Do Not Open Before Christmas

by Vincent Holden

This is a story you won't understand.

(My symbolism can walk through walls and sink through platitudes.)

I'm not looking for your sympathy and I don't want your symmetry.

(Lend me your ears, not your insight, and leave me to my imbalanced peripheral.)

This isn't a tale of remorse, but one of hindsight; how delectable memories are when served on the chilled marble of mental tombstones.

(I feel no regret except for the fact that it took me so long in looking for the perfect set of pins to fit the pupils of my eyes when I was already so very blind.)

-----

I'm addicted to falling in love and a very clumsy romantic. I've tripped my way into more than just a few relationships, and even though my friends all tell me it's because of my unintentional charm, I normally pin the blame on bad luck. The only things I have ever labeled myself as are 'gullible' and 'nave.' You'd be amazed at how many suitors you can find just by hanging around a bar for a few hours. How can you turn a guy down when he has those puppy dog eyes?

So, you take the guy to bed with you and try not to feel bad when he makes the inevitable walk of shame out the door of your apartment the next morning. Or the next month. However long it happens to take. I've started to come under the impression that one night stands often last much longer than just one night. Once the libido dies down " now that's the true defining factor for when a couple splits up. How sad is that? What ever happened to love?

There was just no emotion in it, you know? But I suppose I shouldn't complain. Gabriele (one of my recent ex-boyfriends) and I lasted three full years. Though we slowly learned that we weren't as compatible as we once thought. He gave me more of a... romantic relationship, and it was a relatively new experience for me. God, I remember when we stayed up late, drinking together on the roof of my apartment complex! We would watch the stars while speaking to each other in haiku. I can honestly say that he made me feel happy for once. Almost as happy as when I lived back at home with all my old friends. And... of course... when I lived with Liam.

Oh... Liam.

(The tears sprang to his eyes almost instantly, and I had to look away. We didn't make any vows that we would or would not cry for each other, but that didn't stop him. It was three in the morning, only four hours before I was to leave town for good. He had insisted that he come over and wish me goodbye. I told him that he should have come to my graduation party, but he had hung up the phone before I even finished the sentence.

He took me into his arms and bit his lower lip until it went white. We could barely see each other in the dark, but we didn't need to. We could feel each other there.

"I don't want you going away," he sobbed, quietly so nobody but I could hear him in the cold night. "I know things didn't always work out between us, but... damn it, Sam, don't leave me! I don't know how I'd live life without you!"

"We'll press on," I wanted to say back. "We'll get past this. We'll live." But I didn't say it. I didn't say anything. How could I when he was crying like this? How could I calm this storm that I had no right to cause in the first place?)

It was becoming painfully clear to me that there had only been one person in my life who never abandoned me, or I, in turn, abandoned him.

"Sam, we were meant to be together!" Liam slurred to me once, letting his hot lips tickle the shell of my ear as he breathed every syllable with affection. He was already tipsy, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and splattering cheap alcohol over my shirt. I remember this night specifically not because we were still in high school and drinking underage at our friend's 18th birthday party. The reason it's burned into my memory so well is because... that was the first time Liam had ever spoken to me (or touched me for that matter) in a way that was more than strictly platonic.

We made out later that evening in the closet " ironically enough " and we only broke away from our embrace when my girlfriend walked in on us. A few seconds and harsh curse words later, I was single again. But Liam was there to comfort me. He didn't even make fun of me when I started crying.

Liam was everything I wanted in a partner. He was kind and witty. Smart and brave. He could dazzle you with his emerald eyes as you gazed at him through his silky, chocolate hair that fell in shocks about his brow. He listened to me. He understood me. Liam cradled me like an infant the day I found out my grandmother had died, and I drove him home from the bar after he unwittingly mixed his medication with seven shots of rum.

"Doesn't the bottle advise not to drink anything within 24 hours?" I chastised him from the wheel as he bobbed around in the back seat like a fish out of water.

"It didn't say to not drink!" Liam hiccupped, red in the face. "It just said 'Use caution!'"

But that was the relationship we had. No, really. That was the extent of our relationship. We had kissed before and hooked up all through our final summer together before college, but then we went our separate ways. It was nothing catastrophic. We didn't go out in a blazing argument, burning down our bridges; nor did we freeze ourselves in some cordial contentment. Liam stayed in Pennsylvania and I moved out of state to go to college in New York and... I just never moved back.

It had been six years since I had last seen him face to face, but Liam still remained my best friend and my point of reference for future boyfriends. That was a bad call on my part, I'll admit it " nobody could ever come close to comparing with Liam. Except maybe Gabriele. But in the end, we too, split up.

Now, of course, Liam and I still talked on the phone every once in a while, and even exchanged rare but welcome emails. Each sentence that we conversed was always punctuated with a brief pause. A lull in our dialogue that several "I love you's" were supposed to fill, but neither of us could bring ourselves to say. There was sadness in those pauses. And sickening pride. Besides, we were friends long before we were lovers. Kindergarten seemed like ages ago.

Apparently Liam had done well in college. He never told me what he majored in, and I never pressed him for the information. That wasn't the type of thing we talked about. Our little chats had somehow developed a routine to them: first, we would reminisce about the past (gracefully dodging the topic of our far too short period of union), then we would talk about the present, and end with an obligatory awkward silence before saying goodnight.

It wasn't long before Liam felt the necessity to break the news to me: he was going steady with a journalist named Blake. I had later been informed that they had hitched up the very next day after I had left for New York and had been together ever since.

I knew Blake back in high school, but even saying that is pushing the definition of the word. I knew him well enough while envisioning him with a bottle of Lager in his hand, but he wasn't the type of person I ever saw sober.

("Hey, buddy, can you pass that shot glass? We're gonna play quarters."

"My name's Blake." There was a sharp raspy sound as he slid the little glass cup across the table.

"My name's Sam," I returned, not really paying attention. Jocks and theater kids didn't mix too well, not even at illicit birthday parties " so it was no wonder why Blake and I didn't hit it off right away. We were two vastly different cliques.

"How about I just call you Faggy Fairy McGee?" he cursed, barely audible over the din of the rave.

"How about I punch you in that pompous jock face of yours, jerk?!"

"Just get out of my face!")

It wasn't like we were buddies or anything... obviously. But until he started going out with Liam, I honestly never thought anything about the guy... at all.

Blake's name would always come up during the "present" segment of our discussions, without fail. Apart from the pangs of jealousy and regret I felt, I began hating Blake simply from the things Liam said about him.

"I just don't know what to do anymore," he would start, and I would lean back in my chair, bracing myself as we were heading into another talk about Blake. Annoyingly enough, Liam would often manifest his worry and frustration through repetition. The problems were always the same:

"We had a fight the other day, but I think we'll make up."

"He just doesn't understand me the way you do, Sam."

"Why did I ever think I could make him change?"

"If he didn't get so plastered at parties, I guess it wouldn't be as embarrassing."

"My god, Sam... where did the years go?"

I hated Blake. Because he made Liam hate himself. Their spats never resulted in abuse from either party, but they did cause distress and woe all the same. Regardless of the weapon you use, a wound is still a wound. All I could do is console Liam, and imagine through my mind's eye that we were hugging each other tight enough to squeeze away the pain.

Begrudgingly, I was beginning to understand that Liam was far from my reach and way out of my league. I just had to face facts; he didn't love me the way I loved him.

And then... July 3rd. The phone rang.

"Hello?" I answered, a little taken aback. I didn't get many callers that weren't work related, and I hadn't bothered to check the caller ID.

"Hey..." came the sullen reply, and my heart skipped a beat. "Sam? It's me."

"Y-yeah, I know, I could tell, but..." Damn it, my words weren't working! "We usually call each other at the end of the month. You've caught me by surprise, Liam."

"You know how I love to surprise you!" he chuckled over the phone. Even behind the laughter and the garbling static, I could hear the sorrow in his voice. All of those years we had spent together as friends, unbeknownst to me, had trained my ear to pick up on the nuances of Liam's moods. Right now, he was only pretending to be normal.

I kind of wished his sentence had omitted the words "to surprise."

"I'm glad you called," I said before I could stop myself. "I've been thinking about you often."

Silence over the line. A bead of sweat trailed down my forehead. Had I said too much? I'd better remedy this situation.

"Do you have any plans for Independence Day?" Great segue, Sam, just great.

"Actually," Liam's voice began, small and timorous. "That's why I called. I was wondering if you were busy at all tomorrow? I wanted to see if we could... get together. For old time's sake."

"Liam, it's been practically seven years! Of course I'd want to see you! What ever made you think I wouldn't?"

"I... I don't know. S-silly me."

He was stuttering. Why was he was he stuttering?

"You will..." I started, choosing my words carefully. But I couldn't keep my face from frowning in concern. "Do you want me to... will you be needing... are you driving yourself here? It's a seven hour drive, and with the holiday traffic, probably longer."

"Oh, I'm already here." I swallowed dryly, nearly dropping the phone from between my fingers. "I'm staying at a Holiday Inn. They have an indoor pool, it's kick ass!"

"Liam," I breathed in disbelief. "Why are you...? How long have you...?"

"I've been in New York about two days now."

"Liam!"

"I wanted to call you sooner, but I ""

"Liam, you idiot!" I yelled, compulsively running my hand through my hair. "You should have come to me! I have lots of room a-a-and I could have saved you the money for a hotel room! What were you thinking?"

Liam audibly gulped from over the receiver and he sighed " like a balloon deflating. "I guess I wasn't thinking."

"You know I would do anything for you."

All was still again. That sentence came out much more passionately than I had intended. My feelings were starting to get tired of being bottled up like this.

Liam cleared his throat and coughed, trying to fill the silence with ambient noise just to spare us. "So, are you busy tomorrow?" he asked, hope literally coating his voice.

I smiled. I couldn't keep myself from doing it. "Liam," I called. "I am never " never! " too busy for you." I could feel the air lighten.

"T-thank you. I'll see you tomorrow then."

The line went dead, and I waited until I could hear the dial tone before I said, "I love you."

-----

Taxi's are for tourists and drunks. When living in Manhattan, if you value whatever perceived reputation you may have, you won't use a taxi. I myself, usually walked everywhere or rode my bike. Healthy for you, healthy for the environment, and you could bypass pedestrians and cars alike and no one will care.

Liam called me again the next morning to discuss meeting plans. We worked out that the two of us would meet in the scenic Time Square and then work out our day after we had caught up. It was already seven o'clock at night, but the sky didn't even remotely darken yet. In the summer, it usually took till nine before vespertine streaks of orange layered over the horizon.

I chained my bike up before ambling into Time Square, dodging traffic and passers-by with expert precision. Six years in New York and you learn how to play the "Let's Not Die" game, which always includes avoiding cars, back alleys, and anyone that gives off even a mote of a suspicious atmosphere.

As usual, Time Square was packed with people, even at this weird hour. The swelling mob almost literally swallowed me as I scoured the heads for familiarity. I wasn't entirely sure whether I was supposed to stay where I was and have Liam come to me, or if I was to find him. I'm not sure why, but deep down in my gut, I felt as if this were a search and rescue mission. I set my feet into motion and plunged into the crowd.

This wasn't like being a sardine. Sardines at least had all that water to wriggle around in. Here in New York, you were less than a sardine, people pushing and shoving in every direction. If you stopped to tie your shoe, you'd end up getting run over. But I wasn't stopping. I couldn't! I had to find Liam. Maybe not because I felt obligated to. Maybe not because I wanted to get to the bottom of this whole situation. Maybe it was just because I needed to see him.

"Sam! Sam, over here!" Through the crowd, he ran to me. He flung his arms around me and nuzzled into my shoulder.

"Liam," I said, his name coating my tongue like sugar. "I'm... I'm all sweaty...."

Liam disregarded my sympathetic warning and only hugged me tighter. When he finally pulled away, I held him at arms length and stared longingly at his face.

"I barely recognized you!" I gawked, still giving him a once over. "You have glasses! And you let your hair grow out! It looks adorable."

Liam sort of snickered to himself and played with a strand that dangled in a twisting curl by the top of his ear. "Blake hates it," he grinned. "And you! My god, Sam, where did the years go? You look all grown up and mature with your hair cut like that. And are those contacts or did you get laser eye surgery?"

"Surgery," I informed, proudly. "I actually chickened out of it twice, but contacts and glasses were just getting to be too much of a hassle." Liam shied away, his cheeks growing florid underneath the sheepish grin. "Oh! Uh... but you... you look fantastic in glasses! You really, really do!"

We both smiled at each other, beaming with goofy smirks. After a while, Liam glanced into a nearby store window, and I soon followed in suit. Our reflection was uncanny. We were taller, and Liam looked thinner, and I had a five o'clock shadow... but we still looked just like we were all the way back in high school. Only... only in reverse. He was me and I was him. When did that happen?

"So, where are we going to eat?" Liam asked, breaking my attention away from the glass and back to the mirror of his stunning jade irises.

"Didn't you plan any of this out?" I chuckled back, placing my hands on my hips and glaring down my nose at him accusingly. Older or not, I still towered over him by a good four inches. Enough to successfully carry out the role of condescending parent.

"You know me," he spat, throwing his hands into the air. "I can't make decisions! I'm a spontaneous guy. I just let the wind carry me where it will."

"By the looks of how thin you are, I wouldn't put it past you to be swept away by a breeze..."

"Oh, har, har," Liam sang, not amused. "I've worked hard to get the way I am. Don't mock me."

"Anyway," I ejected, hurriedly changing the subject. The last thing I needed was an argument from my long lost best friend " even if it was just in jest. "Luckily for you, I anticipated your negligence and already picked out the perfect place." I paused for dramatic effect, Liam playing along, nodding his head while waiting on bated breath. "Ben's Kosher Deli & Restaurant." The emphasis on "Kosher" was intentional.

Liam's eyes literally lit up and his mouth dropped open. "Oh my god," he wheezed, growing rigid. "Kosher? Oh my god, Sam, I haven't eaten Kosher in... in forever!"

He lunged for me again, embracing me closer than when we had only minutes before. I couldn't keep myself from laying my hand on his head and playing with his brunette hair between my fingers. He gave off the faint smell of cigarette smoke. I had forgotten how much I loved the way the smoke clung to his skin like a noxious, intoxicating perfume. It did my heart good to know he still smoked. It proved that there were still constants in his life that hadn't changed, regardless of his appearance.

"You're Jewish, dude," I reminded, playfully, after we had separated again. I had also forgotten how cold and empty I felt when Liam wasn't in my arms. "I would think you'd eat Kosher every day."

"Eh," Liam shrugged, already tugging at my arm to make me start walking. "Blake is Roman Catholic, and I'm not that religious anyway. A few sacrifices had to be made on both ends, but we've worked it out. Still, Kosher! I'm so excited!"

As well he should have been.

Liam got a chicken soup with Matzo balls and a lean tuna fish salad sandwich. He ate every bite as if it were his last " rolling the food about in his mouth and smiling around his stuffed cheeks. Somehow, I had lost my appetite while watching him. I had found something sweeter to indulge in than a roast turkey sandwich.

"How's Aiden?" I inquired softly when he had finished his tuna salad. He took a moment to scoop the last of his soup from the bowl with his spoon before inhaling it and resting his hands in his lap.

"Little bro?" he confirmed with a smirk. "He's great. Just graduating high school. He wants to be a volunteer fireman. I swear, some old childhood dreams never die!"

I tried to join him in his smile at this, but I couldn't. The truth he spoke stabbed me too deeply. I usually didn't let anything get under my skin, especially not something as innocent as that. But Liam knew how to get past my carefully adorned suit of emotional armor. Or maybe, I just let him through unhindered...

"And," I started again, venturing into the apparent taboo. "What about Blake?"

Liam's face dropped and he fumbled with his joyful expression. At the very mention of his name, the air between us staled. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Saying that only makes me worry even more."

"I'm not saying I don't want you worrying about me," Liam shot back, his words sharp. He seemed to notice his venom and withdrew into himself, averting his gaze apologetically. "I just don't want to talk about it right now."

-----

Why we should try to visit the Statue of Liberty was beyond me. I told Liam, again and again " incessantly even! " that since today was the Fourth of July, everybody and their mother was going to want to see the Statue of Liberty. But Liam fought me every step of the way, like a toddler who just had to get what he wanted.

Sure enough, we had barely made it to the ferry when we met up with the end of the line. It must have stretched for miles, snaking along to the very shore. I rolled my eyes and tried not to let out the exasperated sigh that was itching in my throat.

Nonetheless, Liam and I got in line and waited. We'd never make it back in time to see the fireworks celebration. Meanwhile, silence was becoming our native tongue.

"Do you want to turn back?" I offered, getting bored just thinking about how long this wait was going to be.

"No," Liam replied, curtly. "If you're so bored, then entertain yourself."

"Do you want to talk about Blake?"

"Don't even start, Sam. This is a good moment for us, don't ruin it."

The line moved an inch; my clock hand moved an hour.

"Why are you here?" I asked, trying to make my voice as grave as I possibly could. Liam got the message and kept his back to me. I tried again, a little louder. Perhaps he hadn't heard me. But Liam just stood with his arms folded over his chest. He glared at the Statue of Liberty as if it were his one and only reason for getting up in the morning. I placed my hand on his shoulder, but he didn't shrug me off.

"Liam... I really think we should talk about this."

At that, he whirled around and slapped my arm away. It was only then that I noticed his eyes were red and brimming with tears.

"Why can't you just let me enjoy myself?" he sobbed. I was so startled by his demeanor that I couldn't formulate a response. Liam must have taken my speechlessness for thoughtlessness, as he inhaled sharply and pushed himself through the line of people and out into the open street again.

It was getting dark, and the night's chill was setting in. But even if this wasn't true, I still would have pursued Liam. Hell, I'd been chasing after him in one way or another all my life, why wouldn't I now? But with the combination of all of New York's civilians and Liam's swift steps, I just couldn't seem to catch up with him.

I could still see him, however, wiping away his tears on his sleeve and muttering half-hearted "Excuse me's" as people shamelessly bumped into him.

To my surprise, as the shoreline began to clear, Liam slowed down on his own accord. He meandered to a stop and leaned heavily on a railing over looking the Hudson River, staring at its waters with equally watery eyes. I gradually made my way up to him and stood by his side, joining him in his gaze.

"I'm sorry," he said at long last, his voice still quivering. "The whole reason I came here was to talk about Blake with you. But when we finally got to see each other... I just thought it would be better to not taint the rekindling of our friendship."

"You've always been a selfless martyr," I hissed sardonically through my teeth. "That's why I hate you so much."

Liam looked at me, saw my faltering deadpan visage, and burst into laughter. His giggles were like butterflies skipping atop flowers in a meadow, and they warmed my heart. Not even sleeping with the countless men I had known gave me such a thrill as hearing Liam's angelic chuckle.

But the laugh ultimately died away, and he turned back to the darkening canvas of evening. The sun had dipped so low that all that remained of its rays was a purple stroke shimmering just over the horizon. "Blake and I decided... that we should take a break for a few days."

I wasn't shocked at this. I was excited. But I hid it well for Liam's sake.

"Our relationship had been growing strained and we both agreed that we should get away for a while," he continued explaining, not looking me in the eye. "So, I came out here. Visiting you was the first and only choice that came to mind."

"I'm flattered." That was an understatement. But I couldn't make this about me. It was about Liam and Blake.

Liam had nothing to say to this. Instead, he slumped down lower and rested his chin on the tops of his hands. "I just don't know what to do anymore..." he sighed.

Looking back, I like to tell myself it was a trick of the light. I like to pretend I had gone momentarily insane. I like to retell this story with me being drunk and having no control over what I said. But no matter how much I hate it, I suppose it can't be changed now. I suppose, no matter what, it would have never changed.

"Go back to him."

Liam shot up with a bewildered visage. "W-what?"

I cleared my throat and blinked away the tears already burning behind my eyes. "I think you should go back to him. Give him another chance. You guys were just under a lot of anxiety, you know? Mom always says: 'How can you miss someone you've never been away from?' You just needed to get away from each other for a while."

He took it in stride, his face doing gymnastics to account for all the emotions he was feeling: surprise, relief, hurt, thanks, regret. His expressions just couldn't keep up with his morphing spirit and, in the end, he resulted to hiding his face in his arms.

"So where does that leave us?" he choked, muffled by the fabric of his clothes.

"I said you should go back to him," I pointed out. "I never said when. You don't have to leave right away. You can always go... tomorrow."

Liam looked up again, one emerald eye visible between his arm and flowing, chocolate hair. He straightened his back out and faced me, an odd look plastered across his face. "Tomorrow?" he whispered, stepping closer.

"Today, just do whatever you want to do."

"What I want to do," he parroted, closer.

Out over the Hudson River, just beyond the Statue of Liberty, a fleet of barges flared into life, rocketing fireworks into the black sky. They erupted in the air, showering down like phoenix fire to the earth below. I had no idea if it was the boom of explosions that pounded my chest so, or if it was the beating of my own heart.

Even as the air lit up in flames, Liam crashed into me, setting his lips upon mine. We kissed until we were breathless, and saw fireworks. We saw fireworks.

-----

My body and Liam's fit together like a jig-saw puzzle. But the riddle of our mutual existence still had a few pieces missing. That didn't mean we couldn't enjoy ourselves. In the dark, you can imagine you're whoever you want with whomever you want.

Liam stumbled over my name.

He had started to cry out Blake's.

-----

The next morning, when I woke up, the first thing that greeted me was the present. Sitting idle on the bedside table, no bigger than a breadbox, looking pretty with its silver wrapping paper and silky crimson bow. It was all Liam's idea.

"Christmas in July," he mused, sometime last night around three in the morning. We had both been drinking. "And next year, when we finally sort everything out, we can come back together and open it again."

The second thing that caught my eye was the note. I picked it up, already sensing the loss of Liam's aura, and read it with a broken heart:

"I thought a lot about what you said," the paper had scribed across it in Liam's majestic cursive. "Thank you for a wonderful time. I won't forget this, or you. I'll see you sometime next year. Ho, ho, ho!"

As I returned my gaze to the gift, black sharpie stood out, scrawled over the silver like an elegant scar.

"Do Not Open Before Christmas"

-----

Liam was supposed to call me exactly one year later on the Fourth of July. I had done more than just mark it on my calendar. I had actually devoted countless hours to debating with myself on what it was exactly that I wanted. I knew I loved Liam more than anything... and yet my heart just didn't feel right.

In the end, a full twelve months later, I still had no idea what to do. Love Liam? Let Liam go? Stay friends? Become enemies? Honestly, all of those were ideas that had rushed through my head more than once, and all of them were plausible to me.

Liam was supposed to call. I waited for him. By my phone. Sitting all alone on my apartment's couch. Staring. Never taking my eyes off it. I just sat there, thinking of just what I was supposed to say to him, until midnight.

Liam never called.

("You should have called me sooner," Liam whispered, rubbing my back as it heaved up and down with my uncontrollable sobs. "I would have been here for you. I would have gone to her funeral with you."

"I d-didn't..." I stuttered, forcing the words out through my ugly mouth and my ugly weeping. "I didn't want to bother you. It wasn't my right t-to burden you w-with this."

"Damn it, Sam," he hissed, his worry manifesting itself as anger. "She was your grandmother. She still is your grandmother, whatever better place she may be in now. And I'm still your best friend."

He pulled me in tighter, and I could hear his heart beating. It was hard to imagine that we were just teenagers. He rested his chin on my head as I cried into his chest. He didn't hesitate to kiss me. "And I still love you," he murmured. "You should have called.")

And I didn't call Liam.

In fact, the two of us wouldn't speak to each other for another nine years.

I lived out my life, in the meantime, in New York. Regardless of its drawbacks, the city was becoming more and more my home. And, boy, did it have its drawbacks. I had quite a few ordeals that came way too close for comfort: an HIV scare, a mugging in a back alley, a crazy, stalker ex-boyfriend, a rent-boy with a particularly unsettling foot fetish. All in all, the dating wasn't too bad. I met guys at the juke box bar I frequent on weekends and sometimes weeknights when I wasn't too busy with my job (art teacher " went into college hoping to be a lawyer, came out a high school art teacher... go figure).

After a while, my life became a living hell. I no longer went out to bars " ever! I huddled up in my apartment watching old re-runs when I wasn't out with friends. They would all comment on how withdrawn I had become. Well, what did they expect? My life completely revolved around someone I barely even saw anymore. I couldn't take my mind off of Liam. It consumed me.

I found myself becoming incredibly boring. Men would come up to me and ask me out on dates and I would turn them down without a second thought. How can I just put my trust in people when I had such delusions of grandeur? Of course, not everyone is a psycho, but how can you ever be sure? You can't. I was too insecure about myself and the human race in general to even try.

Christmas was just around the corner, and of course my mind strayed to Liam. I had years ago put our gift into storage, and it waited there indefinitely to be opened. There were days when I would think that present would never see that light of day ever again. Just like I would never see Liam ever again.

It was nearly three in the morning the night Liam called me. I couldn't sleep anyway, sitting up late, wondering what it would be like to play Russian roulette with six bullets " I had no doubt I would be able to win, even with my luck. I was glad that the phone broke me from my trance. This time, I looked at the caller ID... and nearly died with excitement.

I answered the phone and shoved it to my ear, shouting, "Liam?!"

There was nothing over the line but static and the faint sounds of crying. I waited for an answer, but there wasn't any. "Liam, if you're there, say something," I pleaded desperately. This silence was worse than misery incarnate. "Liam, what's wrong?"

He gasped in the background a few more times and my heart raced with fear. "I just..." he started, sounding distant and broken. "I just really need you here right now."

The line went dead.

-----

I left my apartment at 3:26 am, took a taxi to the airport, got there around 4:00 (I had begun to drive myself crazy looking at my watch every five seconds, and, in the end, I threw it into my hastily packed suitcase), and bought my first airplane ticket in 15 years. A one way trip back to a place I once called home.

The woman at the desk told me that the next flight for Pittsburgh was at 8:00, essentially four hours later. I told her that I wouldn't stand for that. She frowned, rubbed her tired eyes and checked the flight plans again. A plane with vacant seats leaving New York in twenty minutes was bound for Chicago which then had a connecting flight to Pittsburgh. I took it.

I understand perfectly that this was essentially pointless. The total flight time it would take ultimately amounts to the same if I had just waited for the direct plane to Pittsburgh at 8:00. But I was so anxious that moving in any direction at all was better than remaining stagnant.

During the hour layover in Chicago, I tried to call Liam several times in an attempt to find out what was going on, but Blake was always the one who answered. I didn't want to talk to him, even if it was just as a middle man to get to Liam. So I stopped calling altogether before he could get suspicious at all the "wrong numbers."

It would be boring to go into detail about how I threw up on the plane into Pennsylvania even though there was no turbulence. It would be torturous to recall how I had to telephone for a taxi cab into rural Irwin, and pay an exorbitant amount of money for it. And, if you want me to be honest, I don't remember most of it anyway. All I could focus on was thinking of worst case scenarios in which something horrible was happening to Liam.

It took me three tries before I finally managed to build up enough gumption to ring their doorbell. I first had to swallow my pride, seeing the bulk of their middle-class home that put my meager apartment to shame.

Blake answered the door, adorned with relaxed clothes and darkened, sleepless eyes beneath his blonde hair.

"I'm glad you came," he greeted after a pause, standing between me and the warm inside of his house. Snow is usually romantic, but I didn't want to think about that right now. "He hasn't talked to anybody. Not since ""

"I don't want to hear it," I cut him off, shaking my head. "Liam will tell me."

"I'm telling you he's not speaking to anybody. Not even me."

I'm going to say Blake glared at me as I walked in through the door. But it would be a lie. In some... round about, vicarious way, he truly was glad to see me; just as a drunkard is glad to see a bottle of aspirin during a hangover.

He didn't speak to me anymore and I navigated my way through their house and up the stairs.

Liam's room was dark, nearly pitch black. I could barely make out his frame beneath the heavy comforter of his bed. He was laying with his back to me, staring out the window " that is, he would have been staring out the window if the curtains hadn't been drawn against them. They were even duct taped to the window sills to be sure that absolutely no light filtered through. That was Liam... 100% in everything he did, even misery.

I lingered in the doorway, my shadow looking ominous as it stretched into the room ahead of me. I still had no idea what to say, and even if by chance I had rehearsed something, it would have done no good. My very breath was stolen away from me. Liam didn't even look up. You would have thought he was asleep.

But I knew better. I knew he knew better. We knew we knew each other too well to actually know what exactly was better.

Blake must have felt obligated to escort me as he ascended the stairs after a while. His eyes were welling with hope as I forced myself to step inside and he took my place in the doorway.

I fumbled with my jacket pocket, treading lightly towards the foreboding mattress. I knelt down beside him and laid my hand against his back. He didn't even flinch. "Liam," I called in a whisper. "It's me." He sort of shivered, but other than that, there was no response.

Pulling a pack of Nat Sherman cigarettes from the pocket, I leaned closer into him, lowering my voice. "Here," I cooed, offering them from behind. "I bought your favorite brand."

"Liam doesn't smoke," Blake scoffed from the doorway, but he might as well have been a fly on the wall. I could practically feel his shoulders droop when Liam brought out a limp hand and grasped the pack. Weakly, he folded his fingers around it and pulled his arm back down below his sheets, taking the cigarettes with him, saying nothing.

Blake feigned like he had something important to do and sauntered from the second floor. I stayed behind, rubbing Liam's back and humming whatever came to mind. "Do you want to talk?" I asked. No answer. Liam just curled into himself even tighter.

I looked around the room with a sigh. His walls were completely bare and looked as if everything had been torn from them at a moment's notice. Next to his closet, Liam had a narrow cork board which was pathetic in its emptiness. I stood up and went to it. The pins were still lodged within the brown cork, shreds of paper hanging unceremoniously like dilapidated streamers. It was almost as if a wicked wind swept away all that had once adorned it.

Next to the cork board was a very large trash can. I soon realized that this is where all the papers had ended up. I foraged through them " they were all crinkled and torn. Photographs, letters, essays pieces, newspaper clippings. All of friends and family and...

Me.

By some crazy happenstance, I had picked out a picture of me and Liam. It was taken during our summer of bliss when we had been together at the Twin Lake's Arts Festival. The memories flooded back to me and I chocked on a whimper.

Liam's sheets ruffled at my tears. He could sense me remembering.

Even some of the newspaper clippings from the New York Times were about me. I brought out a review that had been sloppily snipped out of the newspaper. "Art Teacher's Exhibition Flops!" the small heading read, and my heart lurched. I furrowed my brow in spite, continuing to read the article in my head. "Sam Maurel, a high school art teacher, had his first " and hopefully last " exhibition yesterday evening. To think a person with such lack of talent could be molding the minds of our youth and ""

I couldn't read anymore. Besides, I had already lived through that hell once before. Why would Liam keep something like this? I instinctively began to crumple it up, but stopped myself. It wasn't my right to destroy it. This article didn't belong to me, but Liam... even if he had thrown it away. Regardless that all these things were in the trash, it still hadn't been set out for the garbage trucks yet, which means they still had some value for him.

The sense of accomplishment swelling in my chest was almost bitter-sweet: Liam had still been thinking of me, even after all these years.

Slowly, I picked out a picture from the garbage and pinned it back up to the cork board. It was a picture of Liam on his graduation day from college. He was kissing Blake on the cheek.

I sat next to Liam for a few more hours. It was the least I could do. He barely moved at all, and I never once saw his face " he had buried himself deep within the confines of his sheets, and wasn't coming out. I asked him if he wanted to be alone, and he vaguely fidgeted. I took that for a yes, and went downstairs.

Blake was sitting at the kitchen table, poring over papers, scratching things out with his red pen and rewriting. He didn't see me enter, so I waited for him to notice my presence. He glanced up for a second before returning to work, and I surmised that meant he didn't mind my being there.

"Are you still a journalist?" I asked, surprising even myself with the crack in my voice.

"Editor, now," he corrected, barely lifting his nose to me. "You a lawyer?"

"Art teacher, actually."

Blake grunted in affirmation. He didn't have to say what he was thinking; I knew he thought I was a hack. "I guess that means Liam's the only lawyer around here, still."

I didn't react. That's exactly what Blake wanted. He was trying to see if I knew Liam was a lawyer (which I didn't), watching from his peripheral for any signs that I may be faltering. I didn't give him any, either to confirm or deny. I remained stone. This was all just payback for the "Liam doesn't smoke," comment from before. I refused to be coaxed into a battle of who-loves-Liam-more.

"I'm letting you stay," he said, standing all at once. "I love my fianc. Enough to let his ex-lover into my house and stay with us. Anything to make him feel better."

The word "fianc" stabbed me like a knife.

"Thank you," I whispered, breathless. He wasn't being threatening. He wasn't being territorial. Blake truly did care for Liam. He would be there for him through thick or thin. And that's what I hated the most: I couldn't find anything to hate about him.

-----

Every morning I would wake up and go into Liam's room, sitting beside him until he too awoke. His green irises were dull with a gut wrenching mixture of haze and despair. When he saw me, his mouth would always twitch into a small smile, but it would just as quickly vanish, and he would roll over in his bed. I wished him good morning, every morning, being sure to make him not just hear the words, but be surrounded by them.

I would bring to him his breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then ask him if he wanted the light on to eat. He would never answer, so I would always leave the light off. When I came back an hour later to pick up his dishes, most of the food would still be there on his plate. But at least he was eating a little bit.

This was the routine I did for five days. I felt like a maid, wandering the house, taking care of Liam, avoiding Blake. He worked out of the house during the days, and sadly, that's when Liam was most active.

Even more saddening is that the most activity I ever saw Liam do was toss in his bed and maybe take an occasional shower.

The first thing I heard was Liam's bedroom door open and shut. I wasn't too concerned, for as I said before, he often took showers while Blake was away at his job. I paid no mind to it and continued reading the New York Times. "You're the reason we subscribed to that newspaper," Blake begrudgingly admitted to me. "Liam never said why, but I figured it out. It was all on the off chance that you actually made it into the news."

Regardless, Liam going to the bathroom didn't bother me. However, it had been ten minutes since he had gone and the water wasn't running yet. I noticed this and folded the newspaper in half over the table and listened intently. As if on cue, the water started upstairs, and for an instant, my suspicions subsided.

But the water kept running. And running. It didn't sound like a shower. I cocked my ear to the ceiling and waited for it to stop... which it ultimately did. Was Liam taking a bath? Liam never took baths " he said they wasted way too much water. At some point, I had risen from my seat and was now drifting through the kitchen, listening to every sound, no matter how insignificant. At long last, I heard the unmistakable displacement of water as Liam eased himself into the tub.

"He is taking a bath..." I gawked out loud.

My mind raced.

Keeping one ear sharp, I wandered past the sink and opened up all of the drawers. None of the silverware was missing. I trotted into the living room where they stored craft supplies and materials. The scissors were still in their place.

I clamored down the stairs, taking three steps at a time. I fumbled with Blake's tool box, nearly dumping the entire thing out onto the floor.

"Razor blades," I murmured to myself, tossing aside screwdrivers and hammers. "Razor blades, razor blades, razor blades!"

There were no razor blades.

My legs lost their strength and my knees buckled beneath me. I fell to the hard, concrete ground with a sigh, running my hand compulsively through my hair. What was I thinking? How was I supposed to know where Blake kept anything, let alone specific utensils? Did I really have that little faith in Liam? I swallowed hard and got to my feet.

No. I loved him too much to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Practically flying up from the basement to the second floor, I ran into the bathroom without, even knocking, throwing my weight against the door with a thud of my shoulder. Hopefully Liam was still in there, and I couldn't risk being discreet " I had to be sure!

I burst the door open, praying to God that I wouldn't see the red water and pale flesh I was imagining in my head.

Liam jumped in the bath, splashing water; his emerald eyes grew wide and dilated. I stared at him. He stared at me.

"I..." The words were eluding me. "I couldn't find the razor blades."

He stood up, dripping, and shivered, crossing his arms around his chest to guard against the chill. Liam shook his head and let out a raspy whimper. "I wouldn't do that," is what he was saying, and I cursed myself for ever thinking otherwise. I slammed my fist into the door frame " I could think of no other way to manifest the utter detest and shame I was feeling for myself.

Liam timidly drew out of the bathtub and approached me. He tugged at my sleeve, almost like a child would to his mother's apron ("Thank you for coming, anyway. I'm glad you care that much.").

"What was I supposed to think?" I whispered, fending off my sobs with rehearsed efficiency.

He let his hand fall, his fingers lighting over my arm, tracing along my skin ever so gently, touching my hand in his ("I gave you no reason to think I wouldn't.").

His wordless reassurance was somehow enough to calm me. I averted my eyes, blushing, only now realizing that he was indecent. I felt his presence leave my side as he sauntered back into the warm water he had prepared for himself. When I glanced up again, Liam was gazing at me with those gleaming, jade orbs of his. He parted his lips. (This could either mean: "Don't forget to shut the door on your way out," or "Please... stay." I took it for the latter.)

Liam was limp as he soaked in the bath, his jaw open absently, his eyes dim in thought. There were times when I thought the connection between us was so strong that I could read his mind, but in reality, I couldn't. I had no idea what he was thinking as I rubbed the sponge up and down his back. It was slow and methodical, and in a strange way, familiar.

There was no sound between us but the shallow splash of water and the trickling notes as the sponge drained back into the tub when I squeezed it. I leaned over on my haunches, putting my chest against him and my hand around his arm as I washed his front, trailing down his torso and then back up. His breathing was heavy, the ebb and flow of his lungs only adding to the rhythm we had created.

The sheer majesty of our oneness...

We didn't even flinch when Blake entered the room. Our heads turned in unison to see him standing in the doorway, still dressed in his business suit, holding a bouquet of flowers. His mouth was a thin line as he glared at us, but not even he was able to break the silence.

He dropped his eyes, started to place the flowers on the counter, stopped, looked at us again with a broken visage, turned away, and set the flowers down as gently as I had ever seen. Blake put his hand to his mouth as if in thought and strode from the bathroom, down the stairs, out to his car, and back to work. He was so completely furious that he had become dismissive, I could tell. It appeared that I wasn't the only one who didn't know how to manifest my detestation.

How many more days went by after that? I couldn't tell you. It wasn't many, but for me, each setting of the sun was a heartbeat, and every dawn a mere breathe. There was nothing more we could do for Liam.

How do you negotiate with loss? How do you bribe away the pain? You can't pull someone out of their misery if they themselves don't want to leave. We just have to be patient. We would just have to light our lamps at the mouth of despair and wait for Liam to find his own way out.

His eyes were hollow as he loomed in the kitchen doorway.

Both Blake and I started in our seats " this was the first time Liam had come downstairs. His bottom lip quivered and he bit it to keep it steady.

"I think..." he started, his first words in forever. "I think I want to talk about it now."

No sooner had he said this did he collapse into the door frame, covering his face with his hands, bawling terribly. His entire body quaked with the force of his tears. Blake ran to him and guided Liam to a seat, only breaking away to get him a glass of water.

I stood, paralyzed. I was so happy to see him cry. I was so happy to see him showing emotion once again.

-----

Aiden, Liam's younger brother, was dead.

Between Liam sobbing and his desperate attempt to let all of his emotions flow from him, that was all I could really get from what he was saying. He sat at the table, repeating over and over again, "He's dead! My God, my brother is dead!"

They had been close siblings. I think I only ever saw them fight once in my life, and that was over who had used up the last of the syrup.

("Aiden, I swear to God, if you used up the syrup without telling anyone, I'm going to kick your ass!" Aiden flinched. Liam readjusted the apron around his waist " a comical touch on his part " and stomped toward the refrigerator, spatula still in hand. He opened the door and almost instantly slammed it shut again.

"Aiden, you idiot!"

He threw the door open a second time and withdrew the bottle of syrup, a little more than a spoonful coating the bottom. Liam pounded the container onto the table and brandished his silicon spatula like a weapon. "God damn it, Aiden, do you know how long I've been preparing for this?! Do you have any idea how much this means to me?! And you go and use all the syrup without even telling me afterwards?!"

"Liam, there's no need to shout at him," I cautioned, but quietly. I didn't actually want to get involved.

"Get out of here!" Liam shrieked at his brother. When Aiden didn't move, he shouted harder. "GET OUT!!"

Aiden rushed from the kitchen and into his room, crashing the door closed behind him. Liam dropped into the now vacant chair and sighed, a great weight lifting off of him as his anger dissipated. I stood over him and kissed him on his head. He nuzzled into my chest and cried.

"I wanted this to be special," he admitted. "I had everything planned for once, and now it's all ruined." I hugged him tighter, telling him I could eat the pancakes without syrup, and they would still be delicious. "That's not the point," he spat, wiping his eyes. "I wanted to prove I could do something for you and not screw it up....")

The specifics of Aiden's death had to be told to me by Blake, as all Liam had done was weep, eat a couple spoonfuls of soup, and then limp back into his bed. Blake told me that Aiden had only just turned 27 years old and was finally starting move up in his job as a biological engineer. He was part of an apprenticeship and everything.

A few years back he moved into a rather large apartment and had to room with a complete stranger to help pay for the rent. Aiden and this other young man were always at odds and used every indirect way of sabotage in the book: it ranged from flushing the toilet while the other was in the shower to tearing up the other's bills before they could be mailed. Aiden had reported more than once that his roommate wanted to kill him and had said so out loud numerous times.

One day, a month after Aiden's 27th birthday, a fluke electrical fire sparked in their apartment. The roommate made it out perfectly fine. Aiden didn't. They found him dead, face first into his mattress, killed by the toxic smoke. When questioned later about the incident, the roommate claimed that Aiden had gone back inside to try and put the fire out " he was a volunteer fireman, after all. He just failed.

Liam called the man out on his blatant lie. His alibi didn't account for the swollen wound found on the back of Aiden's head, or the fact that the cause of the fire was still unknown. Liam pointed out that even if it was an electrical fire, it had started in the kitchen, so why would Aiden be trying to put out the fire from his bedroom? Not to mention that, as a volunteer fireman, Aiden surely would have realized the dangers of a burning building and never would have reentered it in an attempt to be "the hero."

Liam, lawyer and vengeful brother, wanted to press charges.

The family refused to do so.

Feeling betrayed by all around him, Liam slipped into a deep depression, resulting in the condition he was in now. He had lost his brother. He had lost his respect for his parents. He had lost everything he once had. The one person Liam felt hadn't abandoned him... was me.

I was later told that the very night of Aiden's funeral, the one thing Liam couldn't stop thinking about was how sick I had felt when my grandmother died. He tried his hardest to keep from calling me as I had kept from calling him, but at three in the morning, his will broke. Liam had felt even more powerless as he called me, hoping that I could be a pillar of strength in his sandcastle life.

I didn't have the heart to tell him how weak I truly was.

Soon after, Liam was almost completely back to his normal self. He ate dinner with us, he started actually leaving the house, and even helped with chores. I was obviously overstaying my welcome.

On the day I was to leave for New York, Liam asked me to take a walk with him. We bundled up in our winter coats and stepped out into the snow. Now was the time to consider it romantic. We walked in silence for a long time until we reached a sort of pond. It was frozen over and blanketed in white by the soft flakes as they wafted down from the gray skies. We stood at the edge, contemplating the irony of a frozen lake.

"I think I'm going through my mid-life crisis," Liam joked, half-heartedly.

"My whole life's one big mid-life crisis."

Silence. It was the only constant left in our relationship. For some reason, we couldn't love each other like normal people do. Our pieces just didn't fit.

"Where do we go from here?" Liam asked me.

"I was thinking the very same thing."

"We were both waiting for our cue... or was it our cupid?" he joked, forcing a grin. We met each other's eyes, but simultaneously looked away. "Looks like he wasted his arrows. We've been fighting against the current for so long we've... we've forgotten what it was we were swimming towards."

"Each other," I blurted out, but choked on the acrid taste of the lie. "We... we love each other... don't we?"

"They say love conquers all things. But what happens when there was nothing to fight but ourselves?"

I let this profound truth sink in and Liam breathed, the air from his lungs condensing into fog from the cold. "I love you," Liam said, his voice quivering. "But I don't know how or why. I can't stop thinking of you... but I can't stop living life without you."

He turned to me suddenly, taking my hand in his, pleading with his eyes. "It just never works, you know?" he whimpered. "It's always tragedy that brings us together, but nothing is there to hold us apart to begin with. I'm starting to think that we were meant to be together... but as a punishment. And the fates keep us away on purpose to watch us writhe!"

Silence. I was getting used to the quiet. There was so much honesty in the things I didn't say.

"It's going to be Christmas soon," I began. Liam nodded. "I still have our gift, if you want it."

"Sam," Liam sighed, and my name died on his tongue. "We promised we wouldn't open that gift until we had sorted everything out." It was my turn to nod. Liam looked at me, sad and regretful. "I don't think we can ever open that gift."

Silence. There were miles between us. How long had it been since we first started drifting apart?

"Do you still love me?" I couldn't keep myself from asking. "I mean... really?"

"I've always loved you. But in a way I can't explain."

And just like that... there was nothing left to say.

-----

I got a knock on my apartment door two years later, on July 4th. Liam was there, smiling. He looked just as good as ever, just as beautiful. You'd think he hadn't aged a day with that angelic face of his.

He had broken up with Blake. No, he didn't tell me that. I hadn't spoken to him since I left Pennsylvania. I could tell by the look on his face. A look of relief. A look of bewilderment.

I was still single. Liam knew this. No, I didn't tell him. He could see it on my face. A look of despair. A look of hope.

He leaned into me, and we kissed. We tried so hard. We wanted the love to be there, somewhere deep within that kiss. But as we delved further, we realized there was no connection between us other than the one in our lips. There might have been, long ago, but it was far too late now.

In silence, we walked to the storage facility where we kept the Christmas gift. In silence, we passed by couples waiting to see the fireworks in their loved one's eyes. In silence, we retrieved the present marked "Do Not Open Before Christmas." In silence, we opened it.

We finally understood. We finally had everything sorted.

There, sitting within the box was a rosebud, long ago dead and dried until it almost glowed with a deep maroon. Liam took the rose and held it in his hands, gently as to be sure none of the petals broke off and fell to the ground.

Beneath the rose was a photograph. It was a picture of us, along the Hudson Bay, fireworks blossoming in the background. I couldn't tell you what it was like to smile at that picture. It felt liberating to see us so happy and to know that soon, very soon, we would be that happy again.

I set the box down and Liam took out his lighter. With our thumbs pressed up against each other, we flicked the switch together, and made the flame.

The rose was the first to burn. It caught quickly, and Liam dropped it down into the gift with its dingy silver wrapping paper and its tacky red bow. The night sky darkened around us as we watched the fire consume every last petal until there was nothing but ash.

I lifted the picture. We laughed at it one last time, marveling at how classy we were eleven years ago. What were we thinking with that tight pair of jeans and that god awful hairdo? We smiled at each other through that photo. With a high pitched whine, the plastic began to melt, and the picture wrinkled with the heat. That, too, was thrown into the box to burn.

The gift box unintentionally caught aflame as ash and glimmering silver danced in the air around us through the wind. Even as it lay on the ground, burning, Liam and I turned to each other. Would this finally be... our happily ever after?

He leaned into me. I leaned into him. We embraced each other in a hug, so close that we could feel each other's hearts beating as one " they were slow and steady. In a flash of love and enlightenment, we connected with each other for the very first time.

When we pulled away, Liam smiled again and brushed past me, going right. I smiled back, and brushed past him, going left. The box died down into glowing embers as we parted ways, and nothing rose from the ashes. Yes, it may not be as happy as we wanted it, but this was our ever after. We weren't star crossed lovers, but comets. Destined to pass each other by.

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