Something I missed in a split between two

Waiting for the 2 a.m. bus home, I was alone, but my mind was not. Thoughts of him followed me from his door, onto the SkyTrain and up the hill to the bus stop. The memory of his contact kept me warm despite the rain pitter-pattering off of my umbrella. I was still new to dating, not yet accustomed to being with someone I liked who reciprocated in a way that we were both brave enough to act on. That late, the bus seemed to arrive whenever it thought was appropriate, so there I waited. It wasn’t too bad though because he was there under my umbrella, spread out on my mind like honey shining golden on toast.

Our first date was one of endurance. We walked for hours downtown and my shoulder grew tired from the regret of putting so much stuff in my bag in an earlier fit of nerves. He was spry, made for walking, his long legs giving him the fuel of a marathoner. Each step was playfully measured like he was playing hopscotch. The ache in my feet grew as the day went on and so did my attraction to him.

We built IKEA furniture together a few dates later. An activity typically reserved for established couples, I know, but we were contending with a lot of newness then. Before I’d met him, he’d recently moved into a basement suite with a single pitiful aboveground window by the door. It would let a sliver of sun sneak into the kitchen and lay itself over his bare walls and empty floors. The light of the day became ever thinner, dusk taking over as we found ourselves leaning over loose screws and the half-built desk to kiss for the first time. Even though his basement needed more, a lamp, a shelf, a mirror, it was okay because it was already full of him.

After our times together, I inevitably had to bus home, back to where my parents and I had lived since my kindergarten days. The distance between my parents and I widened as I neared the end of high school. I would come home from class, but my parents and I never asked how one another’s day had been, as I assumed their parents never asked them. They never adopted Western idiosyncrasies like that after all their years in Canada. It wasn’t our habit. We didn’t talk feelings and physical contact was even rarer. The only time I remember my dad’s touch was in Grade 3 after my mom had hit me: I asked him for a hug and there we sat, until I took my face off his shoulder and saw the dark patch my tears left on his shirt. I felt embarrassed to have asked for a hug and not once afterward did we talk about what had happened. Masculine toughness lies in the unspoken. My emotions were my own to hold on to and I became hard like kiln-fired clay so they wouldn’t escape.

Although my parents taught me independence, it still eluded me. They forbade me from having a girlfriend and they didn’t like it when I stayed out late, even after I started university. So the teenage defiance I never had took the form of him. I spent more time at his place, incrementally pushing back the definition of a late night until, on occasion, I would eschew the bus, ignoring my mom’s calls and spend the night with him. It was a space that I’d never had, one where masculinity lost its grip and I could soften. A space where affection was doled out as free as summer shade given under a tree at my neighbourhood dog park. This is how things should be, I thought. Freedom from and freedom to. To express myself to someone, anyone and have them do the same to me.

The more I knew him, the more I noticed a hesitation behind his touch. He told me that he struggled with mental illness. I had no map for what to do when someone you care so much for didn’t care for themselves the same way, so I decided that I would use my newfound expression. Rejecting the confines of my upbringing, I had to be supportive, available and gentle. I would take care of him in a way that I thought I should have been taken care of: get his feelings out so he could be free too.

But soon, a shortness arose that marked how we began to treat each other. I thought I had mastered how to care, but something was amiss in my efforts to solve him.

I was frustrated with myself and it reminded me of when I pestered my dad to teach me how to shave. The first shade of facial hair had appeared on my upper lip. I liked that my teenage coming of age had finally grown on my face and I liked even more the fact that I could now want it gone. My dad never grew anything more than the most minute of cactus spines, so we didn’t have shaving cream at home. Still, I wanted this ritual as soon as I could have it, so I could be a man. I followed him into the washroom where he rubbed his chin and cheeks with bar soap and with a blue Bic razor left a clean strip in the bubbles. That’s all, he said. I mimicked, scared I’d see red, but none came. Upper lip clean. It couldn’t be that simple. I imagined I would have to climb over so many boulders to perform my ideal. What I’d thought all men had to learn was nothing more than the flick of a razor and my smooth face stung.

The tradeoff I’d cemented in my head, of silencing the firm for emotional fluency, took so much of my attention that I’d lost the openness we had. I kept on asking him what was wrong and how I could help, but I didn’t realize that he didn’t want my help that way. I didn’t ask how he wanted to be helped. I wondered how he saw me then, whether he still wanted to see my reflection in the laptop screen — playing a movie that I’d immediately agreed to watch because I only wanted his arm around me. I asked all of my friends what to do, but I regret that I never had the mind to ask him.

And I knew I hurt him. I tried so hard to work the dichotomy in my favour that I failed to realize that outside it was better to be. So as I leaned on the kitchen counter next to the desk we’d made whole, we concluded we’d be better suited as friends and I understood.

From him I gained openness and leaving him I gained sensitivity. I left his basement for the last time as his lover and standing at the bus stop, I carried a residual warmth but I felt the crisp night air cool on my cheek.