written by Robyn A. Howard
(her website & Twitter)
for EverAfterPrint writing competition March, 2021
There are two houses, conjoined, that sit on a little street near the woods. They are mirrors of each other. Two windows, a door, two windows above. They sit in brick and are bleached by the sun. When it rains, the droplets chase each other down the tiles, pooling on the manicured lawns. They each have an occupied drive and a little fence that marks their land. They are the same, practically one.
But only from the outside. One has red curtains, the other blue. One has cream carpets, the other wooden floorboards with yellow rugs and black rugs and a sheepskin that was a detested gift from a lonely Christmas spent in the city. One has collections of ships in bottles, and dreams of the ocean. The other collects broken toys to repair and sell at the market at weekends to children with grass-stained knees and ice cream headaches.
One prefers vacations in the summer, and the other takes holidays in the winter. One takes coffee in the morning, and the other drinks only mild, milky, sugary tea. One had a cat that went outside one day and never returned, and he still thinks about her sometimes, her bowl still out, just in case. The other had a pet dog when he was younger and was so heartbroken by her death that he couldn’t face having another pet ever again. One avoided phone calls with his brother, and the other called his sister to speak to his niece once a week. One is delighted with the decking he crafted for his back garden whilst the other claims dandelions are pretty so he doesn’t have to spend hours pulling them from the soil. One gets manicures once a month, the other trims his nails in the shower. One had his heart broken when he was eighteen, and the other had never even been on a date.
And one is in love with the other, and the other is in love with him.
Each day, at eight, one leaves for work as the other covets from behind his blue curtains. At half-past five, they return together and exchange a smile, a thousand words hidden in their eyes, willing the other to read his mind.
They make food and watch television and one yearns for the other to knock on his door. They spend the night alone, watching the ceiling, a hand hovering in the empty space in their bed, wondering at how it might feel should it one day be filled.
On Saturday nights, after ciders that bring him confidence, the other promises he’ll say hello on Monday. When Monday morning comes, one is too lovely in his blue suit and open collar to be spoken to at all. His tongue would tie knots that looped down to his belly or his feet refused to step out his door. Admire from afar, he told himself, safer and steadier that way.
Last summer, the post had gone to the wrong address. It had come to the door for a name not found, and what a lovely name it was. He repeated it alongside his car radio that skips words every other song, a broken melody that suits his unkempt heart. He repeated it standing in line at the coffee shop, rehearsing it beside his complicated order for his complicated tastes. He repeated it in the heat of the evenings, blissful and warm, amber glow caressing his skin as he imagined the taste of sugar on his lips that came with a name like that,
one that dripped from his tongue like honey, his body and limbs molasses in the heady evenings of a summer where he had finally learned his name.
His confidence had faltered returning his parcel. Thrice he had knocked on the door, an hour spent rehearsing an unheard, solitary conversation. Not since he had been a boy had he felt so nervous. Back then, his stutter had stalled his confidence until youth had come along and stretched him out, moulding his rounded cheeks into sharper lines and whisking his stutter away. Often, he still felt like that boy with a crush on a teacher, gazing from afar and blushing when his thoughts pried too deep. His stutter returned when his nerves outnumbered him.
Stood before a beautiful man with a beautiful name, he had to work his tongue around complex syllables, force himself past the consonants that jutted and jerked, and vowels that weaved and grew long in his mouth.
The parcel nearly slipped from his hand as it trembled. Years had passed of nods, of smiles, and gentle acknowledgements. Years had passed of quiet feelings, mild looks, tender thoughts. Years had passed, and this was the first time they had held each other’s gaze like this, shared as many words as this, existed in each other’s space like this.
He had wanted to strike up conversation, push past his stutter that had resurfaced in the face of attraction. For so long, he had wanted an exchange that might explain to him the intricacies of the man who lived next door and had done for so many years. He wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of his soul, place his heart in his hand and feel it beat. He had never craved anything like it, never wanted to be known by someone like this.
The words had refused to form on his tongue. There had been thanks and a lingering look. Opportunities like these did not arise often, and what was he to do but let it slip through his fingers. Love had not found him before. His sister had told him about the love at first sight she had felt for her husband, his father had told him about how he had pursued his mother until she had given in, and they had been married for so many decades now. Even love in the movies had touched him more than anything he had felt in life. And that inexperience had led him to walking down the little path of his neighbour’s front garden, head hanging low as he crossed the threshold to the safe and yet lonely space of his home.
But perhaps this was for the best. Maybe it was better to quietly love. Would it be an affair of the heart to love so deeply and acknowledge that love aloud? This way, it was secret and protected, guarded by the key in his heart. And wasn’t that sweeter? It was his, spoken into the whispers of the night, guarded by shadows and quietude. Who was love really for, anyway? You might shout it from the rooftops, declare it to anyone who passed in the streets, but wasn’t love really shared between lovers and lovers alone?
They had other encounters too. Small moments shared between neighbours who lived on a quiet street. On Guy Fawkes Night, they gathered at the patch of grass before their woods for the children, and they had stood almost beside each other, too conscious of the other as the sky was alight with a thousand colours. The sparks, the explosions, the dark of the night illuminated by the bright bursts mirrored the pounding of their hearts that spread open their ribs. They didn’t share a single word, barely even a glance, but the knowledge that they were near, experiencing life in the same moment as the other, couldn’t that be enough? Did it
always need to be more? Neither of them felt it had to. Love would suffice them quietly as it had done for so long.
It had snowed last Christmas, coating the world in white. It was crisp and fresh and pristine after each fresh snowfall. The other would watch as he shovelled snow to clean the path to his front door, deciding himself that he shouldn’t bother. Christmases for him were spent in the city with family that preferred a hustling lifestyle to the sound of the trees on breezy days, swaying in tandem at the whim of a loving wind. His soul was not right in the city. It was unsettled, surrounded by empty faces with empty names. Anonymity was only okay when it was craved. He did not crave it here.
Instead, he craved gazing out of his window as his beloved built a snowman in his back garden he thought no one could see. He craved his red gloves and earmuffs that allowed his luscious locks to still be visible, kissed by flakes that danced in the frosted air. He craved the comforting feeling of knowing that, whilst his home might not be full, just a set of walls away, his oblivious darling was watching movies and listening to cheesy music just a little too loud. He would never complain, never ask him to turn it down. Hearing the mumbled notes through the wall was a way of learning about him, understanding him, etching the secrets of his joys onto his heart and keeping them secured in his chest forever.
His guest bedroom in the city had blinds instead of curtains and a grey rug that was too soft beneath his feet. Evenings were spent talking to his niece about how much she wanted a puppy for Christmas as he wishfully recalled the muffled notes of his dearest singing along to the radio, jovial in his holiday spirit.
Only when returned to his home did his soul settle again. When he saw him, the snow having melted but the frost remaining, his heart found its rhythm once more. No gift could still his heart and make it pound louder than this. Crushes and the intensity of love weren’t just for teenagers. It was stronger than infatuation. Of course, there had been that instant attraction, the intrigue of a handsome stranger, but it had blossomed into something more substantial. It could still be love even if he never said it aloud and remained unacknowledged by the subject of his affection.
Summer was here again, a year since the other had first come to his door bearing his parcel and a smile that could disarm the devil. Charming and sweet, he had uttered his name, and he couldn’t forget his voice or the emphasis he put on syllables he had never heard before. Was it always like that? Did everyone feel their name was uttered differently by the one they loved? Why did your name sound different when someone you adored said it, and why couldn’t it always sound like that? It was a melody that no love song could ever attain.
A languid heat wave had dried the grass but whisked away the wisps of white until only a blue canvas remained above. One had taken to wearing tank tops and shorts, the other barely able to function if he ever caught glimpses of all that skin. He had done it because the warm stuck to him and plastered his hair to the nape of his neck, but he was also proud of his body, and he quietly wondered if the other was watching him, tempted by the glistening of his skin. He could only dream, of course. What had there been to suggest, really, any sort of intrigue shared between them?
Or maybe they were both quietly aware of each other’s feelings. How could they not be after so many years of pining and coveting? Perhaps they were acutely aware of a gaze that
dispersed after sudden movement, startled and fearing revelation. They had to be conscious of feelings as loud as their own. They might never voice them, acknowledge them in words, but they were not quiet in their love. Not in their eyes or the beat of their hearts or how loudly their souls called to the other.
Whoever said love was complicated, they couldn’t have known a love like this. It was as simple as breathing, as base as the rhythm of their hearts. It was not complex. It was in almost every word they uttered. Their feelings surrounding the love were complicated, the guilt of passing up dates and family events, the loneliness of existing in an empty home, the frustration at never being able to say how they felt. But the love itself was simpler than waking in the morning.
On one, hot summer’s day, the wider neighbourhood had created a barbecue and waterslide for the children to bask in, soaking in the freedom that youthful summers could bring. Their community was growing, new neighbours moving in with young families, meaning they were constantly trying to create friendly, welcoming environments where weekends were always full.
Obviously, this meant summers were hectic, but that gave two people in love plenty of excuses to exist in the same space, hovering in the ether where possibilities extended like the roots of the trees in the distance.
Today, one dressed in a black tank top and jeans, the other wearing white linen trousers and a dark blue polo, they were standing closer than they had ever stood before. The barbecue smoke filtered into the blue sky and sweetened the already sweet air. Neither of them were handling the barbecue, though they both felt they might be able to manage it. Not when they were so distracted by the presence of another, however. And they dared not destroy the spirits of the children and parents alike with burnt burgers.
He had been chancing glances at the fit of his blue shirt and the way it complimented his delicate tones. His beauty was like the brush of dark ink on a bright page, contrasting, stark, and ever so lovely.
He loved him each summer, in the winter and spring. Even in autumn, his soul burned like the fire in the changing leaves. His love moulded like the seasons, lush in the summer, shifting in the autumn, it kept him warm in the winter, and budded, green and fresh, come spring. It was as dependable as the seasons themselves.
Encouraged by the way the warm breeze ruffled the locks of his hair, humid and fragrant of summer, he would talk to him. For so long, so few words had been exchanged, but each had held a certain weight. Subtext and subtleties were embedded in their conversations, each one easily found in the flashes of their memory. To forget an exchange would be like forgetting their love, and that was an impossibility.
“It’s beautiful, today,” he said, and the other looked at him, almost as if startled. “Don’t you think?”
A brief beat had passed, weighted without words, before he replied, “Yes.”
He watched the other swallow and it was a lovely, fluid, delicate motion.
“Do you like summer?” he asked.
The other nodded slowly, his lips gently parted as he said, “I love summer.”
He let himself smile as he said, “Me, too.”
The space between them contracted and expanded, lasting a minute and also a year. It was over too soon whilst their looks were too telling as they lasted too long. Should they have ever leapt over the precipice into an exploratory place of acknowledgement, it might have been then. Perhaps it was the first step over the precipice, or perhaps they would have to wait until another moment arose, rare, fleeting, and yet telling in their own quiet way.
I love him, they thought in tandem, even with the odd shade of his curtains. I love him, and he barely knows I exist. But what a steady love it was, unshakeable, untameable, unmoving for all. And it was always better, he felt, to love and be unnoticed than to never know a love at all. I hope it never passes, his soul uttered each morning as the sun filtered through the curtains, blue or even red. I hope it never passes.
Nina van der Heijden
Such a beautiful and well written story!
Beautiful and absolutely breath-taking