I see them holding hands under the table and feel my breath catch in my throat. I sit above and behind them, the classroom built like an amphitheatre so I can see our instructor, rows and rows of students, and them.
It is a small act for them. There is no shaking, so signs of excitement or distress. They just keep on taking notes.
Asher is the left-handed half of the couple. Though I can’t read the contents of his notebook I can see it is orderly and pristine. Each line is filled to the brim, and there are even blocks of text in different coloured ink. By contrast, Will’s notes are scrawled in a messy script with doodles of animals and geometric shapes in the margins.
“Class dismissed,” says our instructor, and everyone begins rising from their seats. I look to my notes for the day and realize I’ve written nothing at all.
I walk ten feet behind them on the way home. I know which way they’re going because I go the same way: I live down the street from them. While part of me wants to go up to them and say hello, a bigger part of me would rather remain an observer who they don’t know exists, so I purposely slow my pace to match their leisurely stroll, so I will never be in their line of sight.
They are not holding hands now, out here in the open, but they are still clearly a couple if you know what to look for. The way they look at each other, the way they speak softly so only the other will hear, the way they slow themselves down to extend every moment of togetherness: all these speak of an intimacy I’ve never had with someone else.
They reach their home, a small brick bungalow on a street of similarly kitschy homes filled with students and frats. Asher opens the door and holds it open like a gentleman. I try to get a glimpse of the inside on my way by but am blocked by their bodies, then the door.
I return to my home, five houses down on the other side of the street. Other than me, it’s empty. My father didn’t think I’d do well with roommates, and I agreed, but now I come home each day to a house slightly darker than it was the day before and rarely leave before the sun comes up again. The upside is that there’s almost nothing here to distract me from my studies. I take off my shoes and get settled in at the computer to go over the lecture from today that I basically missed.
A few hours later I step out onto the porch for a cigarette break. I light my cigarette and instinctively look down the street to their house; they are out smoking as well. Through the darkness of the evening, I can just make out their figures and the lights burning at the ends of their fingers. I didn’t know they smoked. It feels like another thing connecting us, which is an idiot feeling to have because we are not connected. They are a couple and I am here, my pining lonely and nonsensical. Still, I watch them smoke and the movements of their cigarette embers burning in the night feel like a signal: up to their mouths, pause for a moment of greater brightness, and then down to their sides. They are the coast guard, flashing their lights in Morse code to tell me to come home.
-.-. — — . …. — — .
But I’m twisting the message to my liking, and soon enough their cigarettes burn out and they go back inside, leaving a ship lost at sea.
I stay out there a while longer.
It’s another two days before I have that class again. I show up a few minutes early but they’re already there, smiling and talking quietly. I catch Asher’s eye as I enter, and the half-second of our eyes meeting is enough to spike my heart rate, though his conversation does not miss a beat. I’m nothing so notable to them, though they are everything to me.
I find my seat and take the next few minutes to calm myself. When the lecture begins I do my best to actually pay attention and take notes. I cannot think of Will and Asher every second of every day. I have more important things to do.
In the last few minutes of the hour, the instructor utters the words “group project” and “groups of three.” My eyes dart to Will, who I can see squeezing his boyfriend’s thigh, a gentle reminder, I’m sure, that they will be sticking together through this and every struggle. But they are only two. Who will be their third?
Though the instructor is explaining the parameters of the project, she is largely being ignored as everyone else not so subtly sorts out their groupings. I wait and watch these interactions. No one is signaling them to join their group. Of course, no one is trying to join my group either. The possibility here terrifies me.
It’s true that just seeing them makes me happy, or I think it does, even if that comes with a bit of loneliness, too. Would working with them, spending some quality time with them, allow me to bask in that happiness? Or would it just ruin it? I am fully aware that I have placed these men on a pedestal. I don’t know what will happen if I begin to see them as people.
I snap back to reality as my classmates begin gathering their things and rising from their seats. I need to make my move now. I scramble past the other people in my row, then squeeze through the row ahead to where Will and Asher are still getting ready to leave.
“Hey,” I say.
They both look at me like they’re trying to place me. “Hi,” says Will.
“Oh, I’m Ben. I sit behind you guys. So uh, group project. That’s kind of shitty, huh?”
“The topic’s not too bad, though,” says Asher. I didn’t hear any of the topic details at all, so all I can say is “I guess so.
“But um, you guys need a third group member, right? And I don’t have a group, so…”
Will looks to Asher, who shrugs and says, “Sure, why not. You can join us.”
“Are you free right now? We were just going to head home and start brainstorming this. I mean, if you don’t have to catch a bus or anything.”
“No, no bus,” I say. “I live near you anyways. I mean, uh, I think so. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you walking home, so…” From the way they’re looking at me, I feel like they’re going to figure me out, notice that I know more about them than they do about me, but the moment passes and Will stands.
“Okay,” he says. “Let’s get going.”
“Yeah. I’ll, uh, grab my stuff.” I scramble back to my seat and begin shoving things into my backpack. From where I am I see them doing the same thing, and as they do a sense of contentment seems to return to them. For the moment, it is just the two of them again. I hope they will forgive me for disturbing their world. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and move to break their peace.
“That’s us,” says Asher, pointing to the bungalow now a couple houses down. “You live near here?”
“I’m on the corner there,” I say, and point, though it makes me nervous to do so. From now on will they see me watching them from afar?
Asher opens the door and lets Will through. I try to wait but he holds the door for me as well, which nearly makes me blush. My attention soon turns to the inside of their home. All those attempts to glance inside on my way by and now I’m here. The first thing I notice is the small rainbow flag posted on the banister. They have claimed this space, and are free to be themselves inside it always. Compare and contrast my home, a space carefully curated to reveal nothing. Even my own room.
They make their way to the living room, and I follow them without prompting. They take the couch, with Will leaning back to relax while Asher pulls his notes out of his bag. I take the armchair, a respectable distance away. Asher finds the sheet of paper he needs and holds it out in front of him.
“So, the assignment,” he begins. I do my best to listen this time as he goes over the requirements, but become distracted when Will casually runs his hand down his boyfriend’s back. Asher isn’t even phased, but I get goosebumps. No one’s ever touched me that way, like a comfort stone or security blanket.
It’s like this for the next few hours. We bounce ideas off of each other while Will and Asher emit a general warmth, touching and sweet talking more as they get more comfortable. Will brings us cokes and gets a “Thanks, Babe” from his boyfriend. Asher gets up to go to the bathroom and leaves a kiss on Will’s cheek as he departs. I, too, am engulfed in their warmth, in the happiness that is them, in the miracle that is their relationship, here for me to witness. In a moment of silence, I catch myself smiling, and think about how long it’s been since I smiled.
Will stands and stretches his arms almost up to the ceiling. “Okay, time for a break,” he says, then looks at me. “Do you smoke?”
“Yeah, I do,” I say, though I’d forgotten my craving.
We head out to their front porch and light up. I can see my house from here, dark and empty. So this is what it looks like from shore. I know I’ll be setting out again in a while, but part of me never wants to leave. I’ve never felt safer.
“It’s a nice night,” I say. Understatement of the century.
“I’m a little chilly,” says Asher, so Will goes up behind him and wraps his arms around him, resting his head on Asher’s shoulder. Asher leans into his embrace.
“How long have you been together?” I ask.
“Oh, years now,” says Will.
“Two years and eight months,” says Asher, and I laugh at their rapport.
“What about you?” Will asks. “Do you have a… person?”
“No, I’ve never dated anyone,” I say. I’m tempted to keep it vague, but where else but here, with these men, could I remove that weight?
“I think you’re very brave,” I say. “Being yourself, doing what you want, loving someone despite the risks… That’s like the bravest thing you can do.” I pause to breathe in smoke. I release it with, “I’ve never been that brave.”
I don’t look at their faces. I haven’t even really said it but I’m shaking, not with fear but with catharsis. Someone knows. Someone else, outside of myself, knows. It’s not my secret anymore.
It’s Will who speaks up. “You know, you’re actually pretty cool. I’m sure someday you’re gonna find a really awesome guy and sweep him off his feet. I mean, when you’re ready.”
“I’m sure I will,” I say, and for the first time, I believe it.
Davis G. See is a gay Edmontonian with a communications degree. He has short fiction in Vitality Magazine, The Bolo Tie Collective Anthology Vol. I, and Short Edition’s short story dispenser located at the Edmonton International Airport. He also publishes interactive fiction at davisgsee.itch.io.