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Like a Bullet in the Back

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What was the heart but a muscle? Strained or bruised, it persisted; it beat so long as it might beat. This, the proof both terrible and wondrous of life: that to live you must continue to live.

He woke as he woke every morning. Now it is four in the morning; now it is five in the morning; now it is six and the minutes come relentless. The biologic computer machine of the human mind in its neuroses perceived time as a subjective creature; one second might draw out as another second did not. The hours of the night however regulated might linger.

Eddie sat on the edge of the bed in his rumpled button-down shirt and boxers with the brown afghan across his lap. He looked out the window into the courtyard where the trees waited in their long cold sleep for the days of thawing. The sky lightened. Day had come. Day did come no matter the formless hours of night.

Across the way and a floor above, a woman opened the curtains of her own room. The ill-defined shape of a child jumped on the bed. The woman turned to catch the child under the arms and sweep them laughing away and to her chest.

The phone was quiet on the bedside table. No one had called. No text messages, waiting to be read. He breathed through nose and mouth alike, because he must breathe and it hurt to do so. Another flaw of the human body that also misunderstood time or insisted on living despite the holes pushed through it, the lung broken, the bones splintered, the blood spilled.

And if he had waited to tell Richie until they were both again in the apartment? Then he would have trapped Richie. No, it was better to have done it like this, so that Richie had the choice to stay or to come or to go.

Calmly Eddie thought: You will survive this. He would. Perhaps there was no pain he could not now survive. That was the gift IT had shoved into him with claw and serrated leg. It was a terrible gift, one his mother had tried so very hard to keep from him even as she stuck Eddie with her own fine needles, the burn touches of her soft hands and softer lips.

The gift is pain. If you are to live, you must live with it. Eddie closed his eyes. He tried again to breathe. His lungs operated as they were designed to operate, oxygen conducted to the bronchi that like the branches of a tree split and so split again into twig-like bronchioles that in their turn then gave way to alveolar ducts, to alveolar sacs, to the alveoli microscopic and vital. It was his heart that pained him, his heart and the traitorous viral disease of his brain that was anxiety.

In the medicine cabinet he kept an orange bottle with a white cap, half-filled with clonazepam 0.5mg, generic for>klonopin printed in small tidy letters at the bottom of the label. Each tablet had a line to divide it. A thumbnail pressed with care to that line, and a small measure of leverage, would split the tablet easily.

He closed his eyes and drew in another slow breath. He held it five seconds. He let it out slowly through his mouth. This, Eddie repeated. Repeated. Repeated. His toes were cold, the tips pressed to the hardwood floor. The slippers were a few inches to the left of his feet. He wanted the cold.

“There’s no shame in using the klonopin,” said Dr Greene. “It’s there to help. That’s why you have it.”

Well, Eddie thought, I’m the fucker that has to live with this. So how’s about you go fuck yourself, doc.

It wasn’t an especially kind thing to think of his therapist. His head started to pound. Dick, he thought. Dickhead. Stupid broken motherfucker. Why’d you say anything?

“You know why,” he said to his fisting toes. His hands fisted, too, gripping at the afghan. “You know exactly fucking why. You’re Eddie Kaspbrak, you asshole. And you’re not scared. You’re not fucking scared anymore.”

And the thing inside him, the thing that was always inside him, anxiety or fear or depression or his mother or IT or maybe just his own god damn self, it said to him:

Don’t tell lies, Eddie. Of course you’re scared. You’re always scared. You’re scared of everything. You told Richie the truth last night and now he knows and maybe he did want you a little, maybe you didn’t imagine everything, maybe it did mean something when he touched you and when he held you and when he made you eggs one morning and then yesterday he made you pancakes, but now he knows all of it and he didn’t come. Did he? You gave him the choice and he did exactly what you would have done if your mother had ever given you the choice to stay or to go, because—

He heard his voice, thirteen years old and frantic: Because that’s what love is, you turd, it’s not like in the movies, it’s not the prince kissing Sleeping Beauty and she wakes up from a spell, you’re not a baby anymore, Jesus Christ, grow up, what, d’you think Dad died because Mommy didn’t love him enough? You know Mom says she loves you and you tell her it back because you’re a good boy, Eddie, but what the fuck does it even mean, what the fuck does it mean if you say you love somebody, all you’re saying is I’m lonely and don’t go away because if you go away then I’m stuck with myself and who the fuck wants to be stuck with you anyway? Who the fuck wants to be stuck with anybody? You got up in that church and you kissed Myra and you said you’d love her forever but you didn’t even love her then did you, you coward, you liar, you wastoid, you were just scared and you’re scared now and you’re always gonna be scared. You did one brave thing down there when you saved Richie but then you told him you loved him and you thought that was brave too but it wasn’t, you saved his life and now he owes you, and you said you aren’t Mommy but you are, you’re just like Mom, you’re exactly like her, no wonder Myra didn’t love you, no wonder your girlfriend left after she met Mom because she saw you were just like her, no wonder Richie didn’t come.

Eddie covered his face. He shook. His eyes stung. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t.

“It’s not true,” he said to himself.

That was who it was, who always spoke to him. Eddie had always hated Eddie. Some days he managed to look at his reflection and be proud of his body, or he could look at what he’d accomplished at work and be proud of that, or he could scream defiance into someone’s face when they told him you can’t do that, Eddie, you aren’t strong enough, Eddie, you’re just going to make a mess of it, Eddie. Some days, he was the Eddie he might have been.

But you know the truth, Eddie. And it wasn’t the clown that spoke to him; it wasn’t his mother or the ghost of his child self. It was just Eddie.

He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, left to left and right to right. Spots bloomed behind his eyelids. His shoulders trembled.

After a time, it passed. He cupped his hot face in his fingers then slid them to his mouth, to his collar, to his lap. His hands folded. Eddie exhaled. He was so very tired.

It wasn’t true, any of those things. He had to remember that. Maybe he didn’t believe it right then at 6:42AM but later, after he had showered and eaten breakfast and had two cups of tea, he would try to believe it, and he would. He wished life could be like it was in a film, that you could realize how much of everything you thought was bullshit and then you were cured and you’d never think of the bullshit again. The audience would cheer for you and Richie would take Eddie up in his arms and lean him forward and kiss him like in a black and white film, their lips crushed, Eddie’s arms up between them, the curve of his back a line of surrender and the music swelling to a last crescendo telling the theatergoers here’s the end and the end is happy.

But fairy tales weren’t real. Richie had been right about that a very long time ago. You had to wake up every day and keep trying.

A little grey-plumed bird lighted on the tree branches outside Eddie’s window. The branch was too thin to support the bird’s weight and it fluttered its wings in disarray and hopped instead to the window sill. Affronted, the bird picked at the feathers of its chest.

Eddie watched as it paced the sill, its small head twitching back and forth, then down. He thought Stan would have known its name. How Stan had loved the birds.

“I miss you, buddy,” said Eddie to the bird. It shuffled on the sill and then took flight again, dipping low into the courtyard beyond where Eddie, still sitting on his bed, could follow.

Eddie’s heart beat in his chest. It did so with soothing regularity. Maybe today he would use a sick day. He’d a week of PTO that would expire by the end of March. He thought that Tanner might be able to navigate the day on his own. If any fires remained on Tuesday, Eddie would put them out.

He looked for his slippers and put them on. Even with the silky fur lining, his toes were chilled through. Eddie made the bed and unplugged his phone to take it with him.

Somewhere down below the bird was twittering, calling out for someone to hear, for someone to come. Eddie listened to it singing until, in the living room looking at the air mattress and its sheets in disarray, he couldn’t hear it anymore.

After he sent the e-mail to management and to payroll re: taking a personal day, Eddie cleaned. He’d put one of the cans of chunky soup to warm in a pot on the stove. Too much sodium and so early in the day, but he wanted the comfort of it: the noodles, the chicken broth, the over-cooked carrot and celery. For the same reason, that wanting to be soothed, he changed out the button-down and boxers for an over-sized white knit sweater and flannel lounge pants. If he was going to spend the day sad, he intended to do it as cozily as possible.

Richie had taken his duffel with him the day before. If Eddie had noticed that, would it have changed anything he’d said or done? It didn’t matter now. He stripped the sheets from the air mattress and bundled them into the laundry. The air mattress he unplugged and sat on for several minutes so the air would begin to push out.

He put the TV on as an afterthought, just to have the noise going. His head was still too full of racket. TBS was playing a Meg Ryan movie, and after a moment of pushing at the air mattress he looked up, recognizing the dialogue.

She was in a black sweater carrying books through the store. You’ve Got Mail, he remembered. Myra loved this one but he had fallen asleep both times he’d tried watching it with her.

“Last night,” Meg Ryan was saying in voice-over, “I went to meet you and you weren’t there. I wish I knew why. I felt so foolish.”

Eddie sat again, watching, listening idly to the air streaming out of the mattress as Meg Ryan sat at her computer and wrote. She’d insulted Tom Hanks in a scene before, he remembered that much.

“I was able for the first time in my life to say the exact thing I wanted to say at the exact moment I wanted to say it. And of course afterwards I felt terrible, just as you said I would. I was cruel. And I’m never cruel. And even though I can hardly believe what I said mattered to this man, to him I am just a bug to be crushed… But what if it did?”

And Eddie sat there, watching Tom Hanks reading the e-mail on his own computer but seeing instead how Richie had looked up at him from that chair in the dressing room with his mouth turning down at the corners. How he had looked at Eddie after Eddie had kissed him, with his eyebrows knitting over his eyes and his eyes, his eyes sad almost as Eddie stepped away and the words he’d said sitting there in the air between them.

“I so wanted to talk to you,” Meg Ryan said softly. “I hope you have a good reason for not being there last night. You don’t seem like the kind of person that would do something like that.”

How Richie had stood there, his hands falling to his sides, watching from behind those old, familiar black frames as Eddie turned away from him and left.

“The odd thing about this form of communication is you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something but I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

Eddie’s breath hurt in his throat. He fumbled for the remote; he turned the TV off. In the quiet, his breath was too loud. The air mattress sighed under him. His legs were nearly to the floor, with only the layers of vinyl between Eddie and the hardwood.

He had thought it the brave thing to do, the right thing, to leave Richie there. To give him the choice.

What would Richie have done if Eddie hadn’t gone down those steps and out that door? What would he have said? Eddie pressed his hand over his chest, rubbing again and without thought at his scar, as though it were the scar that ached and not the rest of him.

All this nothing, he thought.

His phone buzzed on the half-bar. Eddie turned to look at it. As he did so, from out in the hallway came a sudden burst of noise: a dog barking, the scrabbling of claws on tile, Mrs Zhou wailing, “No, Sweetie! No! Naughty girl, come here!”

Eddie forgot the phone. Stuffing his feet in slippers again, he went to the front door and pulled it in to step out into the hall. He was still thinking of Richie, and of Meg Ryan in her black sweater with her blonde hair cut short, and perhaps that was why Sweetie caught him.

Her honey gold ears flopping, tongue flapping out the corner of her mouth, Sweetie barreled past him toward the end of the hall where the door to the stairs sat. She winged his leg as she went by and Eddie staggered, thrown off so that he had to turn his tumble into a lunge for the glass wall opposite. He lost a slipper in the tackle: a cleat blown off when the lineman sacked the quarterback. Richie flew out of his head.

Mrs Zhou, at the door to the stairs with leash and collar in hand, made a swipe for Sweetie, but the dog skidded on her haunches and whipped around for another pass back toward the other end of the hall, where the elevator was. Mr Zhou – Andrew – had come out of the apartment. He was in a button-up, slacks, and black socks, all his tattoos covered up.

“Come here, Sweetie, come here, baby girl,” he cooed at her. He crouched at her approach. Elastically, Sweetie bounced around him and kept on to the wall.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Kaspbrak,” said Mrs Zhou, “please, just go back inside. This is my fault. This is all my fault.”

He’d never seen Mrs Zhou distraught before. Her black hair was a mess of flyaways, her coat unbuttoned; she’d kicked off her high-heeled shoes in the corner. Eddie was mortified to see her so upset; it was as if he’d thumbed through a Victorian pin-up magazine and found a sketch of her in crinoline and lace.

He turned his shoulder to her and joined in the calling to Sweetie.

“Please, please,” said Mrs Zhou, as though on the edge of tears. “You don’t need to help. This is because I didn’t tighten her collar.”

“It’s all right, bits!” said Andrew to her. “She’s an escape artist.”

Eddie crouched some and held his hands out to Sweetie. “Good girl. Good girl, Sweetie.”

She looked at him as she raced by. He hadn’t thought a dog could look as if they laughed; but her eyes twinkled and she made a happy, growling bark at him and bounced high on her back legs as she rounded Mrs Zhou, circling her three times and evading each grasp at her close-cropped curls. A spot of high color marked either side of Mrs Zhou’s face.

“Shuang, no worries!” Andrew called out to his wife. He smiled hugely. “We’ve got her cornered. Sorry about this, Eddie, you don’t mind?”

“No, it’s fine,” he said, grabbing for Sweetie’s tail and managing only to punch at the air. “What are neighbors for?”

“See?” said Andrew to his wife. “What are neighbors for, huh, bitsy?”

Mrs Zhou flushed ferociously. “Not in front of Mr Kaspbrak, Mr Zhou.”

He laughed his foghorn life: rocks ahead, better beware. “Sorry, sorry. Mrs Zhou. Wife of mine.” Bitsy, he’d called her, and Eddie’s ears burned to hear this endearment that so embarrassed Mrs Zhou to be called in front of him.

Sweetie barked twice, two quick high snaps that said pay attention to me! Pay attention to me! and pausing in her exercises she pawed once at Shuang Zhou’s knee and whined. “Oh, Sweetie,” she sighed, “that’s a good darling girl,” and she held out the collar.

Sweetie immediately abandoned her. As she bolted panting back again, Eddie threw himself at her. He ran his shoulder into his doorframe. Sweetie bounced between Andrew’s legs; he collapsed too, laughing and groaning as well when his head glanced off the window.

Maybe Eddie wouldn’t get a dog. Curled on his side, he tried for her leg and missed. Sweetie yapped cheerily as she kept going on this lap and then made a disgruntled sound, a whine in her throat.

“Oh, thank you,” said Mrs Zhou breathlessly. “Thank you. Sweetie, that was so naughty.”

A very familiar, tumbling voice said, “You got a collar?” and Eddie, still rubbing at his side, looked over his shoulder to find it was Richie after all, standing up in jeans and a leather jacket with Sweetie cradled on her back in his arms. Eddie’s heart stilled.

“Yes, right here. Oh, Sweetie, what a naughty girl! What a very rude girl!”

Richie didn’t mind: he giggled through his nose as Sweetie, now repentant, licked frantically at his mouth and chin. Her long-haired tail swept swiftly back and forth. Mrs Zhou got the collar back on.

“Hey, Eddie, you okay?” Andrew offered his hand to Eddie and Eddie took it, letting the gigantic bastard heave him effortlessly to his feet. His grip was firm, his hand huge. Eddie found it tremendously annoying. He was thinking of Richie’s hand, not quite so large as Andrew Zhou’s, certainly hairier. “Sorry about all that. She really just hates that damn collar.”

“Language!” said Mrs Zhou. Now that she’d Sweetie under control again, Richie maneuvering to set the squirming goldendoodle on her feet, she was fussing with her hair and the lines of her coat.

“That fiddling collar,” said Andrew with a fond flick of his eyes toward the ceiling. “She do all right on the walk?”

“Yes, she did everything she was supposed to do,” Mrs Zhou said, “until we were coming out of the stairs and then she slipped right out of her collar. Sweetie! Why would you do that?”

Uncaring, Sweetie pulled to the end of her leash so she could sniff at Eddie’s knees and nudge her wet nose against his arm till he reluctantly, forgivingly rubbed at her snout. He was looking at Richie, looking at him, and feeling the beat of his own heart so jarring that it moved in his feet as well as his chest, his throat, his wrists.

“Hey, thanks for helping out.” Andrew approached Richie with a hand out to shake.

“Oh, sure. No problem. Just happy to be here.”

“Aren’t you…” Andrew snapped his fingers twice. “Yeah, you’re that guy from uh, shoot, what was that thing last year, Shuang?”

“I don’t know what thing,” she said, bundling Sweetie inside again. She spoke crisply over her shoulder: “You have to be more specific if I’m supposed to remember everything you’ve watched.”

“The movie about the lifeguards,” said Andrew. “Yeah! Rich Tozier. Hey, cool. Bitsy told me you were here and I didn’t believe her. Rich Tozier caught my dog.”

“Tell your friends,” said Richie dryly, “I could use the good press.”

“Yeah, yeah. Rich Tozier, animal rescuer.” Andrew’s smile was lopsided, carelessly charming. His eyes moved briefly. He glanced from Richie to Eddie, who stood there dumbly with his arms at his sides, the whole of him struck still at the look of Richie.

“That would really help my image, if you could do that.”

Andrew said, “Yeah,” with another quick sidelong glance at Eddie. “Well, I’d love to stay and shoot the shit with you, but I gotta get set for work.” He clapped Eddie on the shoulder, nearly rocking him. “Hey, thanks again, Eddie. We would’ve got her. She’d have gotten tired eventually, right?”

Eddie said, “Yeah, eventually,” but he was looking again at Richie. He hadn’t stopped looking.

“Come over after six, we can do drinks,” said Andrew brightly, and he too ducked into the Zhou’s apartment.

Richie’s hair was a mess, tangled and dark, like he’d snagged his fingers in it trying to card the strands. He’d done that as a child, too, when the curls were thicker, and pulled long black hairs from his scalp that he would tickle along Eddie’s nape.

How much could he have changed from the night before? A suggestion of hair shadowed his jaw, only just so. The skin around his eyes seemed puffy, as if he hadn’t slept and maybe, thought Eddie, he hadn’t. The strap of his duffel hung over his shoulder. The bag was pushed to his back.

“Your plane,” said Eddie. “You’re going to miss it.”

“I forgot to give you your key back.”

“You could’ve just mailed it to me.”

“People open mail all the time,” said Richie. “I’m not sending your apartment key through the mail.”

“You’re gonna miss your flight,” Eddie said again, really emphasizing this. It seemed to him that Richie, being Richie, had somehow forgotten he had a plane scheduled to leave JFK at ten that morning.

“Eddie,” said Richie, “I know for a fact you have at least one two hundred thousand dollar watch. I already missed my flight.”

Eddie’s voice pitched higher and noisier. “Did you at least reschedule it before you came over here?”

“No, Eddie!” said Richie. “That’s what I have a god damn management team for! Now are you gonna let me in or are we just gonna shout at each other like a bunch of assholes right out here in front of the whole street?”

“Those windows are fucking bulletproof,” said Eddie, “nobody on the street can hear anything in this building, just everyone else that lives here.”

But he went into the apartment anyway and Richie followed close on his heels.

“Why would the windows be bulletproof?”

“Because it’s New York City, Richie,” Eddie snapped, “Jesus, how the fuck should I know?”

“You live in St. George,” said Richie, pitching his duffel toward the couch. “On Staten Island. The violent crime rate here is like negative three thousand percent, and I think the bodega lady knows your birth date and your social. Who the fuck cares about bulletproof windows?”

Eddie rounded on him. “What are you doing here?”

Richie kicked the door closed like a donkey would punch a man in the thigh. Eddie wanted to scream. He was aware that none of his emotional reactions were rational, but here was Richie standing in his apartment like Eddie hadn’t kissed him and Richie hadn’t bothered to come only now he had.

“Um,” said Richie. “I. Uh. Well, I have to return your key.”

Eddie had precisely two seconds to realize he was about to strangle Richie and then the loud crackling, hissing sound of liquid spilling out of a pot and onto a hot stove interrupted him. He swore and ran for the kitchen. Grabbing a pot holder, he picked the pot up by its handle and put it on the cold back burner.

“What the hell is that?” said Richie. “What, are you dehydrating soup for the winter? It’s winter right now.”

“Stop!” said Eddie. “Shut up! Fuck! I burned the fucking pot.”

“You’ve got to watch that shit, man.”

“Oh, my god, you think so? You think I gotta watch what I put on the stove?”

Richie held his hands up in ceasefire position. “Dude, I have no idea where this hostility is coming from but I got basically no sleep so my shields are down.”

“Oh, you didn’t sleep?” said Eddie. “That’s funny because I didn’t get any fucking sleep either.”

He slammed around the kitchen, grabbing mugs, filling them with water from the sink, and sticking them together in the microwave.

“You left your coffee.”

“Holy shit,” muttered Richie. “You uh, you forget about your like, Tibetan copper kettle there, Eds?”

“I’m trying not to have a fucking panic attack, asshole,” Eddie snarled, “I don’t have time to wait for the kettle to heat up. Get the spoons.”

“Do you have any idea how much I had to tip the Uber driver to even get to your place?” Richie got the spoons. “Nobody wants to fucking drive two hours from JFK to this stupid island for rich assholes.”

“My apartment has one bathroom!”

“Yeah, congratulations, Daddy Warbucks,” said Richie, “I used to live in Manhattan, I know exactly how rich you have to be to have your own bathroom in New York City.”

The microwave beeped. Eddie took out the mugs. They were the red ones, ridged on the sides. He thought, unwanting, of Richie pulling a face at the tea Eddie had served him that first night but drinking it anyway. Eddie grabbed the spoons out of Richie’s hand and fixed his tea and Richie’s coffee.

“Thanks,” said Richie.

“No problem,” said Eddie.

“Are we still yelling at each other?”

“I don’t know!” said Eddie. “Are we?”

“You’re the one who started the shouting, I didn’t do a damn thing.”

“You missed your flight!” Eddie yelled.

“Because I had to come here and tell you what a huge asshole you are to your face!” Richie yelled.

Eddie very carefully did not slam the mugs down on the table. He had no desire to mop the floor again. Hardwood floors in a kitchen were a nightmare and symptomatic of poor architectural design. So he put the mugs down normally, in the manner of a normal person.

Then he turned to Richie and said, “What?”

And Richie said, “I said—”

“I’m the asshole?”

“Yeah,” Richie said, “you’re the asshole. And you literally said that you were an asshole to me yesterday so you don’t get to fucking pretend like you’re not because I caught you, Eduardo, you set the fucking trap on yourself.”

Eddie closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists. His entire body clenched. In about thirty seconds he was going to put his hands on his face and then just tear all the skin off his body in a single, smooth motion and then he would kill Richie or he would kiss him or he’d do something else equally insane.

“Eddie,” said Richie, and he looked at Richie again not wanting to. Not wanting to look at him at all. Richie said, “That’s not what I wanted to say. I mean, it’s not the only thing I wanted to say,” and he sounded as tired as Eddie felt. “Can we talk?”

Looking away, Eddie pulled the near chair out and sat lightly on the edge of the seat, his knees tightly pressed together, his feet tucked to the back legs. He pushed the mug of coffee across the table toward Richie.

Richie sighed roughly. He pulled his chair out too. The feet scraped across the hardwood floor. He sat heavily and the chair scraped at that. Under the leather jacket he wore a too tight grey sweatshirt with the logo of a Los Angeles radio station splashed across it in glaring beachy colors.

Eddie took up his own mug and sipped at the tea, to keep secret the minute trembling of his lips. To have Richie here now after how long the night: small organs and finely strung nerves shivered inside Eddie, touching against one another like the frail motions of fingers feeling at something spun of glass and put on a high shelf.

Perhaps he had thought it would be like a movie. That Richie would come into the apartment and Eddie, roused from his bed, would go to him, and without the need for speaking they would touch one another’s faces.

So he sipped at his tea and then he set the mug down so that it clicked quite clearly against the wood top of the table. His hands encircled the mug. The tips of his fingers made a tent-like v through the handle, turned to Richie. He swallowed. He lifted his eyes to Richie.

“What did you want to talk about?”

He expected a smartass remark from Richie. It was why he had given him the opening. To play dumb, so that Richie could cut the feet out from under him and Eddie could then stir with anger and in his anger be once again brave.

Instead Richie ducked his head. He stared into his mug of coffee. Light steam twisted from it. He fiddled with the cuff of his jacket. His tongue flashed; he licked at his lips.

Eddie’s mouth was stinging, not from the heat of the tea, but much like it had stung yesterday without explanation or warning. As if a ghost had leaned close to him and brushed their unfelt mouth across his lips.

“Yesterday.” Richie gripped the mug in one hand. His thumb traced the arc of the handle. When he spoke, his voice was low. It rasped. “Um. When you said that uh. You knew I didn’t love you. That.”

He cut off and rubbed the heel of his free hand hard against his hairline. His shoulders, ever slumped, were drawn taut in their parabolic shape like the wood of a bow as an archer pulled the string.

“I had to talk to Ben,” said Richie. “Um. That’s where I was most of the night was I had to call Ben. It took a couple tries to get through to him. He’s in uh, Chile right now, working with some native groups about I guess sustainable wood harvesting? If you didn’t know that already. That’s not really relevant.”

“You talked to Ben,” said Eddie.

Richie blew his breath out. The curls on his forehead shuddered with it. “Yeah. He’s, like, the most emotionally intelligent person we know, dude. Even without the fucking, the master’s degree and the math shit, Ben’s like a super genius at feelings. So, yeah, I talked to Ben, and um, what he helped me figure out is that, and you cannot make fun of me for saying this—”

“I’m not going to make fun of you,” said Eddie.

“Yeah, you say that now.” Richie’s mouth pulled. He took a hasty, long draw on his coffee then, coughing a little, lowered the mug again. “You, uh. You really fucking hurt my feelings last night. And I’m serious, if you make a joke—”

“How the hell did I hurt your feelings?”

Richie stared incredulously at him. “You said, ‘and I know you don’t love me.’ You said, ‘it’s okay that you don’t love me back,’ or whatever, whatever thing you said. No shit that hurt my feelings!”

“Why the fuck would that hurt your feelings?” Eddie stood abruptly. The chair squealed behind him. He heard it fall to the floor. The tea sloshed in his mug so he put it down on the table before he spilled it. “I was being— I was being respectful, Richie, I was being, I was trying to— So you’d have a choice!”

“I know I have a choice!” said Richie. “When the fuck have I ever given you the impression I wouldn’t tell you to back off my dick?”

Eddie paced. “Richie, I need you to just—”

“Of course it fucking hurt my feelings!” said Richie. “You gave me so much shit on Friday, like I was supposed to know you were, were taking me out on a date—”

“I made reservations!” Eddie barked. “Obviously it was a date! Literally any person alive would have known it was a date!”

“I’ve been in the closet for thirty fucking years!” Richie belted back. “They just killed a guy in Derry for being gay. And I don’t know if you noticed or anything but you married a woman!”

“And I’m divorcing her! I called my lawyer on Saturday and I told her to file the paperwork,” Eddie said, slashing his hands through the air, “and I called Myra to tell her and she screamed at me and I screamed at her, and I told you I’m bisexual, I fucking told you I’m bisexual!”

“So what does that mean!” said Richie. He threw his hands wide in the air. “Like I’m the only gay guy in New York City? Like we’re the only living queers in the continental United States? I’ve had a clown in my head since I was thirteen fucking years old telling me that any guy who looks at me twice wants to beat my ass with an iron pipe.”

“Why the hell would I beat you up for being gay?”

“Eddie, if you tried to gay bash me, I’d have to go to the hospital from laughing so hard I tore my abdominal muscles,” Richie told him. “You’re a fucking French fry.”

“You,” said Eddie, striving for serenity, “are four – inches – taller – than! Me! And why the fuck are you making gay bashing jokes?”

“I don’t know, because of the decades of trauma!” Then Richie dug a hand under his glasses, a thumb to the inner corner of one eye, the knuckle of his first finger to the corner of the other eye. “I don’t want to fight. I didn’t come here to fight with you. Eddie, I just want to talk to you. I don’t want to fight.”

Eddie’s chest pistoned. His eyes pricked again. That was all the warning he got, and then he was crying, terrible crying, awful crying, and he clapped his hands to his face and shook his head violently but it was too late. The tears wouldn’t stop. Richie had seen them.

Richie said, “Eddie. Eddie, don’t cry,” wretchedly, as though Eddie were tearing something out of his chest, flesh and blood and palpating muscle.

“I’m not crying,” Eddie wept. “I’m not— I’m not my mother.” Crocodile tears, fat wet tears rolling down soft cheeks: look how you’ve hurt me; look what you’ve done. Eddie, you’re breaking my heart.

He couldn’t hear Richie’s footsteps over the vile pounding of his own heart, over the wet mucal noises in his nose and his throat. But he felt his hands on Eddie’s arms, pressure through the thick knitted cables of Eddie’s sweater.

“Don’t touch me,” Eddie said, flailing with his arms to break the hold. “Don’t, don’t fucking comfort me, I don’t need you to comfort me, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not—”

Richie clutched him again. He said, “Eddie, you’re not your fucking mother. God damn it, Eddie, just listen to me,” and he pulled Eddie into his arms and held him, held him with both his arms folded across Eddie’s back and the smell of his well-oiled leather jacket rising to engulf Eddie.

“I hate crying,” Eddie sobbed into his chest. “I hate it.”

Richie rested his cheek on top of Eddie’s head and rocked him. Rocked him. Swayed with him there in the kitchen with the mugs cooling on the table.

“I know. I hate it, too.”

Eddie closed his eyes. His eyelashes, tear-sticky, clung to each other. “Richie. Why are you crying?”

Richie said, “I’m not crying,” and he turned to press his wet face into Eddie’s hair, and Eddie without meaning to laughed, just once, at the absurdity of it.

“I’m trying to tell you my feelings here,” Richie said, throat nasal, “and you’re laughing. You asshole.”

Eddie kept laughing. He said, “I feel so stupid. Jesus. Rich. We’re in our forties.”

Richie’s arms tightened around him. His neck smelled of sweat. He hadn’t showered.

“Eddie,” he said, “we’re fucking clowns. You get that, right? We don’t stop being idiots just because we get grey hair and hip replacements.”

“Beep beep.”

“No,” said Richie. “No more beeping. You have to listen to me.” He leaned back, just far enough Eddie could see the wetness of his eyes, the sulky look to his mouth: yeah, you caught the Trashmouth crying.

“You haven’t said shit worth hearing,” said Eddie.

“You just haven’t been listening,” Richie said. “I’ve been trying to tell you. Eddie. I’ve been telling you this whole time and you just haven’t been listening. Eddie, I flew here to be with you. I made you breakfast. I got you that stupid teddy bear.”

“And fuck you,” Eddie said, scrubbing at his itching, damp face. “Fuck you for that. It wasn’t funny.”

“And then you said I didn’t love you,” Richie said, “and I must’ve forgotten how to talk to you, because I thought you knew, I thought you came to the show to tell me it wasn’t going to work—”

Eddie looked at him and said, “What?”

“Will you just let me tell you,” said Richie.

“Tell me what?”

“Just close your eyes,” Richie asked him. “Just close your eyes and shut up and listen.”

Eddie said, “Richie,” and then he stopped, thinking of how Richie had let him talk last night even if Eddie had to remind him twice to sit down again. Thinking of how Richie looked at him now, like how he had looked at Eddie in the bowels of Neibolt as he told Eddie he was brave. He was brave.

Eddie, be brave.

So he closed his eyes. He tried to listen.

The first shy touch of fingertips to his cheek made him jump. Richie turned the touch soothing, his fingers smoothing warmly over the length of scar, the arc of bone. The leather creaked, so minute a sound. Then there were lips brushing dryly across the rumpled, shining scar tissue.

Eddie’s breath caught.

“Keep your eyes closed,” murmured Richie to the fragile skin just beneath Eddie’s ear. “Okay? Can you do that?”

Eddie said, “Yes,” in a voice so far away he heard it as a child’s voice, frightened and longing.

“Okay,” said Richie.

He cupped Eddie’s jaw in both his hands. Stroked those large, rough, winter-cracked hands slowly down the hateful goose-ish length of Eddie’s neck as if it weren’t hateful a shape or a curve. His nose fitted to the other corner of Eddie’s jaw. His breath came softly out from his lips. Eddie trembled to feel it on his throat. He trembled.

Richie said:

Squared fingertips trailed the jutting wing of each collar bone. Richie bowed his head and left in the small hollow at the heart of the clavicle a kiss, so fine and little a thing Eddie could picture it lost in that very hollow.

With his hands Richie traced the shape of Eddie’s shoulders, his palms gliding over the sweater. Down, down, to follow how the shoulder in its curve slid to the biceps to the elbow to the forearm. The wrist, where the heart beat and told its every secret to Richie as he kissed the soft skin on the inside of the left wrist then the right. The palms, creased with their fortunes: he kissed these too. And the fingers, yes, those spidering fingers that had never played the piano or held violin, and the thumbs made to grip.

Eddie swayed on his feet even without Richie to rock him as he had rocked Eddie like kids at a middle school dance as the lights dimmed and a slow record played. He’d never danced like that with Richie. How he’d wanted to, at the winter dance in 1990 as Richie threw his powder blue suit jacket in the air and struck a John Travolta.

Would Richie have touched him then as he did now? Richie slipped his hands underneath Eddie’s sweater. As a man in a dream, Eddie helped Richie peel away the cable sweater. He hadn’t put a t-shirt on underneath. His chest was bare. The sparse black hair clustered across his pectorals, the little trail that began at his navel: and the scar, punched into him and radiating white stress around it.

Richie said, “You saved my life, Eddie. Edward Kaspbrak,” and his hands covered Eddie’s breast and the leanly muscled belly as he bent further still to kiss the lip of Eddie’s scar. He trailed such touches all around the puckered edge and when he had finished the circuit Richie framed the scar with thumb and hand and turned his head to kiss the skin an inch from Eddie’s left nipple, just over his heart.

It was with his body that Richie spoke to Eddie, and Eddie looking astonished down at the tangled brown-black curls of Richie’s head: he heard what Richie said.

Richie said:

I love you. I’ve loved you so god damn long I can’t remember when it began. Do you remember, Eddie, that you were born the day before I was born? Five weeks premature. That’s you, Eddie. As if you couldn’t wait to meet me.

And it doesn’t work like that. It never works like that. Nobody meets someone when they’re eight years old and knows I will love you forever. But I did. I did know. I didn’t know that I knew but I did.

Fairy tales aren’t real and soulmates are Hallmark bullshit but do you remember, Eddie, do you remember when we saw each other again and I hit that gong but it was like I was hearing a bell going off because I saw you and I didn’t remember anything but I remembered the way you screamed when I reset your arm. Do you remember, when you fell through the floor of that fucking house and you broke your arm? And you screamed at me, you said ‘do not fucking touch me,’ but I did.

I mean, Jesus Christ, Eddie, what do you want me to tell you? Do you want me to tell you I never loved anybody else either? Do you want me to tell you I waited my whole miserable life for you even when I couldn’t remember your name or your face? Like there was something ripped out of me and when I saw you in that stupid hoodie and your little polo in that restaurant I realized it was my heart that was missing, it was my heart the whole time, and there you were and it was like I was Sleeping Beauty and I’d stabbed my finger on a sewing machine but now I’m waking up again, I’m waking up and it’s a fucking nightmare but you’re there too and you tell me that you love me and then you die, I’m holding you and you tell me that you love me and you’re dying, there’s a hole in you where your heart’s supposed to be and you’re dying, and I—

Dreamily Eddie opened his eyes. He turned his face up to Richie’s face, bowed to his. He knew why his lips hurt. He thought his body had known longer than he had.

“You did kiss me,” Eddie said. “In the cistern. When I was dying.”

Richie shook his head, and Eddie stopped the shaking with a hand on Richie’s cheek, and Richie whispered, “Yeah.”

“You kissed me,” said Eddie again, remembering a pain-laced moment, remembering pressure lightly on his face.

Richie shrugged. He touched his glasses. He looked at Eddie and did not look away.

“It worked for Ben,” he offered. “When we were kids. And Beverly was in the deadlights. And…”

Eddie shivered in the kitchen. He was shirtless, shirtless with his nipples hard from the cold and the heat of Richie’s body so very near to him.

“That movie we saw,” Richie said. “When we were kids. We saw it with Stan. You probably don’t remember. Um, with Snow White.”

“I remember,” said Eddie. “You hated it.”

“I didn’t hate it.”

“You definitely hated it,” Eddie said, “you were a total asshole after it was over. Stan walked away because of how big an asshole you were being.”

“I didn’t hate it,” Richie protested again. “I just didn’t want you guys to think I was a pussy.”

“I told you I liked it!”

“You always liked fairy tale stuff,” Richie said, “I was supposed to be cooler.”

“You were never cool,” Eddie said, “you were never even for ten minutes cool. You kissed me.”

“Of course I kissed you. I love you,” Richie said. “I would’ve. I mean, Eds, what the fuck. They could have put you in a casket and I would have kissed your fucking embalmed lips.”

“Because you love me,” said Eddie.

“Because I love you,” said Richie.

Eddie reached for him. He ran his hand over Richie’s curls. “I wish you’d take better care of your hair.”

“Can we focus?” said Richie. “Can we focus on the fact that I just told you I love you?”

Eddie smiled. He felt it pinching his nose, his cheek that Richie had so tenderly kissed. This scar, that I love, because it’s your scar; it’s Eddie’s scar; it’s his, so I love it.

“You already told me.”

“But you weren’t listening.”

“I didn’t know I was supposed to be listening.”

“Yeah, so I talked to Ben,” said Richie, as Eddie stroked his face, his clean-shaven jaw, his short, square neck. “And he told me more about that thing, they’re love languages. And my love languages are acts of service and physical touch, but I think your love languages are yelling and constipation.”

“Richie,” said Eddie, “shut up.”

“Okay, okay,” said Richie, “I think they’re words of affirmation, and maybe quality time. But definitely also yelling.”

“Myra and I yelled.”

“Yeah, but that was bad yelling,” said Richie. “That was like, mean yelling. We don’t mean yell at each other, we do uhhh, love yelling. We just talk really loudly.”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to argue that much.”

“Oh, please,” Richie said, “like you can even get a boner if you don’t argue for an hour first. I know you, little man.”

“Richie,” said Eddie pleasantly, “if you make one more fucking joke about my height, I’m going to strangle you.”

“If you strangle me,” said Richie, “do it with one of your silk ties.”

And Eddie—

He didn’t want to give in. He didn’t want to believe it. None of this is real, he thought. People don’t love like this. Don’t people hurt each other? Aren’t they cruel? Isn’t the world just as swollen with venom and hate as Derry?

But, he thought. Hadn’t Eddie loved in Derry? Hadn’t Richie loved him? Hadn’t they saved each other there in the rot-pitted bowels of IT’s ancient, rotted apple core lair?

The Victim of the Sleeping Death can be revived only by Love’s First Kiss, he thought: the spellbook the evil queen had read from as she prepared the poison apple with which to kill Snow White. The prince had bent to kiss Snow White and she had coughed out the bit of apple that had stuck in her throat.

Eddie lifted his hands to Richie’s jacket. He tugged at the shoulders and the shoulders slipped lowly. Richie’s chest moved with the work of his breathing. He let Eddie take the jacket from him, and he stood there in the kitchen in that grey sweatshirt rucking up his belly. It had a cartoon tiger on the front of it, boasting that whatever LA rock station had the wildest tunes.

“Take off your shirt,” Eddie said.

“Make me,” said Richie.

“Take off your shirt,” said Eddie, “and then maybe I’ll kiss you.”

Richie said, “You’re so fucking bossy,” and he hooked his hands under the hem and pulled the sweatshirt over his head, his chest flexing with the motion, hair so thick on him, his shoulders so wide, all of him square in a way Eddie could never have imagined when they were children preoccupied with who could spit a loogie farther. Richie always won at distance but Eddie won at volume and texture.

“There,” Richie grumbled, “now we can all look at the Trashmouth’s trashbod.”

Eddie planted a hand in the center of Richie’s chest. His fingers parted, crushing through the hair.

“I like your body,” Eddie said.

“You’re the one with abs,” said Richie. “And biceps. And a tight chest. And an ass.”

Eddie stepped forward. Richie mirrored him but stepping backwards.

“I’ve been wondering.”

“How I got so much hair on my chest?”

“Where that third tattoo is.”

“Oh,” said Richie. “That one’s personal.”

“Is it a tramp stamp?”

Richie snorted. “Yeah, and it’s your mom’s name.”

“That’s gonna make this weird.”

“What’s it gonna make weird?”

“What I’m about to do to you,” said Eddie, and he pushed Richie onto the couch.

He wasn’t the sort of person to do things like this. Everyone who knew Edward Kaspbrak agreed. He was a sensible man, maybe high-strung, definitely aggressive, very meticulous with his work and even more so with nutrition, exercise, etc. Myra had on several occasions said how nice it was to be married to a man who so disliked risk-taking. She couldn’t have stood marrying a man who did things like jump out of airplanes or drink when he had a cold or get frisky in the middle of the day.

Edward Kaspbrak would never shout at a man he had thought left him then push him onto his neat couch that he vacuumed every Sunday. Edward Kaspbrak would never crawl on top of him and sit very purposefully with his ass in that man’s lap, and he would surely never take that man’s wrists in his hands and pin them over his head and lean down and bite his lip so that the man sighed, “Eddie,” and gave his throat up to him like a treasure or a gift or something to plunder.

That wasn’t the sort of thing Edward Kaspbrak did.

Oh, but Eddie did. He did do this. He held Richie’s hands pinned over his head long enough to forget he meant to hold them so, then Richie broke the hold and slid his hands over Eddie’s bare and wiry back with his thick fingers digging.

Edward Kaspbrak would never say, “Touch me, please, just touch me, I want you to touch me, please,” but Eddie would and Eddie did and Richie touched him. Richie grabbed Eddie’s ass and squeezed and hitched him higher in his lap so that through his flannel lounge pants Eddie’s slow-thickening cock ground across Richie’s coarsely haired stomach. Richie kissed and licked at the juncture of Eddie’s neck and shoulder, and for the first time in a very long time, perhaps the first time in his entire life, Eddie felt as if his body were something someone could want: desire: love.

He planted his hands on Richie’s chest and pushed him flat again. There was so much of Richie to touch. Eddie thought, what are you doing, what am I doing, it isn’t even ten in the morning, and Eddie leaned down and scraped his teeth over Richie’s nipple so that Richie shouted and bucked and turned them over in a frenzy that left them falling off the couch and onto the deflating air mattress.

Then Eddie was laughing, laughing as Richie said, “Fuck, my knee,” and Eddie said, “Bro, I think I dislocated my shoulder,” and Richie said, “Hold on, I can set that,” and Eddie said, “Do not fucking touch me,” and Richie said, “Dude, if I leave you with blue balls, that’s a war crime,” and Eddie said, “Okay, you can touch me,” and Richie touched him, he touched him, he touched him.

Sweat salty on Eddie’s tongue and lips. He bit at Richie’s ear, his jaw, that fucking neck of his that looked so god damn strong, when had Richie gotten strong, when had Richie gotten so fucking big? So huge that when they laid on the floor together, Richie leaned over Eddie and covered him with his body, and his hands hid half of Eddie’s face when he cradled that face and kissed it to say again I love you. I love you. Eddie, Eddie.

His big dick, fat and heavy with blood, rubbed at the crease of Eddie’s hip. Eddie said, “Asshole,” he said, “You fucker,” he said, “Touch me, Richie, for Christ’s sake, just fucking touch me,” and Richie shivered all over and put those big hands of his down Eddie’s pants and stroked Eddie’s dick so that Eddie moaned as he’d never moaned before in his fucking life.

Love me, love me, want me, touch me; and Richie did, he did. He touched Eddie with his steady hands and kissed him with his wide mouth and the faintest whisper memory of hair on his jaw, and Eddie was drowning in it; he was bleeding out in Richie’s hands; he was loved, God, that anyone could love him, that Richie could love him, and he felt it like the moment before a bird took flight, as it fluttered its wings and then spread those fine bones so thin and hollow yet strong enough to sustain flight. He felt it like that. Standing on the tips of his toes at the edge of the cliff, his heart trembling, his belly a den of hot and knotting things, the water cool and green with algae so far below him: and he only had to spread his arms like wings and leap—

“Richie,” he said, “Richie, I love you,” and Richie kissed him desperately, as if he were as hungry as Eddie for someone to want him, for someone to love him.

“I love you,” said Eddie deliriously, as Richie stroked him and rocked into his hip, “I love you— Richie— Richie— When I saw you— When I saw you again, in Derry— Richie.”

And Richie kissed him again, bruisingly, his glasses mashing into Eddie’s nose, his breath a hot pant that slid into rhythm with Eddie’s own panting so that they were one thing, breathing, their sweated chest sticking together, Richie’s hands too rough on Eddie’s cock and not yet rough enough.

“I thought,” Eddie said, swallowing and swallowing, “I thought— Richie. I thought Richie. I thought, it’s true. It’s true. That you can see someone and— And—”

“Like a bell,” Richie groaned out into Eddie’s throat. “Like a fucking bell was going off in my head—”

“Come on,” said Eddie. He reached into his pants. He laced his fingers with the fingers of Richie’s right hand. Richie shuddered. His hips hitched. “C’mon, Richie. C’mon. I got you. I got you.”

He did. He had him. He’d always had Richie. He’d only forgotten for a time.

At the cusp, on the verge of the leap, Richie pressed his nose to Eddie’s cheek, scar tissue under the bridge of cartilage, and Richie said very quietly, not a joke, “I love you, Eds,” as in wonder, as in that breathless moment as you jumped from the rocks and your heart leapt into your throat and you thought, childlike, for only that moment, that you might fly. You might never fall.

And you did fall. You always fell. Only a bird could fly. A man never could. And the water was hard when you struck it and the water was cold, and the air tore out of you and rose as a sheet of glimmering silver bubbles. You rose too. You broke through the surface. You sucked in a breath of air that made your lungs hurt with the hugeness of it.

Eddie came apart in Richie’s hands. His lungs emptied in the shock of impact. Richie kissed him, hungry and slanted across Eddie’s mouth, and Eddie wound his arm around Richie’s bared shoulders and held him close, as if they were in the water together, as if they were bobbing in the water with their legs tangling and Richie’s glasses speckled with water so he could hardly see, and Richie gasped into Eddie’s mouth and then he was there with Eddie, he was really there.

“You love me,” said Eddie dazedly, “you love me. You love me. You love me.” He believed it. He knew it was true. His heart was cracking open inside him but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. His heart was splitting and all that came out of him was love, and when Richie, crying behind his glasses, kissed him again, it was love that Richie gave to Eddie in exchange. That was the only thing you could give. Eddie thought, all you could ever give someone was love. Maybe they would love you too. Maybe they wouldn’t. But you could give them what you had.

Richie, shivering from orgasm, shivering with cold, sweating on top of Eddie and clinging to him as he’d clung to him once in the dark and the stink and kissed him, touched Eddie’s face with his dirtied hands and said, “You love me,” and Eddie touched Richie’s face in turn with his own sex-stained hands and said, “I love you,” and Richie closed his eyes and pressed his sweaty forehead to Eddie’s shoulder, and Eddie knew that Richie believed him.

Of course he believed Eddie. It was true.

“You look happy!” said Dr Greene.

Eddie set his saddlebag down by the chair then sank into the leather with a comfortable stretch.

“I feel good. Yeah. I, uh, I’ve had a couple busy weeks, but it was good. They were, um, productive.”

Dr Greene smiled at this. It made her eyes crease into soft crescents.

“I’m really glad to hear that. I have to admit it, I was maybe a little worried when you rescheduled your last appointment. You don’t normally change appointments.”

“No, it was, uh.” Eddie shrugged. “Scheduling conflict. I had a um, friend was coming into town for a business thing, and I wanted to spend more time with him.”

“Oh? What was he in for?”

“He’s a stand-up comedian, actually. He did a couple shows in Manhattan over Valentine’s Day weekend, you know the weekend before? And I hadn’t seen him since um, that big get together over New Year’s that I did with my friends.”

“Well, that’s great,” she said with sincere cheer. “God knows I’m always trying to make more time for my friends. It doesn’t help when they live out of state and they don’t want to make the drive, so you’re always the one going out to them.”

“Yeah, it’s not always the easiest thing,” said Eddie. “And we’ve talked about it before, that I. I have a hard time sometimes, remembering to make space for people. But that’s something I’ve been working on. We’re actually going to meet up in Chicago next month for a couple days. He’s got an apartment there and uh.” Eddie rubbed his palms together. “Yeah. So I’ll just be staying with him for the week.”

“For a week? That’s quite the change,” said Dr Greene.

“Well, we’ve been friends for a long time,” Eddie said, “and he had to fly back to LA on Tuesday and he told me about some shows he was doing in Chicago in March and offered for me to come if I wanted. There’s this steak place he says I gotta eat at.” Eddie widened and rolled his eyes.

“The Chicago Chop Shop?”

Eddie puffed up. “How does everybody know about this place but me?”

“I used to go there with my sister,” Dr Greene said, laughing. “She lives in Des Moines so we used to do a weekend in Chicago every few months.”

“Is it really that good?”

“The Chop Shop? Oh, yeah,” said Dr Greene. “Better than Peter Luger’s for sure.”

Eddie massaged his temple and groaned. “God. Richie’s gonna love that.”

“Your friend?”

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “My friend.”

He looked at the wall behind her. She’d a bookcase, floor to ceiling, set in the corner between one bank of windows and the next. A row of succulents decorated the middle shelf. Eddie shifted in his seat. He folded his hands then unfolded them.

“Actually, um. He’s my friend but uh. We’re seeing each other. Romantically. And—” He colored some. “Well, we’re seeing each other.”

“When did this start?”

“A while ago, I mean, we just weren’t on the same page. And of course I had everything with my wife, so that was a thing I had to deal with. A thing I’m dealing with.”

“How are you dealing with it now?”

He took a breath. “Uh, I filed the divorce papers. On the twelfth. I was putting it off because I kept thinking it was going to ruin Valentine’s Day but you know how we talked about how I didn’t actually want to do anything with her on Valentine’s Day and I just felt like, if I didn’t do it then I was going to keep putting it off. And I feel like an asshole doing it that close to the holiday but I did it and I can’t change that so it’s done.”

Dr Greene was smiling again, gently. She said, “That’s good, Eddie. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is the one that hurts at first. And it’s okay that you feel guilty but if you feel like it was the best choice you could make then it was the best choice you could make.”

He nodded and focused again on his hands. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. I think it was the best choice. She deserves better. I deserve better.”

“And now you’re seeing your friend.”

“Yeah. It uh, it’s a change,” said Eddie. “I’ve never dated a friend before.”

“How does it feel?”

He thought. The smile pulled irresistibly at his mouth. He rubbed at his nose and then gave up, grinning abashed at Dr Greene.

“It feels good,” he said. “It feels great, actually. I, uh. I really love him. And he loves me too. And I know it’s not going to be easy because that’s not how relationships work but uh, when I’m with him, and even when I’m not with him, I want to do the work. I want to put in the hours. Uh, we talk at night,” Eddie said, “and the first thing he always says is ‘how was your day?’ and the first thing I always say is ‘how was your day?’ and then we argue about who has to go first and usually we go at the same time, and it’s just really… Just really stupid.”

“But you like it,” said Dr Greene.

“I do,” said Eddie. “I really do.”

“I know it’s early days for you, but you say you’ve known each other for years. Are you just having fun for now? Do you have plans?”

Eddie glanced to the ceiling. He thought of the birds roosting outside in the winter bare trees, and he thought of the apartment in Chicago and of Beverly promising she’d drag Ben to Illinois with her so they could do brunch together. He thought of the things he wanted to do to Richie and the things he wanted to do with Richie.

I’m going to fuck him, Eddie thought. I’m going to take care of him and he’s going to take care of me. I’m going to marry him. He thought of Richie pushing his cold feet into the warm skin at the back of Eddie’s knees. He thought about Richie’s third tattoo inked on to his right butt cheek, a smiling cartoon daisy that shouted SUN’S UP ASSHOLE. Eddie had laughed so hard when Richie at last revealed it that Richie had threatened to perform the Heimlich.

He’d make Richie his shitty instant coffee and Richie would buy gluten-free flours to make pancakes. They’d get a cat. They’d get two cats. Eddie was going to tie Richie to the headboard and spend an hour making him cry. He wanted to stroke Richie’s curls out of his face and put his glasses away from him when Richie fell asleep in front of the TV. He wanted to wake up too early in the morning with Richie tucked around him and sleepily kissing his shoulder and murmuring stay, stay.

He wanted to see what the flowers and the leaves would look like on the trees outside his apartment window, in the courtyard. He wanted to learn the names of the birds that would hide in those branches, so he could say their names out loud and listen for Stan. He wanted to hear Richie laugh, and laugh, and laugh. He wanted.

“Not yet,” Eddie told Dr Greene. “Nothing solid so far. But there’s some things I’m thinking about. Some stuff we’re talking about.”

“And you’re happy,” said Dr Greene.

Eddie smiled and it was easy to do. He didn’t think of his scar or of the medications he took in the morning. They were only pills he had to take. Richie took pills, too, and Flintstones vitamins he called his power-ups because he was an asshole. He was an asshole and Eddie loved him.

“Yeah,” said Eddie. “I am.”