Earth to Earth
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust …”
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust …” The priest’s voice faded in and out, phrases ringing in the stillness then slipping back into a background mumble. Every few minutes, the sounds of a plane flying overhead on final approach interrupted the religious flow. His memory slipped in and out, too, overlapping images from other times and other places. And running through it all, that other funeral from just a few, short months back. The frozen air chilled the tears as they ran down cheeks. Their breath puffed clouds around their faces and above their heads. It was bitterly cold in the mountain cemetery, snow lying in mounds around the dark crevice of the grave.
He was alone. He had buried his wife; now he was alone. Here he stood, beside his best friend as they buried his wife, too. Here he was, hundreds of miles from home, in his old country, with old friends and old memories, memories which still haunted his nights, freezing his butt off in the snow from which he had fled...and the friend he had fled, too. And now his friend was alone.
His friend shuddered as the coffin was lowered into the grave, the ratchet clicking off each notch as the coffin slowly dropped into the darkness of the abyss. His friend’s future, and his own, too, gaped open, raw and unyielding, unknown. He stretched out is hand, letting his fingers brush his friend’s shoulder, trailing down to whisper along his friend’s hand. A tight squeeze, a letting go – so much said; so few words.
Finally, the Committal Service ended. They left the cemetery, little groups forming, breaking apart, and reforming as people went through the rituals of parting. He got into the car. His friend followed and they drove off, back to his friend’s home – his friend’s wife’s house – a home he would have to leave shortly. Nothing was said during the drive, just hands briefly touching in comfort.
At the house, other friends had prepared a light meal. Relatives moved around, chattering brightly to each other, catching up on all the news since the last funeral, the last wedding, the last baptism, reconnecting their frenetic, dispersed lives and working hard to convince themselves that they really were a close-knit family. He wandered through the rooms, chatting to those he knew, being polite to those he didn’t, hunting for a refuge from all the memories and emotions. He tried a door and moved gratefully into the study. Comfortable chairs, books, papers – here he found sanctuary as he sank down into one of the armchairs.
Idly he picked up the books on the side table, flicking the pages, reading the dust jackets. Was this his friend’s book, or his wife’s? What had they been reading before she died so suddenly? Pictures fell out, fluttering to the floor. He picked them up, looking briefly – and froze. This one, this one he remembered. In the middle of the usual family photos of children and vacations, here was this old photo of the three of them, laughing, joking and having fun in front of the camera.
He remembered. That day, that picnic, the laughter and love as they played together. He remembered, and his heart wept silently for all the time apart since then, the time forever lost.
The door creaked open. “I thought I’d find you here,” his friend said. “They’ve all gone. The kids will be back in the morning – to check up on me.” He sat down in the other armchair, comfortably, his usual chair, quiet, waiting.
“What happens now?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” his friend answered.
“Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know… I can’t stay here.”
“I know…” a long pause followed. Finally, he blurted out, “You can come and stay with me for a while, if you want, to catch your breath.”
Now, it was his friend’s turn to pause, and finally to ask, “Is that really a good idea, after all these years?”
“I don’t know… We can try.”
The silence stretched on, and finally changed into something comfortable. And just like that, it was settled. So much asked and answered; so few words, so much history unspoken between them, so much yearning, so much love, so much confusion.
He was gay. And his friend was not.
Over the next few weeks they buried themselves in busyness; books to be packed, clothes to be sorted through, furniture to be moved. They rented a storage locker and began moving things into it. The cleaned the house, turned in the keys, said goodbye to friends and family. Drove to the airport and flew off – the first new adventure of two best friends, alone again.
They landed, got a taxi and drove home, to his home in this southern city that his friend had never seen. This was a new city for his friend, a new country, who knew what the future might hold?
He saw his city through new eyes as they explored it together. He showed him his favorite restaurants, his favorite walks, his favorite museums and churches and … Slowly they fell into a comfortable routine. His friend turned the guest room into his own, setting up his computer and internet, beginning to put out some of his own photos. They purchased a little stuff together, and slowly the house was changed.
But he was gay, and his friend was not.
Months passed. They each called their children, reconnecting over distance during that first year after their wives died and their children struggled without Mom. They each flew up, over, down, wherever, to be with their children for birthdays, summer holidays. And then Thanksgiving rolled around to be followed by Advent and Christmas. What would they do?
They snuggled in front of the TV. They had become that comfortable with each other again. Hands gave each other foot-rubs, massaged sore shoulders and backs, and sometimes stole a caress. They used to sit like this, ages ago, touching, stroking, loving each other through their fingers. But that had stopped after his friend met his eventual wife, and began to spend more and more time with her. They had been young, insecure, unwilling to take things further, to find out if their emotional closeness might lead to physical; to explore what it might mean to become lovers. And here they were again, so many years later, rediscovering that familiar, half-remembered comfort…and still half-afraid to see where things might go. The TV droned on, yet another re-run filling hundreds of stations with annoying drivel; a familiar sound, an easy way to avoid that fearful intimacy.
“Are you flying home for Christmas, up to see your kids?”
“I don’t know… I guess I should. Are yours coming down?”
The awkward silence, filled with unspoken questions and unspoken answers, stretched on … only the TV making sounds as their minds spun furiously to find and speak the right answers. Somehow they knew that this was an important conversation; that they couldn’t continue to hide forever.
“Do you want to invite them down here? Maybe we could do a family Christmas with everyone, show them the town?” The unspoken question lingered in the air. Finally his friend spoke, “Is this ‘home’ then?” And there it was, finally out in the open for them to examine. Had they come that far?
He drew away, turned and faced his friend. “It is if you want it to be. I’ve never stopped loving you, despite the distance, despite the years. I still love you. You know that. Do you want to stay? Do you …,” the words tumbled out of his mouth, rushing to be said. He stopped. “God, I sound pathetic, don’t I?” He sat in the corner of the couch, drawing into himself, pulling his hands back into his lap, staring at his own loneliness and his hopeless/hopeful love for this man.
The silence stretched out, his friend fighting his own silent battle. The TV droned on. He got up and left the room, going to his own bedroom and closed the door, unwilling to face the silence.
He lay in the darkness, staring at the ceiling, counting sheep, wrestling with his pillows, hands unconsciously searching for a body beside him in the big bed. Sleep was not easy this night. Had he blown it? Would his friend leave, running away again, and go back north? Might he stay? Was there a chance for them, together? Should he get up and apologize, just go back to the way things had been for the past few months? Could he convince him to stay? Thoughts jumbled their way through his mind, leaving him restless, anxious, uncertain, frightened that his own need had finally gotten the better of him. His loss of control might lead to a terrifying future without his friend, once again leaving him alone. “Oh God …,” his unspoken, half-formed prayer ran through his mind and soul. Exhausted, he finally fell asleep.
He awoke in the darkness, fumbling for his glasses, still more than half-asleep, unsure why he was awake. A hand reached out, pulling him over in the bed, stopping his reaching fingers. Fingers stroked his cheek, ruffled his hair, lips sought out his own. A first kiss, light, tentative, brushed across his lips, a second followed it, harder. He turned, opened his eyes and looked into his friend’s soul. Smiles curved their lips. His hands reached out, discovered his friend’s lithe body naked under the covers, and the years slipped away. Two old men rediscovered passion and love that night. They fed the fire which had laid there, dormant embers glowing, for so many years. Two souls laughed together again, and were made whole.
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