“I CAN see heaven,” Lou said. He was holding Joe, cradling him in his arms as they lay on the nighttime beach. They combated the crisp breeze with warm sweaters and a tight embrace. The sound of the water beating the rocks and the shore soothed them.
“You can see past the clouds?” Joe asked, playing along.
They had spent the month traveling the coast of New England—the Gay Grand Tour. They had rested at B&Bs that had been recommended along the way. Their golden retriever, Spooner, had been left with Joe’s mother. They missed him terribly but needed the time alone.
Things had been strained lately. They needed to focus on each other again. Joe’s position as a book editor—mostly tomes on mythology and folklore—had taken up a lot of time. And Lou’s mother was a bit of a menace.
“Absolutely, I can see it,” Lou replied. “Just up there. It’s not so far.” He pointed to a vacant patch in the sky. “It’s just past that star you can see shining through that cloud clearing.”
Joe laughed comfortably. “You’re a silly man, Lou,” he said, snuggling into Lou’s chest, smelling his cologne.
“What would you do if I died?” Lou asked. His voice took on a slightly more serious tone.
The question took Joe aback. He raised his head from Lou’s chest and looked him in the eye. “What kind of question…? We’re too young to be talking like that.”
“We’re not too young. I just turned thirty. People die every day.”
“Well, not us,” Joe replied bluntly. Granted, they hadn’t been taking terribly good care of themselves lately—lots of take-out and an expired gym membership—but talking about dying just seemed odd. Like an insurance commercial. “We’re together forever. I’d go crazy without you. Absolute bonkers.”
“You’ve got more courage than that. You would survive.”
Joe didn’t say anything, but he knew Lou was wrong. He couldn’t think of a world without him. Not anymore. Not after all he’d been through, all the disappointments and searching.
“Would you wait for me?” Joe asked quietly, his head resting again on Lou’s strong chest.
“In heaven. Beyond the clouds and the stars. Would you wait for me?”
“It wouldn’t be heaven without you. Of course I’d wait. I’ll always wait for you, Joseph. Waiting for you, the anticipation, it’s what drives me. You’re my life-force.”
Joe sighed, tears in his eyes. “Smooth talker. You always know just what clichés to use.”
“Go to sleep, baby,” Lou whispered. “I’ll be here in the morning.”
A Beautiful Place to Get Lost
VARIOUS echoes. That was all he heard until he opened his eyes.
With a last snap of his synapses like lightning charging back to heaven, Joe found himself in another place altogether. The stale argument of biology versus spirituality became moot. In the end, none of it mattered. One wonders why there needed to be a right or wrong answer at all. Joe realized then that love had only ever been about content, not form.
It was a repositioning, a new form of situating himself. He was lying on his back in a summer field of barley now. How he had gotten there, he had no idea. Maybe the sky had dropped him. However it happened, he was lucid. Everything still felt real. Still felt… tangible. Stalks surrounded him. In the afterlife, most people wake up in fields of gold. This has been so since death began because it’s what most humans know of peace, beauty, and ease. He knew the feel of the barley as it scratched his skin; he smelled the fragrance of summer as it blew past him, over him; he tasted the sweet humidity; and he hummed with the lulling sound of honey bees making love to nearby wildflowers. There was a perceptible heaviness to the smell of the breeze, though. Like a frost was soon to set in. A few of the stalks were dead and fallen.
There was no discomfort in the barley’s touch. It was a pleasant itch, like a tickle. In fact, there was a tickling sensation to everything, an almost untamable giddiness. He heard a giggle issue forth from his own being as he lay on the golden blanket, stretching his arms and legs out to their full extent.
He could remember nothing of before, our hero. The last vestiges of imagery had become sepia, like a dream, clouded around the edges. His memory was receding like the tide. This accounted for his lack of frantic anxiety, for his complete acceptance of an otherwise absurd situation. Only he existed in the barley, free of caustic worries. The few dead barley stalks were interesting but not worrisome.
Memory? What was memory? Me-mo-ree. A strange word. A distant concept. Laughable. Lacking in description. For all he understood, the whole ball of existence was set above and around him and had always been barley and gorgeous sky.
There was only one thing he was certain of, and that was simply because the thought had attached itself to him so fiercely, like a stubborn root digging deep into the soil. His name was Joe.
Joe. Was that it? Three letters? J-O-E. Three tiny symbols of some ancient script signifying an existence. There was more, right? There had to be more. There must be strength and vitality and vigor wrapped up in those letters somehow, for he was of the barley now, of the very same fortitude and determination. He felt it inside.
Joe (as he remembered his own name with some glee) lay staring at the sky. It was different than what he thought a sky should look like. Not a single solitary shade, but multi-layered, like a cake. Like sweet eats streaked and decorated with purples and pinks and oranges.
He lounged and gazed upward, feeling no need to move. There was no urgent call to stand and appropriate a functional demeanor. He felt only the impulse to melt or sink into earth or sky.
He was not alone where he lay but could sense curious rodents and lisping reptiles passing around him. Yet he felt no fear or repugnance at the thought of them. They were of the barley as well. Everything was one.
A wisp of some sweet redolence wafted over him as he relaxed hidden in the tall, thin stalks of golden grass. It was familiar, like an echo.
The sound of something wading through the barley raised Joe’s curiosity. He rose to his knees, peering over the tips of the stalks as they swayed lazily.
He saw a figure. Another someone moving steadily through the grain waves. The barley flowed around the form as it slowly approached.
Soon, it became clear to Joe that this new form was that of a young man. He possessed a slender face, a strong nose and brow, a cleft chin, and dark black hair that blew with the wind at his bare shoulders. He looked tired. His face was pale, and dark circles marred his worried eyes. Farther behind the Stranger (and even more curious), almost like an afterthought demanding to be seen, was a golden retriever that leaped high enough into the air to see above the gorgeous field, ears flopping and tongue hanging loosely.
Joe got to his feet and waited for the young man with a rush of excitement, though it was a mystery as to why. He ran his hand over the top of the barley that flourished hip-high around him, the tips tickling his tender flesh.
“You’re here,” the young Stranger said, looking quite breathless. A hint of expectation lay in his expression. It was as if he wanted to tell Joe something urgent. The muscles in his jaw flexed and striated. It was a lovely jaw, one that might have been carved from stone.
“I’m here,” Joe repeated. “But where’s here?” Joe’s eyes were wide, keenly observant. His peculiar feeling of intimacy with this mysterious man grew as the Stranger spoke. Joe felt a closeness, a need for this individual. Potent desire had now supplanted his previous complacency. His very breath quickened in this new presence and matched that of the Stranger’s own.
“Here’s where you’re supposed to be.” The man smiled with a shrug. His tired eyes were misty and full of emotion.
“That’s a stupid thing to say.” Joe grinned. “But it’s nice. It’s really nice here.” He looked around at the flowing field of gold and the ecstatic canine in the distance, if only to keep from staring so obviously at every tiny detail of the Stranger’s face. What lovely eyes!
“Well, it’s been waiting a while for you.” The Stranger couldn’t seem to take his sad eyes from Joe.
“I know you,” Joe said, drawing closer through the barley. He recognized that the Stranger was naked, but then, he realized, he was too. He hadn’t noticed this fact before but felt no disgrace in it now. “Who are you?” he queried softly.
“You’re right,” the man smiled with slight mischief. “You know me. You know me very well, Joseph.” He stared at Joe, swallowing a lump in his throat. Again, that look of urgency, of some tale to be told.
Without thinking, Joe put his hand to the Stranger’s chest. He felt as if it were an altogether natural thing to do. He felt the warmth of skin, but there was no rhythm beneath it. There was no beat or cadence in the toned chest. Joe gasped as a sudden maverick echo shocked him like a jolt of electricity. The chill of grief and loss rippled through him, and the image of a towering structure appeared in his mind, a lighthouse from a distant memory. It lasted only for a moment, passing quickly, but it made him draw his hand away. The Stranger grabbed it gently. A soft breeze sprinkled over them, birds in the cake-like sky, butterflies in the field just above the flaxen waves.
The Stranger smiled again. Nostalgia. His eyes brilliant blue hints of past joys. Memory.
“I know you… who are you?” Joe choked out, all at once very moved.
“I have to go now, Joe,” the Stranger said as he let go of Joe’s hand. “I just had to see for myself if it was true. And it is: you’re really here.” With teary-eyed reluctance, he turned and began walking away. He appeared not to see the dog that bounded ahead of him.
“Please!” Joe shouted. In that moment, he felt the odd sensation of something being torn from him, something deeply cherished. “Where am I? Can I come with you?” He began trampling through the barley toward the Stranger. More of the stalks looked haggard and frostbitten.
The Stranger turned with a smile, a tear traveling slowly down his face. “You will. But it takes time. You’ve got to remember it all first.”
Joe felt that want, that painful need to be with this young man.
“I will be there when it all comes back, Joe. But it has to come back slowly, like these waves of gold.”
“And you’ll be waiting?” Joe knew he sounded desperate. But his desperation did not feel baseless.
“As long as it takes. You know I will,” the Stranger said as he lifted his hand to wave. “Have courage. Great courage.”
The horizon very quickly changed to a deep violet and seemed to draw itself around the young man like wrapping paper. His lovely form became a silhouette and then vanished altogether into the darkening air as if he had not been there at all. The golden retriever disappeared as well, with a reverberating call for play. The Stranger’s leaving brought the dusk.
Joe stood bewildered and shaken. A dim light shone on the stalks about him from the sky’s devastating moonlight. He felt he would cry, like a child ripped from the comfort of loving arms. He questioned what to do, looking about at the darkened field that now began to glitter with tiny bugs. It seemed colder now. That frost was settling in.
He perceived a penetrating restlessness in his core, a surge of ambition to get underway so that he might be with the Stranger once again. After all, he had said he would be waiting. This was no time to wallow in the tragedy of things lost. This was a time to begin a search for answers. Joe could not remain in the field. He had to walk on. And though there was no trail or path that he might follow, he placed one foot in front of the other and began.
His journey was now underway.
As he made his way through the violet night, his grief faded and was assuaged by the serenity he had first known lying in the tall grass. The tips of barley again brushed and tickled his hands, groin, and thighs as he walked. Every step he took gave him hope, though he was more aware than ever of the dead stalks.
Off on the horizon and high above him, indeed all around him, he saw thousands of glittering lights of all colors blinking and winking their way across the sky. Some left exuberant streaks to show their passage in the night; others were almost imperceptible. It was a hypnotizing show, and it delighted him.
Once he had decided to start walking, tokens of past experiences came more easily to him. Remembrances in little droplets, like dew forming on a leaf. He remembered now his dislike for ketchup but his love of hamburgers; his favorite color, green; and his favorite time of day, dusk. All of these tiny personal accents collecting now like little dewdrops finding their ways to the center of the leaf. And as he peered into the night, his earliest memories came back to him.
HIS very first memory was that of standing in front of his mother’s full-length bedroom mirror in his diaper. The mirror had a crack in the lower right corner that probably needed to be fixed, but she liked it there. It added character and strength, she had said once. A Dusty Springfield song played on the clock radio on the nightstand beside his mother Veronica’s bed. The smell of lasagna wafted in from the small kitchen; it was almost dinnertime.
The image in the mirror returned his awakening gaze. He was coming to a new understanding about himself. Something—some indefinable thing—was different about him. It was something his fresh, new mind could not yet comprehend.
From there, memories were whispered to him pleasantly and with ticklish fervor by the grains. Not always linear, a stream of consciousness swam through him, brushing past the banks of his mind. Even the mundane occurrences of toddlerhood were nothing less than amazing experiences at the time: his first trip to the zoo; playing on a Slip ’n’ Slide on the lawn (how the grass irritated his legs, but he didn’t really seem to care); a boy named Peter who would become Joe’s first great friend; and the amazement at a fuzzy bee and the sting of its betrayal. All of these memories glided around him like spirits in the night air, as if memory was an entity in and of itself.
There was one thought, though, one floating vision on the current that Joe remembered with particular enchantment. He was walking hand in hand with his mother down the busy street of their small hometown. Traffic was never much of a problem there except for the one weekend in the year when a chautauqua of the arts came to town. Handmade loveliness and foods that were not available for much of the year could be purchased for far more than they were worth. As Joe walked, smiling up at the beautiful Veronica who peered down at him with love, he made a game of trying not to step on the myriad of cracks on the concrete walkway.
Soon they stopped walking long enough for Veronica to look at a few odd trinkets and arts and crafts at an outdoor boutique. Joe looked around him in search of anything that would render itself up to his excitable mind. Right next to him stood another little boy whose mother, a very thin-looking thing (Joe thought she looked a bit mean, like a witch), also regarded the trinkets and doodads. Joe watched the boy intently and felt an immediate draw to the blue of his friendly, playful eyes. He held a vanilla-and-chocolate- swirl ice cream cone (which happened to be Joe’s favorite as well) that dripped in messy streams down his hand and forearm and onto the summertime sidewalk. Ants were already marching to the sticky substance.
It seemed to Joe that this messy little blue-eyed boy wanted to say something—either grunt or make some other attempt at communication. Nothing came, though. Neither of them said anything. They just stared at one another until the mean-looking woman looked down at the blue-eyed boy to let him know it was time to go. Joe raised his hand to wave goodbye. (At that age, the world is a small place, and it’s completely believable that everyone can see everyone else again just around the next corner.)
The little stranger took in the greeting, and then, having no real idea what to do with it, stuck out his tongue—not necessarily a spiteful gesture; it was just the only thing that occurred to him to do. At least, that was how Joe chose to interpret it.
“Louis!” the mean old woman said as she jerked the little one away.
Joe only stared after the two as they walked off. He’d see him again. Joe knew it even then. It was a small world, after all.