Summary: This is a tiny New Years scene that ambushed me in the midst of coffee and cigarettes, and I couldnt leave until I had finished it. Ive never written Chris and Ezra before, and if you cant picture them together, then this wont be your cup of tea. Or coffee. Im returning to Italy in May of next year and perhaps this is why there is so much of Italy in this story. I lost my heart there, not to any one person, but to the place, the people, and the hills of Umbria. Wherever I am, my mind unerringly returns there.
This story has no warnings, no smut. Its all heart and soul. Its pre-smut. So perhaps after my birthday Ill let you know what happens between them later.
Feedback: As always, most welcome.
I sit in the back booth of the saloon facing the door, whiskey in hand, hole in my heart. I am not sitting with the others; they are too engrossed in themselves and in their exploits to really notice my absence. All smiles, they laugh and joke and tease, bits and pieces of chatter falling on my ears like hot ash. What burns isnt that they can so enjoy themselves without me, without noticing me, or the manifest lack of me.
I have made a lifetime study of being invisible, discreet, unnoticed in a crowded room; of observing without being observed, of walking without leaving any footprints, of being alone. I never say anything without expecting to amaze an entire room, and the rest of my thoughts are kept hidden, or disguised in a labyrinthine manner of speech that would confuse the most cunning linguist.
There is above all else a method to my madness, as the saying goes, and I have spent far too long in the clutches of this particular lunacy to ever hope for a cure. So I hide behind my words, I hide behind eccentricities, and here I sit in the back of the room where the shadows hide my face, and the marled light only illumines my hands as they finger the lip of my glass.
What burns me is seeing him with her, and wishing it were me.
I pour another shot and watch.
His arm is around her and she smiles. She beams. Her hair so like his in color, her eyes pale and clear, her chaste gaze always turned upon him. Her laugh reminds me of nothing so much as the paean of church bells in Lipari drifting down over the quay. If youve never been there, I suggest you go. Its worth it. Even the way the light plays in the highlights of her hair like the sun on the dark waters of the Tyrrhenian sea, wind capping the small waves in white lace.
She is holding his hand.
Somehow it is easier to fixate on her, on her grace and ease, her sunshine and effortless mirth, on the many ways she is perfect for him, than to let my wayward eyes wander to his face. They travel there so often on their own, as pilgrims to the Holy Land. I do not flatter myself that I am seeking either redemption or salvation in his countenance, never turned toward mine; rather, I know I am searching for that profound sense of being nearer the Divine. To look on his face is to be one step nearer Heaven.
Oh! He smiles. Like a vein of gold in the dark chambers of the earth. It is a precious thing, all too soon buried again; a treasure bestowed on few. I wonder if she knows how rare it is.
Buck is laughing, most likely at himself, and the others join in, most likely laughing at him too. There is a jostle of giddy bodies as JD makes his way toward the bar. Its his round. Josiah is reclined against the wall, his profile etched in bas-relief against the pale wall. How is it that he can always appear to be in deep thought, meditating on the mysteries of the universe? even as he pours another mug of beer from a frothy pitcher and slides it toward Nathan.
Ever on guard, Vins back is to me. He too watches the door, although it wouldnt be accurate to say that I am watching the door. It merely happens to be in my plane of vision, not the focus of my gaze or of my useless thoughts. His curly head shakes slowly, probably in denial of whatever tall tale is being spun between the swirls of smoke trailing and dancing in the air above them. He shares a private thought with Chris, who exhales another thread of smoke.
The smoke is as close as I will ever be to his lips.
I watch it as it leaves his mouth and nose, a stream of dragon vapor, to hover in the air around his head like the white plumes from Etna, swathed in cloud. The smoke lingers there at the table, obscuring his face for a moment, before finally lifting and departing, as if even it too recognizes the fruitlessness of trying to remain close to him. It can never return to that mouth, to those perfect lips, and it moves on. As should I.
It is New Year's Eve. I should be mingling with any number of patrons here this evening. There is hardly room to stand. The atmosphere is raucous and jovial; music and voices and the clatter and clink of glasses. In truth, it is selfish of me to commandeer an entire booth to myself when it could easily accommodate five or six people. I have been eyed with annoyance more than once, but Inez says I can have this table as long as I need it. I can merely pretend I am waiting for others to join me, as though I had any other friends than the six who are seated opposite me.
As though I ever had any other friends.
I suppose I should say seven, but Mary is nothing more than a vague acquaintance to me. Her father employs us, or I should have never given her more than a passing thought. Beautiful she is, to be sure, and never more so than when she is on his arm, yet I have known many, many women as lovely and as polished, and I have never known anyone like Chris. Surely there cannot be another like him on earth.
Buck would howl at that, saying that hed certainly hope not. He would remind me that our fearless leader is surly at best, coarse as a gravel road, more than a little rough around the edges, and as sympathetic as a migraine. And if I had even a fraction of his courage, I would tell Buck that I didnt care, that perhaps it is for all those reasons that I love him.
I do love a challenge.
I have tried to talk myself out of this utterly desperate and derisory sentiment, but Id just as soon try to hold back the tide. I hear a song on the jukebox. What kind of love runs through your heart with a pleasure so close to pain This kind, I respond in thought.
Although it is now and can only remain pain, the brief pangs of joy I receive when I see him smile are worth it. I tell myself this time and time again, perhaps that I might convince myself that I am not a masochist. I am, though, and I know it. Why else would I try so hard to please my perpetually dissatisfied mother? Why else would I remain a part of this team, spending day after day in the company of a man who can barely tolerate me, just so I can watch the way his eyes ignite with silent laughter?
Josiah is raising a toast, the deep, mellifluous timbre of his voice drowned out by the mechanical cacophony of the room. I lift my glass in agreement to whatever was said, my silent amen to another year of good health, good luck, and good friends. Another year of longing to be with him. Another prayer that I might, just once, live up to his expectations of me, as a teammate, as a friend, as a man.
The televisions flicker on. The ageless Dick Clark is standing in Times Square, surrounded by a seething tide of humanity, waiting for the glittering ball to drop. I remember New Years in Rome, flowers of gold and green and red blossoming over the Tiber, men and women sprawling in the piazze, crowding the banks, and hanging out of windows to get a better view. There will be fireworks all over the world tonight, but I will not stay long enough to see them televised. Of all the pain and discomfort to which I so willingly subject myself, I choose not to witness the drunken demonstrations of affection that will be tossed around at the stroke of midnight.
I will not stay to watch. To watch him kiss her.
That is one show of fireworks I can happily, or miserably, live without. I should go.
He looks as happy and as relaxed as I have ever seen him, his arm about her, his hazel eyes alight with an inner fire I cannot begin to emulate. I have tried to feign his self-assured, autocratic manner, but that kind of strength cannot be forged. I am but a counterfeit. At my most confident, I possess but an echo of his. He has the intensity of a Caesar, and I consider myself fortunate to be one of his nomenclatura. Fortunate that he considers me anything at all.
Happy New Year, Chris.
+ + + + + + +
I am sitting at the table with the rest of the guys, drinking a highly enjoyable farewell to the year, wishing my arm were slung around someone else. Mary knows this. She loves me, and I know she loves me, and she knows I know; still she is undaunted. She never knew my wife, never knew what Sarah meant to me, how I could never replace her. Sarah made everything beautiful.
Mary cant hold a candle to that.
If I were politically-minded in the least, I would marry her tomorrow. I would have married her last year. Not that I think Orrin would like to have me as a son-in-law, but Billy would love to have me as a father. I dont know how to explain to Mary that I had a son, Ive been a father; that book is closed and I dont want to open it again.
Yet here I sit with my arm on the back of the booth behind her, her hand sneaking its way beneath mine on the table, her eyes hardly ever leaving me. She laughs when she should, a smile perpetually painted on her perfect face, and she looks good with me. We look good together. Buck eyes us and wiggles his eyebrows, as only Buck can, as if to suggest that I throw her over the table and nail her right here and now.
Vin knows my heart lies elsewhere.
Buck is such an idiot sometimes. His stories of New Years past never get old, no matter how many times he tells them, or embellishes them. There were the twins in Cozumel, the stewardess in St. Thomas, the Italian princess in Rome. I doubt she was a princess of anything, except of Bucks heart for a wild evening in the Forum while the fireworks exploded in the background, but the story gets funnier every year, and I smile. JD crawls over Buck and Vin to head to the bar and I let my eyes drift past him to the back of the room.
I wonder why Ezra isnt with us. I see him, sitting alone in a dark corner with a bottle, the light touching his fingertips as he touches his glass. I suppose it is enough to know hes here, but I wish he were here. Doubtless he would sprinkle the conversation with extremely shrewd and dry comments about Bucks antics, Josiahs pensiveness, JDs wide-eyed youth, Vins silence. My silence.
I have nothing to say.
Conversation has never come easy since Sarah and Adam died. The last time I said I love you was the last time I saw them alive. It has been the hardest thing in the world to acknowledge that someone else now occupies that hallowed place where she alone once lived. I still look for her every now and then, on a street corner, in a shop window, in my own reflection. I cant feel her kiss anymore, but I can hear her laughter, and it sounds nothing like Marys.
Sarahs laugh was private, not given freely or often, like Ezras. She would like Ezra. The two of them could sit aside and watch the rest of us, and arrive at the same satirical conclusions, provide the same razor-blade commentary, slicing through the bull and machismo. Straight to my heart.
God, how she drove me crazy. Not in the same way that Ezra does, or over the same things, but just as crazy still. She never gave me any quarter, and I do love a challenge. She kept me honest, kept me on my toes. Vin has more or less taken over the honest part of that equation. Even now he shakes his head slowly at something stupid Buck has said, and he fixes his eyes on me.
Funny, you wouldnt think that of all the people Ive known, of all the members of my team, I should fall in love with Ezra. Logically, it should be Vin. He reads my mind with unerring accuracy, knows me even better than Buck, and never says anything that isnt absolutely worth saying. Unlike Mary.
She can fill a room with conversation, command everyones attention effortlessly, but most of what she says doesnt mean anything. Not really. Not in the way Vin says so much without words, or Ezra can say so much more with just a few. His words have more syllables than Vins entire sentences, but he chooses them so well, like his wardrobe, like his cologne.
Vin is staring at me, prodding me with a silent question. I flick my eyes toward Ezra in the rear booth. Vins eyes shrug, and then smile softly in understanding. He questions me, why I dont go over there and talk to him, and I have no reply. My eyes hang heavy, like my heart.
I yell at Ezra more than anyone on the team; he infuriates me daily. He keeps me so high up on my toes its a wonder Im not wearing toe shoes and doing pirouettes. And yet hes the one who dances circles around me. Why can I not find the words to tell him how I feel? These really arent the kind of words a man says to another man, the kind of emotions a man should feel about another man. Knowing Ezra, he would be as guarded and cautious in love as he is in life. I might never make it over the wall. Sometimes it feels like that, like staging a tactical assault on a fortified compound. With my Seal training, youd think Id be more than equipped for the job. What happened to the cock-sure confidence of my youth?
It died with my wife and son.
Im not afraid of rejection. Ezra would make rejection sound like a compliment. We would go about our lives as if the words had never passed between us, and he wouldnt allow a silly indiscretion to ruin our relationship, such as it is. Tense is what it is. The spring keeps getting coiled tighter and tighter, me pushing and him pushing back. Maybe all I have to do is pull.
Im not afraid that anyone might discover my feelings for him. Im not worried about people laughing at me. Somehow, Ive been through too much to be worried by ridicule or amusement at my expense. Hell, Buck gets off making fun of me at every opportunity, and he knows I dont mind. I know who I am. I know where I stand with everyone except Ezra.
I always knew where I was with Sarah. I always knew where I stood. Candor being chief among her virtues, she was never one to mince words. She redefined me, helped me redefine myself. Ezra cant have any idea how much he helps me to do the same. He sees beauty in the smallest of things, finds humor in the unlikeliest of places, reminds all of us that there is no sin in pampering yourself. He is nothing short of a genius on the job, always showing me angles I would have never noticed even on the closest inspection, always reminding me that there are a dozen sides to every story.
His story is still something of a mystery. Not surprising, that. There are so many layers to the man that I wonder how long it would take me to peel them all away, or if there is backdoor somewhere that I could slip through. We could share a secret knock, and he could let me in.
Having met his mother, I greatly doubt my chances.
Maude has taught him well, by her own admission, and by his more chagrined confession. She taught him how to be someone else, anyone else, to wear so many faces I wonder if Ive ever really seen him. Occasionally I think I might have caught a glimpse of him, in an unguarded moment, when he smiles at a thought unaired, an insight unshared, and a ghost of a grin graces his lips, like congratulating himself at having seen through all our disguises.
I wonder what hes thinking in moments like that. I wonder what he dreams, what his life was like before. I must just be a blip on the radar of his experience. Hes seen so much more of the world than I have, so much more of life in all its joy and sadness. I wonder what it would take to make him truly happy.
I wonder what it would take for him to let me in.
Josiah is making a toast to another year. Maybe hes been thinking up this toast all along. Everything he says has the intonation of a sermon or a speech; his deep voice booms and rattles the glasses on the table, or at least seems to. In the corner, I glimpse Ezra raising his glass in unison with ours. I wonder if he knows Im watching him. I havent looked at Mary twice tonight.
The televisions are coming on. Inez is tuning them all to the same channel so we can watch the ball drop in Times Square. Does no one else notice that Dick Clark never ages? The man is a vampire, only coming out at night, looking the same year after year. I wonder where he hides during the day.
I wonder where Ezra hides at night. Even now hes hiding in plain sight, though no one would ever notice him if they werent looking. He can blend in to naturally, slip among us to fluently, and then disappear leaving only the lingering scent of his cologne. I dream about that cologne and what it would be like to taste it on his skin. My thoughts swim with him. He takes so many chances daily, faces so many more risks than the rest of us; I dont know if I have ever met anyone as fearless, or as foolish. Between him and Vin, I am guaranteed to have ulcers until I retire.
Vin is staring again. His entire demeanor radiates impatience, as if to say that if I dont go over there and talk to Ezra, Vin will do it for me. Vin sees as much in Ezra as I do, though he knows that if he goes there, Ill kill him. Vin isnt stupid enough or cruel enough to mess around with Ezra. Vin isnt in love with him.
My eyes concede defeat.
I toss Vin a nod. In all honesty, its appropriate that I launch the New Year with some audacious move or bold gesture, and this move will take every ounce of courage I possess. I said Im not afraid of rejection; Im terrified of loss. If I never have him, I cant lose him. Ive loved and lost. That cliché always pisses me off its better to have loved an lost. People who say it havent ever really lost anything that means that much to them. Have you ever loved someone more than your own soul? I cant survive that a second time, and the fear of that loss keeps me awake nights.
Vin is tapping the side of his mug impatiently. He is eyeing the clock on the television, indicating that he knows one person I should kiss before the night is over. I can feel Mary pressing closer in anticipation. How heartless of me that Im not even considering how she will feel if I abandon her now. But she knows, she knows Im nothing more than a friend, even if that doesnt stop her.
Maybe she thinks that one kiss at midnight will change all that, that the floodgates will open and Ill finally admit that I love her. Me, Im hoping that I can find the strength to admit it to Ezra, with or without words. I better get up before Vin throws something at me.
Here goes nothing. Here goes everything.
+ + + + + + +
All eyes are on the televisions; the moment for my escape has come.
Misdirection is such a simple thing to achieve. People always respond in such a predictable manner, especially in groups. Break a glass or a dish, and all eyes travel in the direction of the sound. This evening everyone is distracted by the lure of shiny objects.
Most people dont realize how much they listen with their eyes. I can say the most insulting things in the most congenial manner and people think theyve been complimented. If I tell the truth and appear to be lying, and no one will believe me. An air of dignified ease leads people to believe you are both dignified and at ease. Appearance is everything, and true misdirection is all in the details.
Lying by omission is my favorite pastime.
So much I omit; there is so much I cant say. The lies Ive told myself are countless, but not about this. Ive never known anything like this awful truth. I love him and I cant have him. One more reason why lies are infinitely easier to accept and manage. This kind of truth man could do well to live without.
Love is a persistent, nagging honesty. It begs, often demands, to be spoken, and I dont know if I have the words. I can speak six languages fluently, a handful of others partially, and in all my verbosity, Ive never said those deadly words to anyone. Ive never meant them before. And so in leaving them unsaid, perhaps that is the greatest truth I can tell.
So much for lying.
I lay a wad of bills on the table, more than is necessary for the libations I have consumed, but Inez deserves it, if for nothing more than letting me occupy this booth all evening. I slip out onto the crowded floor and make my way toward the back exit. I know I am sober enough to drive, though I know Nathan would worry and fidget, Josiah would moralize, Vin would smirk, and Chris would offer to drive me home. Chivalry yet lives.
When I arrive at home I can relax, luxuriating on my Italian leather sofa or perhaps in the jacuzzi. It is large enough for two, and yet I have never shared it with anyone. There is so much of my life I have never shared, that I have never wanted to share. I do not suffer from the kind of arrogance that suggests I am that interesting to anyone, that they might truly want to be a part of my life except in the most peripheral fashion.
This is not to say that I have led a dull existence. Far from it. There just happens to be more of life that Ive made up than any that is real. I have played so many different parts to so many different people that it often becomes difficult to disentangle the reality from the imaginary. Mother would congratulate me on that.
For my part, I wish I could simplify, that is, if I could remember how. I have enough money to retire and live comfortably for the rest of my days, and yet I still struggle, still scheme, still feel the overwhelming compunction to prove I am more than I seem. Beneath all my affectations and machinations, there is a heart somewhere. Beyond the ostentatious vocabulary and the clothes and the car, there is still the little boy who never heard the words I love you from his mother. So why perpetuate the pretense?
Its all Ive ever known.
The din of revelry and music dims as I make my way to my car. The evening is clear and the wind crisp. Stars have fought their way beneath the pollution and the clouds to shine for me this evening. I thank them and whatever Hand put them there in the first place. I wonder if the ancient Romans had a god in charge of the stars. I think of my house on Lipari, and the her neighboring island Vulcano, so named after the blacksmith of the gods. Hephaestus he was to the Greeks. It was there he was said to work deep in his volcano, working the bellows of his furnace beneath the waves. There are so many more stars there at all times of year, and I so hate this cold.
I should return there.
Maybe that is what the new year will bring to me, a change of scenery. A change of heart. If I were half as smart or clever as I would like to be, I would resign tomorrow; but I am a coward. Guns and pain and the fear of discovery I can face. It is not the imminent death of the body I fear, but the agonizing, lingering death of the heart that would inevitably result from following its counsel. If I were twice as foolish or three times as drunk, I would walk directly to his table at the stroke of the clock and pull him into a long and passionate embrace. I think he would be too shocked to shoot me.
What do I have to lose?
Everything and nothing. You cant lose something you dont have. I could only lose my self-respect. Ive never had much of that, to be frank, but I give a good show of it, and as with everything else, that will have to suffice.
I can hear them now, counting down from ten. Something deep inside me sighs. I close my eyes and pretend its his lips I am kissing. No doubt Buck will kiss everything in sight, male and female. Vin will try to avoid all forms of physical contact. JD will blush furiously. Nathan and Josiah will accept whatever comes their way with good humor. And Mary will keep Chris all to herself.
I hope she makes him happy. He deserves a family, deserves someone who can take care of him and soften him. I know he misses his wife and child, although Im certain I dont know the half of it.
The back door opens behind me and I hear the crash of the madness within spill out into the night. Footsteps on the gravel. It sounds so much like the crunch of feet on the sands of Lipari.
I turn my key in the car door.
+ + + + + + +
His booth is empty. I never saw him leave, but Im certain he has. There is money on his table. I scan the crowded floor for a sign of him, but even as I do, I know he has disappeared.
This his most intriguing and maddening ability, to vanish into thin air like a coin in the palm of his hand. He does this on the job and my heart skips a beat every time. When he goes undercover for long period of time, I find myself staring at his empty desk for hours. I dont like him to be out of my sight.
Where could he have gone? Why would he go home now of all times? I guess it doesnt take a genius to guess the answer to that. The countdown has almost begun and I know I wouldnt relish the sight of him kissing and being kissed by several dozen other people. If he were at our table, he and Vin could defend one another against the onslaught of physical affection. The two of them have more personal space than I do, and that is a truly remarkable thing.
I can almost hear Vin in my head telling me to go after him. I sneak a look over my shoulder and find Vins eyes beyond the bustling bodies of people. He jerks his head in the direction of the back door and I follow his advice.
Now its a mission: I am determined to find him.
Theyre starting to count down now and the swell of bodies presses closer, making it harder to navigate to the back. A few well-placed elbows and people get out of my way. The ball has dropped. I only hope Ezra hasnt left yet.
What Ill say to him is no longer a worry. What Ill do when I see him is no longer an uncertainty. It might be the alcohol or the evening, or I could be caught up in the fever of the moment, but it all seems so clear, and I can no longer remember all the reasons why I havent done this before. Ill turn his face to mine, frame it in my hands, and kiss him before he has a chance to speak. Ill kiss him until all his erudite, expansive vocabulary deserts him, and he can only sigh.
The back door opens and the cold air rushes in. The night seems uncommonly bright, as if the stars are making their own fireworks. Thank God hes still here, standing by his car with his face raised towards the sky. Suddenly all the sounds of jubilation inside fade away, and all I can hear is my own hectic heartbeat.
When he turns around, his expression is unreadable, as always. I wish I could see past that. I wish I could see some emotion, any emotion. Surprise, resignation, shock, happiness, curiosity. Something other than his schooled, studied composure. As I approach, he looks like he wants to say something, as if hes about to say something, but I dont let him.
I take his face in my hands and I kiss him.
I close my eyes and I cover his lips as though I am more certain of this than anything in my life. I am that certain. I tell myself that Im trembling because its freezing outside. I map his mouth with mine and move one hand to the nape of his neck to fumble in the little curls there. Hes let his hair grow.
Its not like kissing a woman. He isnt soft and yielding. He is holding his ground, still a little hesitant, a little coy, a little mischievous. His scent nearly overpowers me, and his hands have found my hips. They neither demand or refuse, merely rest there, and at last his mouth opens under mine. The taste of him is better than anything I could have dreamed, and his tongue takes control of the kiss even while his hands creep around my waist. I bend my fingers around the small of his back and pull him closer to me. Closer to heaven.
I can hear fireworks explode nearby.
His mouth is hot and needy, and so much emotion is spoken in the silence between us that I nearly come undone. He clings to me like a drowning man. His tongue dives deep into my mouth, surging against mine; I feel consumed.
This is a kind of delirium. What kind of love feels like this? God, I ache for him. I know he can feel it. I pull him closer and press my body against his. I can feel him hard and eager, as aroused as I am, and it threatens to topple me. Heat radiates off of him in palpable waves and his hand is in my hair.
Sarah never kissed me like this. I lost control of this kiss the minute I initiated it. He is swaying with me now, and his mouth and hands are all I know. I pour into the embrace every ounce of passion I possess. I need him to know without words. I love him.
He breaks the kiss, breathing deep, hovering but a whisper off my lips. If my Spanish were any better, I might know what hes saying in Italian. I dont care what it is; it sounds beautiful. From somewhere I find the phrase, Happy New Year, Ezra.
My eyes still closed, I can feel him smile. I know that smile, the one he keeps to himself, only now hes sharing it with me. He moves a fraction of an inch, and I hold him tight.
Dont let go, I tell him, and I dare to look at him. Clouds of fog rise between us, our panting breaths not yet calm.
His eyes, ever beguiling, are fixed on mine. They shine. Dont ever ask me to, he replies, his accent softened and his words hushed. Happy New Year, Chris.
Hes never used my first name before. Its as close to a declaration of love as I can ever hope for. It will be, I say with absolute certainty. I am beyond elation. I am beyond fear. It will be, I promise him again, and then there are no more words. I close the distance between our lips.
I guess all I had to do was pull.
Somewhere above us fireworks pop and sizzle. Somewhere above us I know Sarah is watching, and smiling, and I know she can finally rest in peace. This is the kind of love she would want for me, the kind of love we had.
And they say lightning doesnt strike twice.