It was too early to be out on a Saturday morning, but I’m used to it now. As I pushed open the small grilled gate into the dew covered lawn, Julien ran ahead of me, always his playful self. He was already sitting beside the tiny orange tree when I reached it.

This story is about Julien, but I’m the one to tell it.

Are you listening, Julien?

I still remember the first time I kissed you. It was the first time I was kissing anyone, much less a boy at that. Was I nervous! I had always wanted my first kiss to be pleasant and special, so I discreetly chewed a few tic tacs that I had made a point to carry with me just for this.

Did it taste like oranges? Did you like it, I asked about my first ever kiss, a tentative one.

No, it didn’t taste like oranges. It tasted just like you, and yes, it was delicious.

I laughed, you laughed, always corny if you could help it.

Do you remember those early mornings we walked hand in hand through the deserted roads around CT? I would keep looking around and fret if I saw someone even a mile away. You would laugh telling me I was adorable when I fuss.

On Saturday mornings like this, we would pack books and bites, go to the park, sit under our tree and read. Sometimes you would lie in my lap and I would read to you. Sometimes you read to me.

Sometimes we would just sit side by side and not talk at all. We were comfortable in our silence too. Silence is the language of hearts, you would say. You were the song of my silence.

Remember that day when you leaned down and kissed me, I pushed you away and looked around, “there are people around!”, I exclaimed. “There are plenty of other people kissing in this park”, you said, rolling those eyes of yours. “But none of them are two guys”, I pointed out.

“That’s not our problem. If the truth burns the world, let it”. You were always the rebel, always right. My rock.

We would sit snacking on our munchies, watching kids and dogs play. One day you said you wanted to grow old with me, raising kids and puppies together. We would, I promised.

When we couldn’t agree on what kind of dog to get, you said you would get one of your own then and give it my name. You laughed like an idiot at the face I made, and even harder when I thwacked you in the head. Later that day a pigeon pooped on you, and it was my turn to laugh. Revenge is a dish best served steaming and right on your shoulder, I said. You chased me all over the park, threatening with a ‘pigeon facial’. Remember that?

I remember the day we made love for the first time. Afterwards, when I thought you were going to kiss my neck, you bit me, hard. I screamed in pain, and you laughed. “You are a fucking monster! What was that for?”. “I’m marking you as mine”, you said examining the deep red marks you left. If this is how you love me, you will kill me, I winced rubbing where you bit me. You smiled, and kissed where I was rubbing, causing my heart to melt and trickle out through the half punctured skin of my neck. You licked there, and said it tasted of my heart, and of oranges. You corny fuck!

Do you remember the cold nights when we would cwtch under the sheets and fall asleep, content and complete? Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, feel you against me, inhale your scent, and go back to sleep wishing the night never ended.

Every cell in my body was in love with every cell in yours. Every cell in my body belonged to you and every cell in yours belonged to me. We were one and the same.

I’ve tried hard to forget the day you called me and said we should break up. I didn’t believe at first. Then I was angry, then I pleaded, I bargained, but you were resolute. That’s one thing I always liked about you, nothing could shake you, you were my mountain, my refuge. I was home with you. But now I was homeless.

I needed to deal with it, you said. I needed to grow up. Things cannot last for ever, find someone else, you said. But what was the point of taking another breath if it didn’t carry your scent.

“You are killing me”, I pleaded.

“If the truth kills you, let it”, you hung up.

I tried calling you many times, but your phone was switched off, I called your office, they said you weren’t in, I went to your apartment, it was locked. You completely blocked me off, how could you? It tore me up, you tore me up, then left to bleed.

I needed something to hold on to, so I hated you with every cell in my body. I needed it to survive. I never cried. I wouldn’t cry. If I did, I would heal, I might forgive. Healing meant giving up. Giving up on you, on me, on us. Let it burn. No tears.

But it seemed like you had given up. How could you, when I was still hanging, I asked myself, while I burned in your fire.

Months passed and I could no longer take it. I could no more function. Deserted elevators smelled like you, of our stolen kisses. The road around CT, the park, the buses we took together, the songs we liked, my phone that wouldn’t ring, our tree, any tree, dogs, everything, everything seemed to scream at me, telling me that I’m incomplete, telling me you hate me, reminding me that I hate you.

I still remember the day when the truth actually killed me. It was a sunny day, I hated sunny days. My phone rang. You. I answered, I couldn’t speak, I forgot everything including how much I hated you. Please let me hate you, I needed it, I would crumble without it.

“Alex”.

“Are you there”, you asked when I didn’t speak.

“Yes”, I croaked in a voice that I hoped sounded cold, not slush. I had to remind myself that I hated you now.

“I’m sorry”, you were crying.

Every cell in my body ached in ways I didn’t know I could still feel.

What happened? Why are you crying?

You just cried.

“I can’t die without seeing you again”.

You told me how you had been sick. How they said you were dying. How the whole thing was a bottomless pit and how you didn’t want to pull me through with you. How you wanted me to hate you, so I could get over, and survive. I deserved better, you said. You stupid stupid boy. That’s when I died.

ho
Or was it when I saw you in hospital bed later that day? You looked sickly and fragile. I wanted to break down, but I wouldn’t cry in front of you. Not in front of your mother either. I knew I would feel guilty if I did, I had no right to share in her grief, or to pretend that my pain was equal to yours. You were killing me, Julien.

I cried all the way back, on the bus, on the train, how could I still feel if I was already dead.

I came back the next day packing clothes, but they wouldn’t let me stay with you at night. So I left in the evening and came back again the next day. On the fifth day, your mom let me stay with you overnight and went home. I would read to you, but you slept most of the time. The sleep that I’d so many times watched with delight now filled me with dread. Every now and again I would look at your chest, and would heave a silent sigh of relief when I see it moving up and down ever so slowly. At times you would wake up and smile when you catch me staring. You knew what I was thinking, yet you smiled, or so you smiled, how could you? You asked for my hand and asked me to hold yours while you slept. You have no idea how I felt clinging to you like that, almost like I was keeping you from slipping away, from leaving me. I wouldn’t cry.

One day you asked me if I believed in rebirth. I said yes, because this can’t be it. This isn’t fair. You said you wanted to be born as a tree, under which I could sit and read to you. My face smiled.

You said you wanted a kiss. I reminded you what the nurse told about minimum contact, on account of your immune system being weak. Death will be fair price for a kiss from you, you laughed. A shadow of your old laugh. I wasn’t laughing. You noticed, and said, “I just can’t think of not being able to kiss you ever again”, you weren’t laughing.

“What? Don’t say like that!”.

“What if…”, you began, but before you could finish it, I planted a kiss on your lips, swallowing your words. Tentative, like the first time I kissed you. When I pulled back, you smiled, “Did you forget how to ki…”. I kissed you again, as good as I’ve ever kissed you, like a man dying of thirst guzzling from a fountain that he feared would disappear if he blinked. You were weak and tasted like hospital, but beyond all that, I could feel you. That was it, I could no longer hold it in, everything that was taken from us rushed to me unfettered, then came the torrent of tears that I had locked away. I kissed you while I cried, I cried for the first time in front of you, you cried too. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, for wanting to hate you, for wanting to get over you. Don’t leave me, I sobbed hugging you, take me with you. You held me tight while we cried. You were my rock.

We had run out of tears and I was still clinging to your arm when your mom came in the evening. She asked me to go home and take rest now that she was there. When I got up, you tugged my arm, and I leaned down and kissed you. I looked at your mom before closing the door behind me, there was no disgust in her eyes, only suffering, understanding. I think she already knew.

That was the last time I kissed you. The next morning when I reached the hospital, they told me that you were taken to the ICU during the night. I sat outside with your mom. She hugged me and we cried, two disconsolate souls, seeking refuge in each other’s grief. In the afternoon they told us that you passed away.

How could you do that to me?

***

The little black puppy that sat at my legs started getting impatient and started gnawing at my loafers. It was a month and a half after Julien had died when I finally decided to visit the shelter and adopt a puppy. The first one they showed me was this cute little pest, shining black, just like the one he always said he wanted. He looked so small and fragile. I reached out to pet him, but he bit my finger. Monster!

“He likes you”, said the lady at the shelter.
“I know”, I smiled.
Julien.

Yeah, I named the dog after you. I can be corny too!

Julien kept tugging at my jeans as I emptied the water bottle I had brought with me over the tiny orange tree. I smelled its leaves, tangy, just like you. And I laid the flower I had brought at the tombstone next to it.

I love you.

**