living room, while Sharon busied herself with minor chores, but despite the open atmosphere and otherwise barren upstairs, Stan still pulled me into his room and shut the door.
Once he had, I grabbed and hugged him from behind. I nuzzled in, against his shoulder, until he turned to pull me close completely.
It was pretty comforting to know that, all in one person, Stan was both a consistent and an inconsistent variable in my life. That he could be predictable—until he completely surprised me. That he could rely on me, but at the same time be perfectly self-sufficient.
Stan’s room was a tornado-ravaged field of piles, boxes, suitcases and linens. He never had been quite as organized as I had, but I understood this particular system, more or less. Suitcases were packed, boxes were overflowing and therefore probably going into storage. At least he’d dusted (or Sharon had). His desk, off to the side of that perfectly square, purple-walled room, was the cleanest part of the room (the linens pile was stacked about a foot high on the foot of his bed), housing only his diploma, his laptop—a Mac of an only slightly earlier model than mine—and, leaning against it, his dark-varnished, walnut acoustic guitar. His chair was out at an angle, suggesting that he’d been practicing earlier, and indeed, a stack of music sat purposefully on the floor beside the desk. Bebe’s selections, no doubt… though the memo pad he carried around to write lyrics and chords down in was visible as well. I didn’t pry; I was content to be curious.
“It’s, uh… still a work in progress,” Stan explained when he saw me glancing around the room. “I kept finding things and getting distracted.”
“It’s okay,” I told him. Idiosyncratically, I picked up a book and re-shelved it on the nightstand by his bed. “I got distracted all day, too, but I kind of turned onto autopilot. I packed up, like, all my clothes without realizing it.”
“Oh, jeez.” Stan grinned a little, and crossed to his bed to heft the linens off and thus clear off the most ideal space to sit. He had been known to sleep under a pile of clothes and such before, so I knew that he was cleaning mostly for my sake. “How much shit’s gonna end up with us in Denver?”
“Don’t worry, I’d sorted before I got on autopilot. I’m only bringing, like, five suitcases.”
“Yeah, me, too. And my desk—we are bringing my desk, right?”
“Yeah, it fits in that space better than mine would.”
“Oh, hey, I found your old duffel bag,” I told him.
“What duffel bag?”
“The one you lent me at the end of sophomore year.”
“Seriously? Sweet, I thought I’d misplaced that. Can I have it back?”
I gave him the coy smirk I knew would appear when he asked me that. “No, I packed stuff in it.”
He laughed. “At least I’ll know where to find it.”
That comment gave me a rush again about the impending move. “Hey, come here,” my boyfriend then said, playfully beckoning me over to where he then squatted down beside the bed. He reached an arm underneath in order to haul something out, but before he could, he said, “I’ve gotta show you this, speaking of old stuff.”
“Not that you’re holding me in suspense or anything,” I teased. I draped my arms over his back and tugged back on his arms. “Come on, what is it?”
“Recognize this?” he asked.
From out underneath the bed, dislodged from stacks of other small boxes and abandoned filing folders, Stan drew a simple briefcase, its outer casing a light blue suede, its handle a black replacement from another old case somewhere down the line. The two metal zippers were locked together, but I didn’t even have to wonder what was in there. I knew. I’d packed it.
“Oh, my God,” I said, running my hands over the smooth, durable lid. “I haven’t seen this in years. How the hell did it get here?” The thought dawned on me, and I sat back, grinding my knuckles into Stan’s back. “You didn’t steal it, do you?”
“No, Kyle, you gave it to me, remember?” he said, sitting back as well.
That’s right… he’d told me he would hold onto it, and then I’d given up a little on the reasons for packing it at all.
Stan was the only one who had ever known about the blue briefcase.
It had been a part of my desperation plan, which began freshman year of high school. Almost everyone I knew, when we were fourteen, had started having the very same thought: I can’t wait till I’m sixteen so I can drive. A driver’s license was, to so many people at South Park High, the ultimate freedom, and having one’s own car was an even better luxury to hope for. The freedom to leave town for a weekend, what a thought! What a rare treasure. To see the world outside of South Park not at the discretion of our parents, but in any way we wanted to see it.
I started planning for it the moment I walked through the doors of that high school for my first class. It was all due to the pressure I felt from my parents, who had, for a very long time, tried hard to mold my future for me. They weren’t exactly seeing what they were doing; I can look back now and know that it was all out of acts of love, and concern for my higher education and career, but at fourteen, I hadn’t really wanted to be thinking about all of that quite yet.
I’d just wanted freedom. It started out as just a thought, and then, as high school pressed on and I stressed over tests and finals knowing, just knowing that it was my parents’ influence pressuring me into doing so, I started to pack.
There would be arguments with my mother that would get so out of hand, all I wanted to do was just up and leave. Rather than actually ever running away, though, I would, after those fights, storm up to my room and root around for a while until I found something that I might need for the day I finally did just leave. The briefcase itself was the first thing I’d found. My dad had given it to me to use in middle school, and I remember thinking at the time that it was more like a small suitcase than a briefcase, which was probably one of the reasons why Dad passed it off, not needing something that big for work at his law firm.
The first item to go in was just a shirt. I hauled the briefcase out from under my bed and opened the lid, then stormed over to the other side of my room to select a shirt from the top drawer of my dresser. I balled it up and hurled it with perfect accuracy across the room and into the briefcase, green cloth against the simple black lining. “Broflovski for three!” I shouted, walking back over to the case so I could slam the lid down. “Once this is packed,” I told myself, “that’s it. I’m leaving.”
I knew that I probably wouldn’t, but it felt good to say it, anyway. After all, I had far too much going on in my life as it stood. At the time, I’d had a girlfriend, Heidi Turner, who was a pretty good distraction from my mother’s insanity, and beyond her, I had Stan and my other close friends, none of whom I’d really have wanted to leave. After Heidi and I broke up, though, that was when Stan found out about the briefcase.
I’d been having more and more ‘little talks’ with my mother as sophomore year approached, which resulted in more and more items being tossed into the briefcase. Boxers, a spare toothbrush, jeans, a flashlight, sweatshirt—it’s always cold, more shirts… items piled up, but I couldn’t call the briefcase full yet.
And then had come the day that Stan had discovered it. Beginning of sophomore year of high school. English homework, for a test I can no longer remember the subject of. Always English classes with us. The briefcase had been poking out from under my bed, and he hauled it out to ask me, “What’s this?”
“It’s a briefcase,” I muttered. Of course, Stan knew that wasn’t the whole answer, and the look he gave me called me on that. All he ever had to do was glare at me in just the right way and I’d know he wasn’t about to believe my bullshit. I was not a convincing liar. “Or, like, a suitcase,” I amended my statement. “It’s always been there.”
“Uh-huh,” said Stan, lifting an eyebrow. “You planning a trip?”
“A suitcase, Kyle?” He sat up to admonish me, this time shooting me a pretty scathing glare. Stan shoved his textbook away and sat, cross-legged, to face me. I swallowed back some nerves and turned to mirror him, unsure of exactly how to go about telling him that, in the back of my mind, I’d been concocting an elaborate escape plan, in case things got too weird or strained for me. “What is it really, dude?”
“Stan, don’t worry about it,” I muttered. I had to look down, avoid his eyes. The idea seemed stupid every time I remembered the reasons I wanted to stay. I started picking at a caked mud stain on my beaten old boot, and knew exactly what my body was projecting.
“…Is what people say when the other party has reason to be worried.” Stan’s tone, stern but kind, and full of concern, was enough to get me to look at him again. He wasn’t glaring anymore. Concerned softened his deep blue eyes, and a slightly sad smile was beginning to take form in his pressed lips. “Kyle,” he began, his voice soft and cautious, “where are you going?”
“I’m not… I’m not going anywhere,” I assured him. “It’s a last-resort escape plan.”
“Dude, don’t run away!” he yelped, fear filling his features. “Why would you?!”
“Shh!” I hissed. “I’m—look, I’m not! It’s just in case, Stan. Just in case.”
“In case what?”
“I don’t know.”
Stan showed me a forlorn expression, then leaned forward and messed with my hair. “Stop thinking, dude,” he said, making himself grin. “Someday you might go real far away and I won’t know what the hell to do.”
“Someday like college, maybe. I’m not leaving.”
“Well, if you won’t, then gimmie the suitcase.”
“What?! Nuh-uh!” I protested.
“Then you do want to leave! You can’t even drive yet, Kyle, what the hell’re you gonna do, hitch-hike?”
“Stan…” Because I hadn’t told anyone about the briefcase, I hadn’t thought it over properly. One small conversation with Stan, and I was able to see how selfish an idea it really was. Leave? I couldn’t. Not when I more or less knew where my life was. So maybe I wouldn’t have a super exciting future; so maybe I had controlling(ish) parents. At least I had Stan around to stop me. “I won’t… I won’t leave, okay?”
“Then you won’t mind if I take that thing home with me tonight.”
“Some of my stuff’s in there!” I argued.
“I don’t care,” Stan said stubbornly. “You can only come get it back when you’re ready to leave. Until then, I’m gonna hold it at my house.” He laughed. “In baggage claim.”
“Dude, fuck you!” I laughed, tossing my pencil at him.
“Okay, well, here’s another idea,” Stan suggested. “I’ll take that suitcase and then I’ll find one for me. If you run away, I want out, too.”
I probably should have known right then and there, when I was just fifteen, that I was more or less in love with him. My heart swelling up wasn’t enough of a clue, nor was my face getting hot or my breath catching short or, yeah, okay, once or twice, my pants getting tight. But it was all just deep admiration back then.
Admiration that, by the following year, had turned to affection. Affection that, by the year after that, had turned into love. Love that made me forget all about that stupid old suitcase, to the point that it collected dust and cobwebs under Stan’s bed. It had not been touched, not once, in six years.
I hadn’t even remembered locking it, so fuck all if I knew where the key was. Well, no skin off my back now; I’d forgotten whatever was in there, anyway. The point was, though, Stan had found it. And in the end, we had ended up leaving town together. I had ended up running away, only to come back and shroud myself in the comforts of home.
My boyfriend then pulled out another briefcase from under the bed. This one was grey, but of a similar shabby, hand-me-down quality. Marsh was printed in simple script on a navy blue luggage tag, but no other indicators beyond that, no number, no address. Just who it belonged to. It, too, was locked; I had the feeling that Stan had just as good an idea of where his key was as I did mine.
“What’s that?” I wondered.
“It’s the one I packed,” Stan told me.
“The one you—you did?” I exclaimed. “You were gonna follow me?”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Of course I was. You would’ve wanted me to, right? Even back, what, six years ago?”
Absolutely. “I probably wouldn’t have made it if you didn’t, anyway,” I confessed. “Yeah, I’d’ve wanted you to come with me. Ugh, I still feel like an ass about study abroad. A little.”
“Oh, don’t,” my boyfriend passed off, sitting so that he faced me perfectly. “It’s over, and we made it through that, and now we’re moving to Denver.”
I grinned. “Yes, we are.” I took hold of the front of his shirt, and drew him in for a kiss. His taste was always just as intoxicating and delightful as his scent, just as smooth and wonderful as the way he’d sing.
“Hey,” I asked, when we pulled back again, “you gonna print more demos and sell them in Denver?”
“Yeah, Shelly said she’d swing by the studio for more copies,” Stan told me. “The guys at Alley Cat gave me a list, too, so we can head to the right places to—” I held in a laugh. “What?”
“Huh? Oh. Oh, right! Stan,” I said, “you know what I found cleaning?”
“Uh… I’m guessing a lot.”
“Funny. That English notebook.”
“What, from, like, freshman year?” he laughed. “No way you still have that.”
“Well, I do, of course I kept it,” I said. “It’s half full of just us writing back and forth anyway.” He couldn’t argue that. “We’d talk about you playing your guitar places, remember?”
The rest of senior year had seen him becoming more and more regular at a couple of open mics in downtown Fort Collins. Alley Cat treated him very well—Bebe’s roommate’s constantly making things up to us from my little absinthe episode did come in handy—and a couple other places started asking for him as well, especially once he’d started printing the EP as a real demo. His instrumental track, Before and After, as well as another song he composed to replace Hands on the commercial EP, were played every now and then on the college radio station, during blocks featuring student artists.
In fact, he had done quite well for himself, and rose above some of his embarrassment at receiving compliments, and some of his shyness when talking to other musicians, or owners of venues. He still had no interest in pursuing songwriting professionally, mostly due to his love for the line of work he was going into, but the future was—and he would say so himself—wide open.
“‘We’ were the plan all along,” I asked, quietly, “weren’t we?”
“In the notebook, Stan, you always wrote we,” I started to explain, “whenever you talked about you playing. It wasn’t just you talking about you, it was you talking about us. And the whole time, just, like… all through school, Stan, you hinted at me, didn’t you?”
“Maybe a little,” he confessed. “That doesn’t seem too weird, does it?”
I shook my head, then pressed my nose to his collar and nuzzled in. When I pressed a kiss to his neck, I felt his pulse, like a beat to keep time.
“I’m so proud of you,” I whispered. “I’m so glad all this worked out…”
“So am I. Come a long way from us packing a couple dumb briefcases and trying to get out, huh?” he replied.
Maybe I had passed off the blue briefcase as a failed attempt at something that never would have worked out, and had chosen to forget about it and call it a moment of high school folly, but Stan, in his quiet way, had held onto it for me. Not only that, but all this time, he’d had his own briefcase packed and ready to go. Just in case. He’d been more than ready to join me in my short-lived high school rebellion. And now, he was sharing every recollection of where we’d been at that point in time. It was his way of saying that I’d still have my escape, I’d still get that coveted freedom… but I didn’t have to try alone.
The one obstacle on the road to freedom, in my late teens, had been my own major shortcoming: I had become too cautious. Cautious didn’t suit me. Many people re-invent themselves in college, and it had taken me until the end of senior year to realize that I had inadvertently done just that. The best form of re-invention, though, is just to honor where you’re coming from.
Which is exactly why I’m going to marry Stan.
Cautious me wants to wait, but if it hadn’t been for spontaneous me, I might never have worked up the nerve to buy him that ring. So we’re at a happy medium, which has allowed me to see that everything will be all right.
“Wow,” I said, glancing down at the briefcases again, “I’m glad I passed that phase.” I lay a hand down on the blue briefcase, content for the moment that it was locked and inaccessible.
“You can find other ways to rebel,” Stan offered.
I did my best impression of a Kenny eye-roll. “Like intern at a Fortune 500. Good idea.”
“Oh, shut up.” My boyfriend wrapped an arm around me and kissed the top of my head. “You’re you, okay? Whatever makes you happy, Kyle, I’m here for anything.”
“Thanks,” I grinned, leaning against him, “for being my voice of reason.”
“Thank you for being mine.” He nuzzled his nose against my cheek to get me to face him. Once I obliged, he leaned close to kiss me, lacing it with the tastes and memories of every road we’d ever taken. We were on the right road now, I knew it. We’d go right on keeping each other safe and sane, baggage successfully managed on some days, lost at the station on others.
We didn’t care. Bring it on, Denver. We’re ready.
Time Capsules and Empty Boxes
Stan’s room was a bit of an extra project, but I helped him pack up the remainder of his bedroom, and the two of us got his car mostly packed for the impending trip. But the latter half of the finally-arrived wedding rehearsal day belonged to Clyde and Bebe. Stan ran through the music Bebe had requested once we arrived at the church for the rehearsal, and when Wendy, tanned from the California sun, black hair cut to her shoulders to combat the heat of her college town, offered to help him with the sound check, I gave my boyfriend the go-ahead to slip her the news about us. Wendy (Stan’s only ex) squealed and hugged him, and rushed to me to do the same. We both expressed that it was nothing all that much to talk about just yet; we were a ways off still, and besides, no way in hell did we want to take any attention away from the couple who were actually on the brink of marriage.
The rehearsal went smoothly, and the dinner was just what Clyde had been hoping: a reunion of every one of us. Even though college friends had of course been invited, the two kept the rehearsal dinner strictly a South Park thing. Cartman, who had somehow graduated with a degree in journalism (probably to keep competing with Wendy), and Butters argue-flirted their way through dinner—they hadn’t changed that much… and I still could not figure that dynamic out (yes or no, guys, seriously), but I was certainly not one to pry. Wendy, Bebe and Red re-bonded and shared their tales of senior year. Token was a welcome presence we hadn’t seen much of lately; he’d be staying in California, it seemed, and by the way he and Wendy spoke, it appeared that they were possibly rekindling something that had been lost after high school graduation.
Clyde had asked Tweek, who was making his way through school online due to the pressures of a true classroom atmosphere, to provide the coffee from the family shop he’d someday inherit, but insisted that he be a guest, rather than feel obligated to cater. Craig Tucker smelled slightly of pot, but that was nothing new; at least he was being sociable, and was not projecting the ‘asshole’ vibe to Bebe, at least not that I could tell.
Kenny pulled Red away for a little while (I gave that just two guesses as to where they’d gone), but when they returned, my old roommate latched his arms around me and Stan from behind. Leaning in, he said, “You guys really leaving right after the big show tomorrow?”
“We’ve gotta, man,” Stan admitted. “First thing in the morning.”
“Dude, your boss already sucks,” Kenny lamented. “Punch him in the balls for me.”
“I’m sure that’ll make a great impression,” Stan said, playing into Kenny’s mock-seriousness.
“It will.” Kenny had the world’s most perfect poker face. “Time tested, dude.”
“You sure you don’t want to help us move?”
I’d asked him before, and he’d thought it over, but his answer now was, “Can’t, sorry. Interview, but hey, least lame excuse ever, right?”
“Yeah, dude,” I grinned. “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” Kenny administered a harsh hair tousle to each of us, then groaned, “Ugh, I miss you guys already. You’d better visit.”
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’re gonna keep in touch.”
“Join LinkedIn, would you?”
“The fuck is LinkedIn?” Stan wondered, shooting Kenny a glare.
“Facebook minus the frat party photos.”
“Dude, fuck that. You’ve got my cell number, Kenny.”
“Whatever. Yo,” Kenny prodded me, “don’t let granola nature boy here suck you back into the Dark Ages, ‘kay?”
I just laughed, while Stan dealt a warning pinch to Kenny’s arm. Reality still hadn’t quite hit yet that we were really moving away. Kenny’d be a phone call away, rather than down the hall or across the street. My brother was Yale-bound. It was going to be hard parting ways with so many friends, and family as well, but I’d have Stan. I’d have my common sense and sanity.
Things would turn out okay.
The wedding was beautiful. It was everything the bride wanted… within everything the groom was willing and able to pay for, of course. Bebe looked absolutely gorgeous, golden hair piled to the back of her head in a Restoration-inspired up-do that only managed to make her curls all the more enviable for the other women in attendance; her dress, at her request, was her mother’s, but altered by both Wendy and Red, who had admittedly put in several weekends creating something new from the old. Clyde, who I’d never even imagined wearing a full black tuxedo until that day, looked both in over his head and invitingly overjoyed. The ceremony itself found the two appearing to fall in love all over again; Bebe cried twice, once during the vows and again after accepting her ring. Her hand was trembling as she went through the motions herself.
At the outdoor reception that followed, it seemed almost as if Bebe wouldn’t let Clyde leave the dance floor. Kenny and I began providing tongue-in-cheek commentary on the various friends and relatives in attendance (particularly Cartman, even if he had seemed to pull himself together a little since last either of us had seen the guy), from a safe distance away of course, while Craig and Wendy helped Stan get everything situated for his first set, as per Bebe’s requests.
I shushed Kenny as soon as Stan started to play, and picked up right away on the tune to Before and After, which Bebe must have requested he play. He glanced over at me from the tiny stage, nestled between a horseshoe of tables and rising only about five inches from the laid out dance floor, where the newlyweds spun as if nobody was watching.
Clyde and Bebe Donovan, always an interesting and insightful pair to watch, gave me further hope and reassurance that afternoon. South Park had a history of couples starting young and marrying early, my own parents among that group, and, incidentally, a low rate of divorce. Those two were going to make it. They’d been building upon each other for so long already; I wished them all the best.
And from where I stood, I watched Stan play. His fingers glided over the frets with practiced ease, his hollow black walnut guitar sent its unique, deep but crystal sound out through the large white reception tent, hardly needing any amplification at all.
Clyde caught up with Stan toward the end of the reception, after Wendy and Craig had given two (surprisingly, on the best man’s part) heartfelt orations on the newly married couple, to thank him for his time and guitar, to which my boyfriend grinned and said, “No problem. You two look beautiful, dude. Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Beaming, Clyde looked over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of his new wife, then turned his attention to us, and held a hand out to me, saying, “Kyle, man, that was a hell of a senior year, huh?”
“If by year you mean weekend,” I laughed, shaking his hand.
“Dude, it was a good year. Maybe it’s better for you to stay sane, though.”
“Planning on it,” I smirked.
“Stan,” Clyde finished, giving my boyfriend a firm handshake as well, “thanks again. Keep dishing out that music, too, seriously. Listen to your fiancé, he knows what he’s talking about.”
“Yeah, I will.” Stan gave Clyde a little shove back in Bebe’s direction, and finished, “Go be all gross with your wife, ‘kay? Have fun on the honeymoon.”
“You, too,” Clyde said with just the right touch of humor. “You guys better visit, though, got it?”
“Already promised Kenny we would,” I said. “We’ll be seeing you.”
And just like that, it was over. The four years we’d all been ambling through, the future we’d all been stumbling toward, here it was.
The car was successfully packed up, full of suitcases stuffed with countless keepsakes of everything that had come before, memories of our lives, that we could carry with us forever, as together we moved on, in the only way we knew how.
Stan woke me up at six the day after the wedding. Hopefully, I thought, we’d settle into a nice new eight o’clock routine once we had schedules all figured out in Denver.
It was a long morning, but we made good time. Stan and I drove up together first, though both of our families were planning to meet us for the full move. On the ride up, we plugged in Stan’s iPod on shuffle; the first thing that came up was “Holland, 1945,” the same exact Neutral Milk Hotel song Kenny had asked me to switch out for the Sex Pistols back when we’d been carpooling up to CSU for the first time. “Life goes in patterns,” I said when Stan asked why I’d started laughing once the song came up.
“Well, it’ll already be a break in the repeat if I say we can keep listening to this, though right?” Stan ventured, turning up the stereo. “I happen to love this band.”
“Crank it up so you don’t have to hear me if I sing along,” I warned.
“Sing all you want, babe,” Stan grinned. “You are nowhere near as off-key as you think you are.”
So I went for it. Top of my lungs, head tilted back, window rolled down. I didn’t care. Singing was pretty freeing, even if I didn’t have that great a voice for it. Stan didn’t care, so neither did I. And music passed the time.
We had chosen an apartment in a complex in centralized downtown Denver. Yes, the walls were thin, yes, it wasn’t the quietest place ever, but it was worth it to know we could both have a car, walk to most places downtown, and even, if we felt like it (and I had the sense we would), keep a dog. The complex, Botanica on the Green, had had a fair amount of available apartments, and we’d snagged a third-floor one-bedroom, with a nice open kitchen and access to a patio that overlooked the Green, where local acts played gigs. A new next step in the works, we both knew, in terms of Stan’s songwriting. He’d even been the one to first bring it up.
My brother drove my own car up for me, but charged his iPod in the corner of the large, high-ceilinged living room in Stan’s and my new apartment, to be sure he could drown out our parents on the drive back—Ike did most of his work one-handed, that day, much more preoccupied with keeping up a text conversation with Karen. Stan’s father swore at the internet cable for a little while as the rest of us from both families moved boxes in, but eventually got our wireless connection ready for installation, which was a pretty good help. Stan and I took silent bets on which of our mothers would break first.
Our parents treated us out to lunch after we’d moved everything in and gotten a fair idea of how we wanted to arrange things, and they were off on the road again by three. Shelly had even made the trip, and gifted us a bottle of reserve chardonnay—as well as new wine glasses and a gift card for groceries—as housewarming congratulations. “I’m kinda jealous of my brother, to be honest,” she admitted to me just before she left. “You guys’ve got it pretty good.”
“Thanks, Shelly,” I told her. “And, hey, thanks again for your help with that guitar.”
She smiled, but said nothing else. In the sibling department, Stan and I had both really lucked out. My parents could have adopted anyone, but Ike had been the one to become my brother, and one of the only people in my life other than Stan to be able to talk sense into me; Shelly was protective and supportive in her own subtle, quiet, and sometimes stubborn way, and her gratitude was always genuine, and well-received.
Afternoon became evening as we continued setting up the place, shutting empty suitcases into the ample storage spaces in the apartment and carting an alarming amount of trash and recycling to the dumpsters. It wasn’t long until Stan unpacked the corkscrew and said, “Okay, living room’s good enough, bedroom’s done, we’ve got stuff in the bathroom, let’s call this done for today.
“And get out the chardonnay?” I guessed.
“You got it.” Shelly’s wine had sat, along with some essentials, courtesy of our respective mothers, in the refrigerator, patiently waiting for what ended up being eight o’clock. Enough pots and pans were unpacked and enough food was already in the apartment for Stan to throw together a stir-fry, which we’d eaten on the living room floor, since both the dining table and coffee table still had plenty of shit piled and demanding to be sorted through. Later.
“D’you want to use those new glasses from your sister?” I wondered once dinner had been cleared. I leaned out over the kitchen counter, open as we had grown accustomed to, with the shape of our campus townhouse, and held up the bottle to remind Stan that we needed to be civilized and drink it a glass at a time.
“Actually,” Stan said, “come here, I’ve got another idea.” I wandered over to where he sat on the floor beside the sofa in the living room, and knealt down behind him, placing the wine bottle over to my right.
“I thought I’d get these out, instead.” I peered over his shoulder as Stan dug through the styrofoam peanuts in a little cardboard box on the coffee table, my arms loosely draped around his waist. Out of a fountain of foam bits, he withdrew the two glass Erlenmeyer flasks that had served as our glasses in college.
I laughed. “You kept those?” I wondered. “We were supposed to be clearing out!”
“We did,” Stan said in his defense. “Kyle, you don’t have to let go of everything. If we did, it wouldn’t be right.”
I hummed out a sigh, and nestled my head into his shoulder. “When did you start making so much sense?” I said sarcastically, hugging him back into me a little.
“I’m not sure, but let’s get that stuff going.”
Shelly had definitely picked up on our tastes in wine over the past couple of years; the chardonnay was pretty damn good. Which struck a positive chord with me, since it meant I’d drink it nice and slowly. We spread out the first glass over several minutes, toward the end of which, Stan sought out his guitar, tuned it almost without a second thought, and proceeded to pluck around a little.
He strummed a couple recognizable riffs from his demo, a nice full box of which sat off by the desk, awaiting promotion, then drifted back into just covering a couple of verses of songs he’d picked out easily over the years. He got about halfway through Leonard Cohen’s Going Home before he stopped and set the guitar aside, so that the two of us could simply talk.
We didn’t talk about luck, or even really about the past or future. Just little things, a word or two about the apartment, a couple reflections of current events hardly even pertaining to us, and eventually the mutual agreement on another glass of wine. Eventually. Leaning back against him, where he sat flat-backed against the base of the sofa, I was comfortable enough to really not care when the next glass came out. Maybe we didn’t talk about luck, but I felt it. Felt that, no matter how logical the decision to move forward together had seemed, year after year, we’d still had plenty to weather before finally packing things up in just the right way, in order for things to have worked out in our favor.
I couldn’t sit there and reflect forever, though, nor did I want to; we couldn’t ignore the piles of things still stacked on and around the coffee table, threatening us with days of cleaning and sorting ahead. Stan noticed me eyeing the piles with scrutiny, and patted me on the shoulder, where he had his arm wrapped around me, as he asked, “Hey, Kyle?”
“Are you happy?”
No hesitation. “What, with all this?” I said, proudly. “Of course I am.”
“Okay, good.” Stan grinned, and nodded toward the coffee table. “Because things are about to get pretty lame and domestic with all this settling in shit we still have to do.”
I smirked and lightly hit his chest. “Tomorrow can be domestic shit stress day,” I said. “Get that wine back out.”
He was absolutely right, though. Chances were, we’d be re-configuring things for a little while. But the prospect was fun, even if the challenges of interior decorating only got about as far as is this practical? with either of us.
“Oh, hey,” said Stan, as he poured both of us a second glass, “guess what else I snuck up here?”
Before I could get a chance to actually voice a guess, Stan drew out from the coffee table stack our two high school briefcases. Neither could have taken up much room in any of the cars that had carried our belongings from South Park to Denver, so it was understandable that I’d have overlooked them.
“Oh—Stan, why did you bring those?” I scolded. “They’ll just be clutter, and—”
“Don’t even pretend you’re not curious about what’s in these,” he pointed out. Dammit, he was right. Stan opened up his toolkit, which lay beside the coffee table, and rifled through the selection thoughtfully until he had found a tiny little flathead screwdriver, the size I usually needed to fix the temple arms of my reading glasses. “Come on. They’ll be like time capsules.”
Blue and grey, lined right up beside each other on the polished hardwood floor, the briefcases did hold a little air of mystery. As a kid, I would have torn into those with abandon, inventing all manner of stories for the treasures we’d find inside. Time capsules, Stan called them—it was true, I could barely remember what I’d packed in there, and had no idea what he’d deemed worthy, at fifteen, to pack into his.
“Oh, what the hell,” I decided. I joined Stan on the floor and leaned into his left side. “Let’s see what we couldn’t leave home without.”
Stan smirked, and deftly picked the lock of his grey briefcase first, and then my repurposed blue one. The screwdriver was tucked securely back into the toolkit, and, with a nod, Stan and I simultaneously removed the locks and lifted back the lids of our respective teenage symbols of freedom.
Clothes, first and foremost, lined them both, but tucked in among the few shirts and pairs of boxers (and single pair of jeans in mine—Stan had apparently not thought to pack an extra pair of pants), were indeed treasures. He had packed a digital camera, which, once we replaced the batteries, was revealed to still have photos from our high school freshman year, fully preserved. Into mine, I had tossed, at fifteen, the first pair of aviator goggles I’d worn as I’d grown into my own town vigilante alter ego—the Human Kite, one of many aides to Mysterion—though could not guess for the life of me why I’d have thought they would be a necessity on the road. I suppose even back then I was looking for the right things to cling to.
Stan found a couple of items hearkening all the way back to childhood, too—including his old blue knit hat, which he’d stretched to fit, right up until eighth grade, and even a pack of guitar picks, which got me remarking, “Stan, that’s awesome, you would’ve brought your guitar!”
“Can’t leave home and wander if you don’t have a guitar,” he pointed out.
“Oh, that’s a good lyric, Stan,” I exclaimed, nudging his arm, “write that down!”
My boyfriend laughed and shoved me back a little, saying, “Now, see, that’s why I say ‘we’ in regard to stuff like that.”
I couldn’t think of any immediate words with which to thank him, but I wrapped my arms around him from the side, and pressed my face close to his. He turned to face me in profile, and for a few precious moments, we did nothing but breathe together, one unit, two on a single path. Then, very softly at first, Stan broke the silence with a little hum. That was all it was at first: just a single, low note, that felt and tasted like every season at once.
I kissed him to share the sound, to share the sensation, to feel him reverberate in my mouth, my throat, my lungs. His tongue carried the melody, and I harmonized, slowly and gently, until the crescendo.
I leaned further into him, and he held me strongly, coaxing me back, complimenting my every move. His left hand slid under my shirt, his touch warm and inviting against my skin.
Discovery, creation; re-discovery, re-creation. These were the factors that moved us along, that held us together, that carried us from year to year, from one bold step to the next. Our first night in Denver, our first night living on our own, began and ended with promises.
I swear to God, it was music.
Music that drew us to our feet, that carried us along and followed us into our own dark room, where we would let nothing drown it out.
Much later into the night, I fell asleep, calm and confident, lulled in Stan’s arms, and woke to the sun and the sound of his voice. Waking was the beginning. A brand new before. A new start to our lives, a fresh look at what we both chose to carry with us, as far as this road would go.
We’ve been on the journey for a while, and there’s plenty still to be told, or sung, I’m sure. But no matter the course, no matter how many befores and afters and unfathomable betweens, no matter how many times we repeat a single chorus, I’ll still have his hand in mine.