THE small bedroom in the back of the tiny house was built with wrap-around windows. In the winter, they put fiberglass insulation in the windows and tacked the drapes to the wall to hold it in place because it was frickin’ cold in the winter, but in the summer, the light bounced off the sea even before it hit the front of the house and showered the bedroom in gold. Sometimes, they’d cover the windows with the drapes anyway, because who wanted to wake up at five-thirty every day? But most days, they let the little room with its hardwood floors and bright area rug fill with rose/gold/purple/silver/orange light, and they woke up to that.
In Talker’s memory, those moments lying next to Brian as that gorgeous, calorie-rich rainbow of light filtered into their room were the first moments he could ever remember quiet in his own head. His days were a cacophony of music, heard or remembered. His speech was rapid-fire, staccato, syncopated rubber, rebounding off crazy-angled walls. And then fate (Brian) had brought them here, and they’d packed everything they owned into Brian’s failing car and a borrowed bruiser of a pre-nineties truck and, accompanied by friends, driven ninety miles away from Sacramento to the sea. They’d managed to get their bedroom together before they’d fallen into bed, and when they woke up….
After Brian had come home from the hospital three years ago, Talker had thought peace would be the last thing they’d ever have.
THE weight set they’d bought for Brian to use for at-home physical therapy was the hand-me-down set from a grandmother of twelve that Brian’s Aunt Lyndie had picked up at a yard sale. The lead weights were covered in pastel-colored vinyl that made it hard for Brian to keep a grip on them as he worked his damaged-beyond-damaged right shoulder.
“Ouch! Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!”
Talker winced. He’d been doing his homework in the living room when he’d heard the weights thump to the floor, and he’d been braced for it. Brian needed help—he did. He needed someone to spot him, someone to help him grab the weight, someone to keep his fingers closed as he lifted it. But Brian didn’t ask for help. Brian had never asked for help. He hadn’t asked for help when his shoulder was going out, he hadn’t asked for help when he’d been floundering in his classes; he had simply soldiered on, made do, and found some way to survive on what he had instead of what he needed.
Most days, Talker admired the hell out of him for that.
Days like this, and he wanted to smack his lover upside the fucking thick goddamned head.
There was another thump, and Tate couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and turned down the music on his laptop, then ventured quietly into the bedroom of their crappy upstairs apartment. Brian was grasping the pink weight—the second smallest one—with so much concentration that sweat was running down his face, even in the early, early spring, in an apartment that was never warm enough until it was sweltering. He was lifting that thing assiduously behind him, then replacing it to his hips, and then behind him, then back, counting to himself as he kept his body bent forward, resting his other elbow on his knee.
It hurt. There was no doubt about the fact that it hurt. His Kansas-sky-blue-eyes were narrowed, his jaw was clenched, and water was leaking from the corners of his eyes. Sweat slicked back his wheat-blond hair and the just-healed scars at Brian’s temple, over his eye, on his cheek, pulled with the strain of his grimace. All of this pain, all of this concentration, and all of it in silence. Brian didn’t want Tate to see him do this—Brian had that kind of pride.
Talker swallowed hard and watched him do it some more, and then walked away to very quietly Google “Occupational Therapy + Shoulder Injuries” on his computer and search for an hour.
The next day, he stopped by one of the little art galleries that lined R Street, one of the ones with the pottery on display and a kiln in the back.
When he came home, he took the small plastic-wrapped package he’d bought for eight dollars of hard-earned tip money and some guest labor and set it down quietly in front of Brian as he worked hard to clean the kitchen with one fully functioning hand and some recently healed ribs.
Brian had looked at him, his head cocked, and Tate found that for the first time in their relationship, he had trouble speaking. He started to unwrap the plastic and expose the polymer clay.
“You can cook it in the oven, but I understand it smells like ass,” he said, and then, with a self-conscious look up at Brian, he pulled the black half-glove from his own crippled hand and nodded at Brian’s arm. Brian swung his arm gingerly forward and Tate said, “C’mere.”
Brian’s lips tilted—and they did that so rarely these days. When they’d first met, Brian had been all eyes and quiet peace, but the corners of his mouth had tilted up more often than not. Since he’d been beaten almost to death by the same guy who’d raped Talker six months earlier, his smile—or even that little lip tilt that said everything was okay—had been rare. But not now.
Tate positioned Brian in front of the clay and stood behind him, pressing his chest firmly against Brian’s back and taking Brian’s injured arm in his own crippled hand. Still without speaking, he slid his hand to Brian’s and then placed it on the clay.
Brian said, “I’m not that stupid, Talker….”
“Shhh,” Tate whispered, placing a delicate, pained kiss on Brian’s injured shoulder. “Shhh. Just try it. It’s supposed to be good for your fine motor skills. I don’t care what you make. Just make something. Just watch it get better. You’re mad now, okay? You’re mad because your body won’t do what it should, and because it hurts, and because you can’t work, and… and it hurts worse when you’re mad, okay?”
“I’m not mad at you,” Brian said roughly, spreading his fingers with effort. Tate took the gesture for what it was meant to be and laced his own fingers—scarred and crippled from the childhood fire that had scarred his face and his body—in with Brian’s sound, if battered, ones.
“I know. But it hurts me watching you, okay? Just try this. Try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Lyndie can teach you to crochet. The Doc can teach you to knit. Something. But try this. It’s not like you to just work out for vanity; I know it. You think that’s a waste of time. This is making something. It’ll be good.”
He felt the iron in Brian’s back soften, bend, become pliable. Brian’s hand began to work the clay. It was cold and unyielding at first, but Tate braced Brian’s shoulder with his own and used the little force his own hand could exert and together they warmed it up, kneaded it, made it soft and warm and as sweet as Brian’s heart.
After a few minutes, Brian kept working and Tate slowly backed away. He walked quietly to the bathroom and washed his hands, humming “Defying Gravity” from Wicked.