Qualia Literary & Art Journal

Even Though Jesus Wept for Lazarus

It wasn’t quite hot, but it wasn’t cold.  It was kind of pleasant outside today.  The air was dry and smelled of crumbling leaves and tasted of dust.  So dry that Roman could hear the air crackling every time he walked past anything metal and every time he brushed his thick hair.  When he walked the dog, everything smelled of the manure people put on their just seeded lawns.  Tomorrow was the Christmas parade down Downey Avenue and the Holiday brunch at St. Mark’s and then Advent Two at home with five old ladies from church.  That was his parents’ party, but he would help out because his dad had enough to do with the holiday brunch and his mother was pretty much useless getting ready for parties.

The days weren’t supposed to be like this, so normal.  The last normal thing Roman remembered was his phone ringing eleven days ago.  It didn’t ring of course; it played “Blowing in the Wind.”  Then he had heard Myra, Alex’s mother, on the other end of his phone.  It wasn’t supposed to be Myra; it had been Alex’s number.  He had talked to Myra once in the whole five years he had been friends with Alex.  Best friends.  Best friends didn’t die.  Your best friend was the best man at your wedding.  Your best friend was at your graduation.  Best friends didn’t die.

It was the first week of December, two weeks into Advent, the church’s preparation for the coming of the Lord and Savior of Mankind.  Candles lit every week with prayers for peace and joy and hope, the light brought into the world by Jesus.  Roman grew up with lighting the five candles, one candle every Sunday night and finally all four and the Christ candle in the center on Christmas.  This year, the words of joy and hope and peace just washed over Roman when recited at church and at home. Just babble.

The pain wasn’t in his heart and mind.  It was in his body.  The pain stuffed his head and chest and made his stomach ache.  It made the muscles and nerves in his arms and legs heavy and Roman had to fight to move.  There was a need to his arms and his chest to pull Alex close to him, to squeeze him tight, to say good bye properly.  Maybe that’s why he held Jackson so tight the night of the funeral, a male body in his arms kept that emptiness away for a while.

Alex had been just as afraid as Roman.  But his fears were different.  Alex was afraid of not being noticed and so he was loud and bold and outgoing.  Only Roman ever saw him quiet or still.  While Roman’s childhood had been one of constant torture and harassment, Alex’s classmates hadn’t even bothered to harass him.  He was just ignored.  And Alex spent the rest of his life afraid he would never matter.

Roman still wrote sometimes.  Usually he just stared at the screen and listened to music until his eyes were so dry they itched.

The last thing Roman had said to Alex hadn’t been “I love you,” or “I miss you,” or even “good-bye.”  And his conscious wouldn’t let him forgive himself.  It was his guilt as much as his grief that kept him up at night.  He wanted to go back those sixteen days, to the last time he saw Alex.  Go back to that night on Paramount Boulevard between Seventh and Florence and tell Alex how much he loved him, and maybe that would make everything ok.  Maybe if Roman told Alex how much he loved him, then maybe Alex wouldn’t die and the world could start again.

Roman still went to church.  Easier than explaining to his parents why he didn’t.  He could think about whatever he wanted while his body went through the motions.  Besides he needed to get up, get out and do things.  Even if it was sleep walking through mass.  Not that anyone noticed anyway.  They all politely avoided him.  Some of them even asked him how his friend Alex was doing.  Not only did life go on, but Alex’s death didn’t seem to touch anyone else.

Roman hoped Alex was in heaven.  It was the only thing he genuinely prayed for anymore.  He knew Alex was an atheist.  But he really hoped that didn’t matter.   Roman believed in the life everlasting and he believed Alex was at peace now.  As angry as he was, as much as he hurt, Roman wanted Alex to be happy.  He prayed that all the songs and prayers were true and his best friend would finally be happy.

He prayed Alex was in heaven, waiting for him.  Alex had to be in heaven, because for Roman, there could be no heaven without Alex.

Roman and Alex met when they were undergrads at UC Riverside, before they came back for their masters.  They had met the first week Roman had transferred in, in the dining hall of the Aberdeen-Inverness res hall.  Standing in line for brunch one weekend, just after school officially started, they started talking.  They sat and talked for two hours over the dorm food and the staff had to come by twice to tell them to quiet down because they got so excited. They talked about books, music, movies.  It was the giddy joy of meeting someone you know will be in your life for a very long time.  The giddy joy of meeting someone you would love.

Roman no longer felt God around him.  All he felt around him now was empty space.  The light of the world didn’t touch him anymore.

Roman was looking forward to the two parties tomorrow, there would be things to do, actions to go through, people to talk to, no matter how shallow the conversation was.  He would be fine until the dreams that night.

He had tomorrow all planned out.  He would vacuum the house, with the baking soda, because they had a dog.  He would sweep and swifter the kitchen floor.  He would sweep the bathroom.  He would drag out the big table from the garage and set it for nine, the four in the family and the five people who were coming over that night.  All before walking to church.  He would have to walk to church because Downey Avenue would be blocked off for the big Christmas parade.

At least he’d be eating vegetables tomorrow night.  That would have made Alex happy.  Alex had always fussed over Roman’s health, the way Roman had fussed over Alex’s recklessness.  Alex was the one that got Roman off the sleep pills, got him to try to sleep naturally.  Roman had thought he had the same influence on Alex, but that theory was shot to hell when they were standing at the corner of Paramount and Third and Alex told him he had slept with Jackson.

And then the yelling started.  And the name calling.  And the accusations.  And when Alex went back to Pennsylvania, they were still fighting.

Roman would help out at the holiday brunch tomorrow morning; he would be the dishwasher, since he was always in charge of clean up. It would give him an hour or so of something to do.  An hour when he didn’t think about Alex’s bowties or his rough blonde hair or that horrible Axe body wash he used even though he wasn’t sixteen.  For once the smell of dishwashing liquid would drown out the smell his memories supplied.

Alex wasn’t wearing a bowtie when he was killed.  At least not as far as anybody could tell.  Roman was able to tell himself for a few hours that meant that it wasn’t really Alex.  But of course it was, even without his trademark tie.

Roman was taking sleeping pills again.  Only his sister knew about that because he shared a bathroom with her right now.  He had still managed to hide them from his parents, although he was pretty sure his sister had told their dad.  He was up to three times the dose now.  Three pills a night instead of one and he still dreamed of Alex.  Dreams where Alex wasn’t dead.  Dreams of Roman and Alex eating pizza at Getaway in undergrad, going to drag shows at the Menagerie. Dreams based on memories of college and grad school before Alex had received that fellowship to Pennsylvania.  Dreams that taunted and tempted him.

The worst will be New Year’s Eve.  They had spent New Year’s Eve together for years.  It was always the same.  Mushroom pizza, chocolate pie, RC Cola, and rye whiskey, now that they were both old enough to drink.  Watching movies till midnight.  Then giggling in bed before they fell asleep.  Roman always fell asleep first.  He was the morning person, Alex was the night owl.

Roman was very tactile with objects.  He couldn’t put things down: his cellphone, money, pens, pieces of paper, things in stores.  He hands had to be touching, holding, feeling something.  Not just his hands, he would often use the small objects he could not put down to trace his lips, especially if he was lost in thought.  But with people, Roman was uncomfortable with touching.  He was never sure of the rules, how much was too much, how little was insulting.  The only person he felt comfortable touching was Alex.  Always above the waist, his arms around Alex waist or chest, the pads of his fingers over Alex’s stubble or through his hair.  Roman always said he was practicing for when he had a real boyfriend. Alex always just seemed amused.  He never had Roman’s fears about touching and being touched.

The funeral was packed.  Everyone loved Alex.  He had a way with people.  Certainly better than Roman did.

Roman still hadn’t forgiven Alex when he died.   Jackson had been at the funeral.  He had tried to comfort Roman, but Roman wouldn’t let him.  He didn’t want Jackson anywhere near him.  He didn’t even want Jackson at the funeral, but he hadn’t been able to stop him.

Alex knew Roman had it bad for Jackson.  Alex knew and he still slept with Jackson.  In the ensuing fight, he claimed Roman never would have acted on his feelings.  It made Roman even angrier to admit Alex had been right.

They had met Jackson in grad school out in Riverside.  It turned out Jackson grew up in Norwalk, not too far from Roman in Downey or Alex in South Gate.  They were from what the news stations and Caltrans called “the Gateway Cities.”  The sprawl between the port cities of Long Beach and Los Angeles, these were cities built in the first days of the Cold War, built around aerospace and steel over bulldozed dairies and citrus orchards.  Cities dependent on malls and real estate once the Cold War ended.  Cities still unemployed since the recession of 2008 hit and took the real estate market with it.

Jackson smelled like Old Spice.  Masculine and solid.  He was a swimmer and he smelled of chlorine and summer.  Even in the beginning of winter, the smell of summer still surrounded him, especially his black hair that he wore combed back.  Even in December he always looked like he just came out of the pool.

Roman and Jackson had moved back in with their parents after masters graduation had left them unemployed and homeless.  Alex had moved onto Pennsylvania, a PhD fellowship, and death.

Alex always believed you should take chances, you should ask the beautiful man in the bar to dance.  You should always try, the worst they could say was no.  For Roman, the beautiful man in the bar saying no was the worst that could happen.  For Roman, to be wrong, to be laughed at, was his biggest fear.   That was why he would never tell Jackson about his crush.

Sometimes Roman wished Alex was alive so that he could punch him in face, hard; knock him down for being so fucking stupid.  They had told him that Alex hadn’t suffered.  It had been sudden when the driver’s jeep had gone into the oak tree.  What they hadn’t told him, what he had found out from the newspaper story a mutual friend had posted on Facebook, was that it was the cleanest decapitation the sheriffs had ever seen.  That was when Roman started taking three sleeping pills just to fall asleep.

Alex had known his friend had been drinking.  The friend had been speeding.  It was every bad video in driver’s ed brought to surreal, breathing life.  It was the thing that happened in stories told to frighten new drivers.  It was the thing that happened in action movies.  It wasn’t something that happened to your best friend.  Your best friend was smarter than to get into a car with a speeding drunk and not even fasten his fucking seat belt.  If Alex had been alive, Roman would have punched him hard enough to make him spit teeth.

As much as he hated him, Roman fucked Jackson the night of the funeral.  He showered for nearly an hour once he got home.  He didn’t care when the water ended up running cold after only twenty minutes.  He stood there and shivered and cried.  Jackson reminded him so much of Alex.  He did it to prove to Alex, and himself, that he could fuck a man he wanted.

He had stopped eating regularly.  Sometimes he went days without eating more than a bowl of cereal for breakfast and dinner, he just wasn’t hungry.  Other days he would eat all day, he couldn’t stop himself, he was ravenous.  Another thing that worried his parents.

The last words Roman had said to Alex were “Burn in hell.” Roman yelled it on Paramount Boulevard, just before his parents’ street. Roman turned and walked home down Harper, Alex walked further down Paramount to the car he had borrowed from him mom and drove home to South Gate.  In the morning Myra took Alex to Long Beach airport and three days later his friend drove him home from a party where he shouldn’t have been.

The church couldn’t help Roman.  Christ wept for His friend Lazarus.  His friends wept for Him.  But the church doesn’t know how to comfort friends.   The church comforts family.  Parents, children, siblings, grandchildren, blood.  Not friends.  Friends mourn and move on.  They weep, but then they heal.  Only spouses and family feel real pain, so the church’s words were for them.

Roman cried at the funeral.  First time he had cried in years.  He cried later that night as he drove home from Jackson’s house, he couldn’t even spend the night the way he had always wanted to.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Roman had always wondered what Jackson’s mouth would taste like. They had barely even spoken.  Roman had shown up, told Jackson what he wanted in plain English, they had fucked on the sofa in Jackson’s parents’ den, and then Roman had driven home, crying the whole way, every light and sign and street blurry through his tears.  It was only his years of driving Studebaker and Florence that he made it home alive.  By silent agreement, he and Jackson weren’t speaking anymore.

Roman wondered what would happen if he took four sleeping pills on New Year’s Eve.  Could he sleep right through it?  Maybe he would need five pills.  Could he sleep right through the holiday and not feel the emptiness from Alex’s death?  Christ, he hoped so.  It would be nice to sleep and not dream or feel or miss for a few hours.  Nice to feel free of the grief that stuffed every hollow of his body and weighed him down.  What about six or seven?  To sleep and not wake up in the night.

About the Author
Dominic Mishler has worked as a board operator, stage manager, and wardrobe manager for academic, community, and small theatres for the last several years. He received his BA in Theatre and MFA in Creative Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. While at UCR he worked with the Theatre Facility Unit to provide technical support to international performers and national tours as well as student productions. He was the stage manager and board operator on several plays for the Long Beach Playhouse, including Sabrina Fair and The Violet Hour. He started with SkyPilot as the dramaturge on The Emancipation of Alabaster McGill and was most recently the stage manager on their world premiere of Lights Off, Eyes Closed.

As SR Mishler and Dominic Mishler, he has published in Connotation Press, Battered Suitcase, and was a contributor to SkyPilot’s first play collection Aesop Refabled.