Puppets do not make demands of anyone. Even if they are particularly privileged.
It was the closest to a command that he would ever get. Beggars are not choosers and captives are not commanders; at best they’re lucky puppets if their strings are around their wrists and ankles instead of their necks, and they’re even luckier if their puppeteers don’t decide to grind them up into firewood. So when Frank stood in the small, dark space between their two bedrooms, that couple of feet between where he stood and where Gerard stood, he was either feeling remarkably lucky or particularly stupid because puppets do not make demands of anyone. Even if they are particularly privileged.
At that point it was probably a little after ten, feeling more like midnight with the snow and the cold and the sleepy sluggishness that came with mid-western winter. Frank felt a little bit like he was about to go into hibernation. Gerard yawned and turned around, all silhouette and no features in the lack of light. Sleepily he asked, “Yeah?”
He was hesitant, afraid that Gerard might judge him for what he was thinking or wanting. “I was wondering…” The sturdiness, the rock-like forcefulness of his tone, crumbled like a cliff side into the sea. Gerard stood patiently, waiting for him to speak like a kindergarten teacher or a particularly tolerant mother. A croak groaned in the back of his throat and he shut it like a sink drain. “No, never mind.”
Gerard made a gesture with his arms in the darkness and it might have been a shrug. “No, really. What?” It wasn’t aggravated; it was curious. Frank suddenly itched on the inside of his body.
“I was just sort of wondering if I could, like,” he stammered out, trying to drag the sentence until maybe they would just forget what they’d started talking about and head off to bed. They didn’t, so he continued, “I dunno like…sleep in your room or something.” Gerard rubbed his nose and said nothing, as if aware that Frank might continue to correct himself. “You don’t have to let me, that’s totally cool.”
In a curious and oddly intelligent-sounding voice, Gerard asked, "What made you change your mind?" Puzzled, Frank asked What? It wasn't like Gerard had ever offered for them to sleep in the same room. "About being close to me," he continued. "If I'd asked you to stay in my room a few weeks ago you'd have said no. Or said yes but not meant it. I'm not even being..."
He seemed to want to say violent or some other word similar to that but paused and changed his mind.
"What changed?" he asked. Frank realized vaguely that he didn't have an answer. What had changed? Him, Gerard, their situation? No, nothing really. Nothing outside his head. Things in his head were colorful like cherries and comfortable like blankets on a cold day. He did think, I'm going insane, so maybe he was.
"I dunno," he replied. "I really don't."
Gerard stood still for a couple of breaths, the heaviness of thought weighing inside Frank's ears like blocks of lead, possibly thinking it over, before waving his hand in a gesture signifying, Come on. With cold, bare feet on the wood floor and sleeveless arms he stepped into Gerard's room, carpet rising up between his toes. Gerard turned on the light, then took a couple steps forward and put his hands behind his head, his elbows out.
"I have to change," he said, briefly glancing over at the dresser to the left of his bed. "So if you're like, uncomfortable with that you might wanna like. Turn around or something."
It occurred to Frank that if they were to be sleeping in the same bed they would be near naked, minimally clothed in boxer shorts and maybe T-shirts. It made his heart and stomach do odd things inside their caverns, seeming to switch places with a nauseating leap and fall. "I'm just...sleeping in my shorts," he explained, his voice awkward, feeling to him as if it was coming out sideways. Gerard shrugged, his arms still up, and his face passive.
"As long as you're comfortable."
Frank nervously turned away, facing the closet he was too painfully familiar with, staring at it and feeling like he might be shoved into it again. Looking at it made him feel nervous, more uncomfortable than the idea of sleeping next to Gerard. At least when he was near Gerard there was the possibility of safety. There was space to move. Behind him, clothes rustled like leaves and fell to the floor with low rumbles. He could hear Gerard pull on a different shirt.
"M'kay, all good," Gerard announced, giving a playful thumbs-up sign as Frank turned around. He had changed his shirt into a ragged, black band T-shirt that looked several years old. He was wearing black boxer shorts and his skin looked white. Frank gave him a quick look up and down, far from checking Gerard out in a sexual way, but more just looking him over. Evaluating. Sort of making sure it was safe. Gerard looked happy and boyish, like a childhood friend ready for a sleep over. No harm, all safety.
The younger man hopped onto the bed, kicking his legs out. "Tired?" he asked. Frank shrugged. He said, Yeah, a little, which wasn't entirely true; his eyelids felt heavy, almost painful and sore to keep open, and his arms and legs felt too weak to lift or move. "You can sit down if you want," Gerard continued in a friendly voice. " 's not like we're gonna screw or something."
It was an odd thing for him to say, Frank considered, because that's actually kind of what he was expecting.
Slightly grateful and more than slightly relieved, he sat down beside Gerard, keeping several inches between them. Gerard dug under his nails as if cleaning them, trying to fit under the chewed-down nubs for lack of anything to do with his hands. Fidgety, that's what he was. Frank imaged that if Gerard was an animal, he'd have been a sparrow; constantly hopping around. Or maybe a crow; a large, black raven with an enormous wingspan and an omniscient scream. Maybe he'd even be a hybrid of the two.
The light was a dark yellow, the thick, dark green blankets beneath his legs comfortable and inviting. The whole room was warm, as if a fire had been lit somewhere and was heating them. It smelled like Gerard and he liked it; it was welcoming. The taller man placed his hand in the space between them and Frank wished he would move it.
"What're you thinking about?" Gerard wondered aloud, saying it as if it had accidentally slipped between a crack in his head and floated out into the open like steam. Frank didn't want to say, You so he said Nothing instead. Gerard simply Hmm'd as if he knew Frank was lying but didn't want to press the issue. "You have a lot of courage," Gerard said.
Frank didn't look directly as Gerard's face; he sort of just stared at his middle. "What d'you mean?"
Gerard sort of shrugged sluggishly. "I mean you have a lot of courage for being in here. Think about it: you're alone in this room with me. I could do anything I wanted to you and no one would come to help you. And I'm not even just talkin' like, sexual rape-y, molest-y things. But you trust me enough to stay here- not even that, but ask to come in here and sleep in my room with me. As if I might say no or something. It's brave. Or maybe crazy, I dunno. I mean, I'd never do anything like...that to you, but...still..." He laughed and it came out kind of like a snort. "Jesus Christ, I'm fucking crazy."
Leaning forward, back bent, with his arms resting on the upper legs, Frank disagreed, "Nah. You have nothing to worry about. I'm crazy." The tone of everything, not just his voice but the room and the overall mood, was casual. Like they were old friends. "I'm friggin'...I don't know what I'm feeling or what I'm doing, and I think I'm becoming obsessive compulsive or something; I can't stop cleaning. And my apartment was a God damn mess so me cleaning anything is like, a huge deal."
Gerard's fingers twitched, bent slightly at the joint, and for whatever reason Frank didn't want it to touch him. It was odd, a paradox even, because he longed to be physically and emotionally near Gerard, but if he wasn't the one entirely in control, making the quick pecks on cheeks or making strange sexual advancements, then he felt completely uncomfortable. As if he didn't trust Gerard and his motives at all. It made him feel dirty, guilty, and he didn't like it. Some part of him argued that it was because he didn't have a reason not to trust Gerard, but the part of him still retaining a speck of common sense snorted and didn't even bother to explain why that statement was both sad in the pathetic sense and comical. Gerard yawned conspicuously, his thin hand reaching up to cover his mouth. Frank noticed that Gerard's teeth had little spaces between the front three teeth and his canines and he found them oddly charming.
"Okay, well," he said in a concluding voice, the words riding on the end of his yawn as if it was a wave. "I'd like to pull an all-nighter with you but...not really. So I think it's time we head off to sleep." He slid backwards to the head of the bed, sitting on the beginnings of the sheets. He gestured with his hand, the same Come on, come here gesture as before. "You can come up here if ya want. I won't make it awkward, I promise." He scooted over to the right, by the side of the bed with the nightstand and the lamp, making room for Frank to join him.
Nervous, as if he was about to do something dangerous and daring (maybe he was), he crawled next to Gerard, not moving under the blankets, not wanting it to feel romantic or sensual or even like anything at all that wasn't simply boiled down to safety. Gerard reached over the nightstand and pulled on the metal chord to the lamp. The light clicked off and Frank suddenly felt overwhelmed with regret, the feeling nearly knocking the wind out of him as if he’d been punched in the gut. He was momentarily rendered blind, the darkness feeling thick and tangible. Gerard moved next to him, shuffled around and squirmed to get beneath the blankets.
“You’re sitting on the covers, fool,” he teased, tugging them from beneath Frank’s backside. He lifted up his legs, knees bent, and scooted backwards, slipping his legs beneath the blankets- Gerard’s blankets; the place where the man next to him had slept for- what Frank assumed was- years, the fabric gathering his skin cells, pieces of his hair. Dust.
The sheets felt smooth and cool against his bare legs and he tucked the blankets around his sides, holding him in place and covering him like bandages on a mummy. He turned on his side, away from Gerard, liking the feeling that he was there watching over him but not liking that he was so close. The pressure of Gerard on the mattress behind him was unnerving. From behind him he could feel Gerard move, lean towards him, and suddenly the other man’s heat was on the back of his neck and everything inside him trembled like his parts inside had grown furry spider legs.
In a soft voice, Gerard whispered kindly,” G‘night.” The firmness of his flat chest was near Frank’s back and it felt like a protective wall.
He curled his fingers around the blankets and behind him Gerard turned over. For some reason, Frank wished he wouldn’t. He breathed,