THE air is thin and dry up here, smelling of dust and the bone-bleach Texan sun. Christian lifts his face, seeking a breeze, but there’s nothing, no stir of breath, no sound beyond the thrumming of his pulse in his temple. It’s been a long time since he last stood still and listened to the cavernous nothing of a perfect silence, and he’s missed it. You never can get a good silence in New York City.
A month ago, when the idea had first been put to him, Ezra had poured scorn on the entire concept of Guadalupe Peak and its existence as a supposed “mountain.” Now, Christian is pleased to note, he actually looks appropriately awed, one hand resting on the summit stone as he stares out sedately at the desert below. Ezra is a man of many facets—by turns grouchy, hyperactive, ridiculous, brilliant, and, lately, sometimes melancholy—but Christian doesn’t think he’s ever seen him sedate before. He almost wants to leave him that way for a moment, let Texas bleed into his skin, but there’s time for that yet, and the opportunity for needling here is far too good to pass up.
Christian scuffs his toe idly in the dirt, the soft scritch of it enough to jar Ezra out of whatever reverie he’s fallen into, make him turn his head. Christian throws him a grin. “Still want to trash-talk the highest peak in Texas?”
On Christian’s other side, Jordan is smiling, too, the corners of his eyes crinkled up against the sun. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s listening, throwing Christian a conspiratorial look as they both await Ezra’s response.
Ezra snorts, clearly going for some level of the cynical self-assurance he puts on for the cameras, for people he’s only just met. “I still maintain that Jordan is the highest peak in Texas. He has at least seven inches on this thing.” Then, abruptly, his face softens, sunlight streaking across it when he lowers his chin, picking out the color in his dark hair. He looks younger, somehow, shelled of all the layers he’s molded around himself over the years, and Christian moves toward him just slightly, angling himself like he can’t help but want to be nearer.
“Still,” Ezra says after a moment, “I guess this is a pretty okay mountain.”
It’s curt, but they’ve both known him too long to mistake it for anything but typical Ezra understatement, not least because of the smile that’s tugging traitorously at the corners of his mouth. Jordan laughs, crossing his arms over the breadth of his chest, and Christian’s struck by the look on his face, the reflection of it on Ezra’s.
“Damn right it is,” Jordan says, his tone mock-belligerent but his hazel eyes sparkling. “Goddamn East Coasters, think they got the monopoly on everything—”
There’s more to it, but Christian isn’t listening, to the words, not really. The tone is more important, the looseness to Jordan’s shoulders, how he stands and smiles and tosses his head in ways Christian has long been in mourning for. Jordan’s been moving back to this for a while now, Christian realizes. Ezra too. They’re not always like this, not by a long shot, but Christian recognizes what it is in them, remembers a time when it was something he took for granted, with the youthful unconcern that disillusionment beat out of them all. They’re happy, Christian realizes, and God, but it’s been a long time coming.
THERE was a time when you’d sooner expect to see Jordan without his clothes than without a smile in the morning, even when the call was 5:00 a.m. and everybody else was struggling just to stay awake through the briefing. Christian has always suffered particularly badly with what Ezra kindly calls his Morning Sickness, the major symptom of which is an inability to speak words of more than one syllable before the consumption of at least two cups of black coffee. Jordan, on the other hand, was always bright and eager with his notepad and an attentive expression that Christian couldn’t hope to replicate, mostly due to the fact that his eyes refused to open beyond slits. He would nonchalantly work his way through packets of beef jerky while the big boss handed out assignments, and grinned at Christian throughout their entire probation period as if he could force Christian to like him through sheer persistence. The most annoying thing was that the human imitative faculty in Christian was apparently unable not to respond to Jordan’s smiles in kind, and then there was some kind of associated serotonin thing, and somehow this resulted in Christian friend-falling for Jordan (Jordan’s term) completely against his own intentions. It was lucky, really, that Jordan had already blithely made his female-oriented sexuality obvious, or things could have gotten a whole lot worse.
Christian was twenty-three when he first went to work for the station, college not too far behind him, and his parents’ reaction to the existence of his first serious boyfriend was a memory that still burned fresh. It wasn’t as if he’d expected open-armed acceptance from them, living the way they did in their evangelical small-town community, but he’d dared to hope for something less than the vehemence of their horror, their desperate attempts to ship him off to some place that could “help” him. Christian was sure enough of himself, after four years out of Texas, not to let himself be coaxed into flinging money at some scam operation claiming to Cure the Gay. He was still sufficiently unsure of himself, though, to have steered clear of men, in that sense, since Michael—just until he got himself settled somewhere, into a job and onto his own two feet. What he needed at that stage in his life was a friend, and that was what Jordan was, all support and no complications. Christian had been very firm with himself on keeping complications out.
Ezra, though, was another story altogether, which, Christian swiftly came to learn, was pretty much just Ezra’s way. He and Jordan had known each other in their college days, and they tended to move as a unit. As the weeks went on, Christian ascertained through the accumulation of little bits and pieces of information that they hadn’t been much more than friendly acquaintances before the internship came along, but he wouldn’t have guessed as much otherwise. They seemed to move easily together, bouncing insults off each other, Jordan grinning, Ezra dry, but both of them affectionate.
Still, there was none of Jordan’s straightforwardness in Ezra, none of his easy charm and white-toothed grin, no echoes of an accent that reminded Christian of home. He was older, for a start, twenty-seven to Jordan’s twenty-two, which made him automatically a little intimidating. Then there was the string of little oddities Christian noticed about his person: a strange coin on a length of black cord around his neck; a set of unfamiliar symbols inked on the soft inside of his wrist. Jordan, after watching him fixate for a week or so, obligingly explained them as relics of Ezra’s “wanderings in the desert,” as he put it. The way Jordan told it, Ezra had made his own way out to the Middle East after his freshman year of college, intrepid as a young Lawrence of Arabia, and had stayed there studying for several years before returning to complete his degree. He had gone out intending to be an archaeologist but had come back fascinated by the Arab Spring and its fallout, set upon majoring in politics. Christian could well believe this of Ezra. He seemed the adventurous sort, but there was nothing of the dreamer about him. Ezra was focused, analytical, an obvious political animal, and he always meant business.
When they first knew each other, Ezra lived in a mildewed apartment with a guy named Mark, whose primary function seemed to be to squint malevolently at all visitors. The apartment was a considerably larger space than Christian’s own minute studio—which could barely accommodate two people, let alone the dozen or so young journalists Ezra regularly invited for “festivities” on Friday nights—but the mere thought of what might be living in the sink made Christian’s throat close up. Jordan always seemed to be shockingly ready to drink anything Ezra gave him, even in the knowledge that the glass had originated in That Kitchen. But then, Jordan’s apartment was almost as much of a disaster area despite the fact that he lived with an actual, genuine girl. In fact, according to Jordan, the epic collection of used crockery and piles of paper littering every available flat surface was pretty much entirely Katie’s fault.
Christian might have been skeptical, but he’d met Katie, and the shoe fit. She was tiny and blonde, with the sort of sharply pretty face that wore sarcasm effortlessly but also rocked a smile. Christian had no doubt that it would serve her well in court when she got out of law school, because it was a face that was hard to say no to. Jordan very rarely managed it, and to judge by the size of the ring on her finger, he liked it that way.
“Girl’s a force of nature,” Jordan said, shrugging, and Christian could definitely see his point.
Looking back on those days now, Christian can hardly believe how lucky they were. Sure, they lived on strong coffee and beans and the kind of rice that comes in ten-pound bags from the Chinese market, in low-rent apartments that smelled of mold and other people’s cigarettes. These were hardships common to interns everywhere. But an internship at a news station wasn’t something you did for instant cash gratification, like rolling out of college into a tedious but high-grossing career in city banking. It was something you earned, after long years of building up a profile in college newspapers and radio stations and experimental TV channels, something you knew you were shockingly fortunate to have, when you were one of twelve successful applicants out of a possible five hundred. Broadcast journalism is a close field, and an internship like this one represented a good, firm foot in the door for all of them.
There was more to it than that, of course. It was one thing to haul yourself out of bed at the crack of dawn every day for a year because you know that, at some point in the future, it’ll be worth it. It was quite another, in Christian’s experience, to lug his protesting body onto the subway at 6:00 a.m. for the third time in a week and feel that there were people who would make the whole thing worth it the moment he got to work. Jordan and Ezra swiftly became those people. Christian would be hard-pressed to say when or how it happened. For weeks, they were just a couple of guys who made him laugh and held his interest and poured cheap alcohol down his throat on weekends. And then one day, quite unexpectedly, Christian looked up and realized that these were his best friends—the guys he spent twelve-hour days with; who fussed him, in their own ways, when he was cranky or coming down with something; who fed him and joked with him and told him their ambitions and their secrets. There’s a certain binding power in intense common experiences, like boarding school or war service. Long-houred journalism internships, it seemed, could have much the same effect. They had their ambitions, sure, and their career hopes buoyed by the abstract idea of the internship, but it was the realities of it—the long waits and rushed deadlines and regular, college-style parties, together—that made them happy. That kind of happiness left damaged places showing long after it’s torn away.
The internship pretty much ran for an academic year, August to June. Jordan and Katie were married the following July. It was to have been a fall wedding, originally, but then the news of Ezra’s job came through—a field reporting position for a national news station, out in the Middle East—and it was generally agreed that weddings tended to benefit from the best man being physically present rather than streamed into the church via long-distance video-link. So Katie exercised all her persuasive oratory skills in ensuring her dress was completed ahead of time, and Christian allowed himself to be measured for a groomsman’s suit and steadfastly refused to think about the cost. When the day rolled around, he concentrated very hard on just how fond he was of Katie, and not at all upon how unfairly amazing Jordan looked in his sharp-cut suit, all broad shoulders and earnestness and soft hair in his eyes. It helped a little that Ezra was there to distract him, looking neater and more conservative than Christian had ever seen him, like some clean-cut, dark-eyed, hot dude from a clothing catalog, his face somehow vulnerable without its habitual stubble. He was gorgeous, Christian realized, but not quite their Ezra. It struck Christian on that morning how strange their lives were going to be without him—how surely everything stood on the cusp of revolution.
In months to come, when he was feeling particularly maudlin, Christian would look back on this passing thought and mentally flagellate himself for his folly in tempting fate. The hole that Ezra left in their little New York world was as stark as he’d expected, but it had, at least, been expected and was plugged sporadically with letters and the occasional crackly telephone call. The impact made by Katie’s car, however, when it skidded off a bridge in heavy snow that winter, shattered more than just a few railings and her rearview mirrors. In the first place, it shattered Katie’s skull, causing death at the point of collision. And in the second place, it shattered Jordan utterly, leaving a hole inside him that no one had anticipated or prepared for.
The house that Jordan and Katie had bought before their marriage had been intended as a lifelong investment. The news station had hired Jordan—along with Christian, and one or two others from their year’s intake—as a permanent member of the reporting team, and consequently, he had just landed a decent salary. But the house was big and the mortgage payments only barely manageable between that and Katie’s scholarship money. The expectation had been, of course, that Katie would qualify as an attorney, and then meeting the payments would be easy. The house, more than anything else—more, even, than Katie’s wedding ring hanging forlornly on its chain around Jordan’s neck—represented the entirety of what had been lost here. Everything about it symbolized the future that had been anticipated and which now would never be. The Prendeckis had barely lived in the place as a married couple. The front lawn would never serve as a safe place for their children to play in. The four bedrooms upstairs would never all be filled. Jordan was alone in the big house after Katie died, and it suddenly seemed a very big house indeed.
Still, it never quite occurred to Christian just how inevitable it was that he should end up there, filling up the spaces, until he was unpacking his things and installing his coffee maker in Jordan’s kitchen. It wasn’t that Christian had ever really been unhappy with his quiet, self-contained little studio, nor had Jordan ever actually put it to him, in so many words, that it might be a good thing for all concerned if Christian were to move in with him. It was just that Christian couldn’t find it in himself to leave Jordan alone in that house that had no Katie in it, not the way Jordan looked all the time back then, all hollow-eyed and shell-shocked.
The first couple of weeks Christian didn’t even pretend, when he came straight from work to Jordan’s with a duffel, that he didn’t intend to stay. Jordan’s parents and siblings came up for the funeral, of course, but they had jobs and lives of their own, many states away, and Jordan was reluctant to take more than a week or so off work, even though the station would have allowed it. He said he was afraid of falling into something and getting stuck there if he let himself switch off, and Christian kind of saw where he was coming from. That left Jordan, bereavement still tender as a new burn, in New York City on his own, and Christian didn’t actually feel he could be trusted to put himself to bed, let alone to do more complicated things like eat and shower. So he stayed and cooked dinner and nudged Jordan up off the couch and into his bed at the appropriate time, assured Jordan’s mother that it was all under control when she called and Jordan couldn’t bring himself to talk to her. It was automatic, necessary. Jordan was his best friend, and he was hurting, and the way Christian saw it, leaving him that way was not an option available to non-douchebags.
The semi-catatonic state went on for ten days or so, just long enough for Christian’s routine to have adjusted itself to waking up in Jordan’s guest room and making dinner for two at night. After that, Jordan went back to work. Christian was of the opinion that he was nowhere near ready for it, but Jordan shrugged him off, his entire demeanor uncharacteristically quiet but typically determined, as had been his general state recently. He did seem, though, to start improving quite swiftly after the return to a strict daily routine, as if having something else to think about, some deadline to meet, actually did take his mind off things. The problem was, Christian wasn’t so sure that this pointedly together, quietly efficient Jordan would still be happy to have his best friend use his house as a free B&B, delivering daily reports to Jordan’s mother on her son’s emotional state. Things would still be weirdly out of sync as long as Christian let himself exist in this stasis, living out of a suitcase and doing Jordan’s chores for him. It was time to leave, he knew; time to go back to his own place, watch some goddamn football or something and stop worrying about whether Jordan had eaten yet. Life had reared up and kicked Jordan in the teeth, sure, but he was dealing. He was a grown-up, and Christian was imposing.
It was all perfectly straightforward, theoretically. In practice, though, Christian could tell himself these things until he was blue in the face, but at the end of it, he’d still find himself sitting on Jordan’s couch with a beer and a bowl of macaroni and cheese. He kept expecting Jordan to gather himself together enough to tell Christian he could go the fuck home anytime he felt like it, but Jordan never did—never acknowledged, even, that this was anything but totally normal. One night about six weeks after Katie died, Christian came home—to Jordan’s house, rather—from a late night at the station to find that all his things had, apparently, disappeared, although his empty duffel remained mysteriously present in the front hall. For an hour, Christian wandered blearily around the house, searching for his toothbrush in a state of steadily deepening agitation. Until, ducking into the bathroom to pee, he finally located it in the glass on the bathroom counter with the other two. It was definitely his toothbrush with the very particular pale green handle, but Christian was equally sure he hadn’t been the one who’d put it there with Jordan’s red one and Katie’s blue, the bristles still rucked up from the over-vigorous way she had of scrubbing with the whole force of her arm behind it. It was weird, Christian thought, looking at the three brushes together, and yet he had the oddest feeling that it should have felt much weirder. He cleaned his teeth methodically with Jordan’s cinnamon toothpaste, mainly for the reassuring warm edge to it, and tried not to think too hard.
When he got back to the guestroom, the first thing he saw was the dresser drawer standing open, revealing neat stacks of Christian’s shirts. A brisk survey of the other drawers indicated that, yes, there was Christian’s underwear, his slacks and jeans, his favorite green sweater with the nick in the elbow. There was Christian’s other suit in the wardrobe, looking rather forlorn on the long rack that otherwise held nothing but coat hangers. Jordan had unpacked him, Christian realized, with a strange sense of blankness. Jordan had, clearly, finally cracked somehow and put away Christian’s things in a fit of tidying fervor, returning them, with everything else, to their rightful places—at least, as he perceived them.
When Christian pulled back the covers on the bed, he saw that the pajama pants and loose T-shirt he’d been sleeping in were folded by the pillow, further victims of Jordan’s zeal. Christian put them on mechanically, dutifully. After a moment’s thought, he folded his day clothes and put them in an empty drawer of the dresser. When he got into the bed, it seemed to pillow up around him comfortably, the aches seeping out of the sore places his back had acquired during the day. In the next room, Jordan rolled over, the bedsprings protesting and groaning for a long moment before settling again. It should have been annoying, probably, but for some reason, when Christian thought of his own apartment, silent but for the ticking of clocks, he found he didn’t mind it. If anything, it put him at his ease, drew him faster into sleep.
Three weeks later, the lease on Christian’s studio lapsed, and Christian didn’t renew it. Instead he simply informed Jordan that they needed to pick up his coffee maker and the rest of his clothes, and that the coffee maker would probably require the help of Jordan’s truck. Jordan nodded and said, “After the game, huh? Sit down,” and handed Christian a beer. It was only noon, but it was a Sunday. Anything went on Sundays. Christian took the beer.
It was another month before Jordan came home with the dogs, but the way the house felt with them in it, just that next inch toward complete, Christian couldn’t understand how he hadn’t thought of it himself.
“They’re beautiful,” he said, rubbing at the silky fur behind Sandy’s ears. She was a big, lollopy mongrel of a thing, all teeth and tongue, and her brother—whom the kennel had mysteriously dubbed “Bongo”—was a tiny little thing who would have fit easily enough into a shoebox. A girl’s shoebox. If Christian had been asked to picture the platonic ideal of a dog, Sandy was precisely what he would have imagined. Bongo was closer to the platonic ideal of a handbag accessory, but if he was making Jordan smile, he was okay with Christian.
“Aren’t they?” Jordan said, and something like a smile was just visible at the corners of his mouth, leeching just a tiny amount of the drawn expression from his face. That look of concern, so alien to the way Jordan had always looked before, had become almost habitual now, and so Christian was even more grateful to the two gorgeous dogs, mismatched as they were, if they could make Jordan smile even the slightest amount. “I thought we needed some kids around the house, you know?”
Christian laughed at that, barked it out rough and startled, and laughed more when Bongo lifted his head and barked right back, a high-pitched little yip. “Who do you think we are?” Christian demanded, one eyebrow cocked. “The Flintstones?”
“Doris and Rock, dude,” Jordan corrected him, and winked. It was halfhearted, but a definite wink. “We have the resident gay guy, the separate-bed marriage… don’t you think?”
Christian snorted. “You realize you’re Doris, by this logic, right?”
“Whatever.” Jordan waved a hand dismissively. “We have dogs, man.”
And yeah, they did have dogs, Christian couldn’t disagree. They were good dogs. They filled things up, kept the house buzzing with life so that when he and Jordan both had to work almost to midnight, it didn’t have that edge of the tomb when they opened the door on the dark. It wasn’t really like being married with kids, Christian knew that, knew that Jordan only joked about that to spare himself, and Christian made very sure to underline the point in his mind. They were Doris and Rock: one straight, one gay. They had two beds, even if increasingly they only seemed to have one life, and that made all the goddamn difference.
When Christian had lived there for a year, Jordan put his name on the mortgage, as a gesture of solidarity. Christian took that in the spirit intended and managed not to read anything into it. Mostly.