In 2006, I wrote this short short story as my entry in a contest called “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”. The story had to turn around this photo. It’s odd, I felt awkward writing to a visual prompt, but the story took no more than a couple of days to write. I still like it, so I’ve dusted it off for your reading entertainment.
Crossing the River
By spring the pain had dulled. It was no longer the unrelenting ripping sensation in Jake’s chest, as if he were a phone book being torn in half for a meaningless party stunt. Although he still was ambushed by grief occasionally, and wept helplessly then, he mostly now had calm. At first that calm had been the vague sweetness of Prozac, but Jake was done with that.
The counselors at the hospice had helped. They had gently prepared him last summer when the cocktail had stopped working, when in barely a month Howard had turned into a breathing skeleton barely able to smile, when the wasting and the lesions had rendered him nearly unrecognizable. Knowledge of what was to come had been nothing compared to the event itself.
Then they had helped him through those first horrible weeks afterward, when Jake could barely tie his shoes without help, the emptiness in the apartment so final, so silently perfect. They had helped him with the gnawing, wretched guilt of being alive, healthy and HIV-negative – and after nine years, alone.
Now it was different. The absence of the ripping pain was a relief. Now Jake just had absence. Work helped. So did the gym and his other routines. It was August, and he was functional. He gazed contentedly at the groceries in his basket. This afternoon he had managed all his errands and was ready to head home. Life was getting better.
“Excuse please, you are in line?”
Startled, Jake jumped and closed the gap that had grown unnoticed in front of him. “Sorry. I was” he turned, and froze. “…somewhere else.” Soulful blue eyes radiated from a stunningly beautiful Slavic face – high, sharp cheekbones, prominent nose, fierce, sensual mouth. Jake took in the tanned, lanky, muscular frame, the straw-colored short spiked hair, the exquisite toughness that coiled and corded under the tank top, cargo pants and sandals. “I’m staring. Sorry.”
“No, no, please. No sorry!” A smile blazed across the stranger’s face. “I hope you to stare. I follow you in this store many minutes, as I hope you wake up and see me.” The smile melted into tenderness. “You suffer like poet, I think.” He stuck out a broad, elegant hand, and the blazing smile returned. “I am Jiri, spell with chay, sound like why. Very please to meet you. I also am poet.”
Jake took the offered hand. It was strong, so warm. “I’m Jake. Nice to meet you, Jiri. I’m afraid I’m not a poet, though. Sorry.” He pulled his hand back, but the stranger would not let go. All of Jiri followed the pull, until they were centimeters from each other. Jake felt panic steal his breath. He looked around for escape, some distraction.
“No, no, Chake, do not run, is OK.” Jiri let go of Jake’s hand, and motioned with his head for them to close up the line again. “I not hurt you. I promise.”
With a wan smile, Jake turned to put his stuff on the conveyor belt. He could feel Jiri’s animal heat, his electric presence sparking behind him, too close to be comfortable. He shivered, concentrating on organizing his items.
“You are poet, Chake. You have soul of poet, I can feel.” Jiri’s voice caressed him, flowing warm and possessive down over his body from somewhere just behind his ear. Then it brightened into firmness. “Wait for me, we have coffee!”
Off-balance, mesmerized, Jake waited bags in hand while Jiri came through line and approached, beaming. “So, Chake, my house, two blocks. Starbucks is on corner, OK with you?”
He lifted his shopping bag. “Well, I have things here that shouldn’t get warm.”
“Is no problem!” Jiri decided for him cheerfully. “You put in my fridge, we go for coffee. You pick up after.”
Outside it was hot. Before they got to the light, Jake felt the prickle of sweat. “Why are you doing this, Jiri? What are you doing? What am I to you?”
Jiri stopped and turned to grasp Jake’s shoulders. “I am having big adventure in Vancouver, Chake. You now important part of Jiri’s adventure.” He laughed, teeth and eyes flashing in the sunlight, overwhelmingly beautiful, exuberant. Male. He leaned into Jake and whispered conspiratorially, “We talk more over coffee. You will understand.”
Jake understood in a tumbling fall free of common sense that they would end up in bed. He was almost sure didn’t want that.
Jiri’s apartment building was small, plain. They climbed the three flights to his apartment. Jiri paused, key in the lock. “You will like Sascha. He will like you also. Very much, I promise.”
Jake blanched and fought nausea. “Three? No, Jiri, I’m sorry, I’m just not…” but a wriggling tempest of brown, white and black enthusiasm leapt into Jiri’s arms through the open door.
“Chake, meet Sascha. Sascha, Chake.” Jiri pushed the terrier/whatever into Jake’s arms and grabbed his groceries in one motion. Jake found himself struggling to hold onto the whirlwind that whimpered, twisted and licked in a frenzy of happy greeting.
When Jake put Sascha down, Jiri had already deposited the groceries in the fridge, and stood at the kitchen entrance grinning like a madman. He stepped over Sascha to take Jake’s face gently in both hands. “What you feel, Chake, right now? No thinking. Feeling only. What?”
“I – I’m frightened, I don’t know what’s happening, I…”
“You look alive, Chake, like snorting stallion, eyes rolling. Strong, not sure, so, so beautiful.” Holding Jake’s face captive, Jiri leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. When Jake’s lips stayed closed, Jiri made a soft noise of disappointment, licking the sealed crevice.
“We have coffee now, Chake.” He grinned and winked with unabashed certainty. “Then we come here, you let me make love to you. Part of adventure!”
The Starbucks was busy, but they found a table in a corner, so small that their knees touched when they sat down. Jiri slid his shin forward on the outside, pressing inward against Jake’s calf, a knowing leer playing across his face.
Jake moved his leg away. “Tell me, Jiri – how am I a part of your big adventure?”
“Yes!” Jiri nodded enthusiastically. “Six months I am in Canada, from Belarus. I am student, hydro-electric engineering, from National Technical University, Minsk. I travel in Canada, studying systems, environmental measures. I visit Robert Bourassa station Quebec, Churchill Falls of Newfoundland, Columbia River and Peace River, BC. I take many notes, many ideas.” He smiled proudly. “I make outstanding graduation study and thesis!”
“Are you here on scholarship?”
Jiri nodded, shrugged. “I have uncle in national gymnastics program. He help me get scholarship.” His eyes narrowed, flashed. “I earn, also!” He laughed. “All part of Jiri’s big adventure. Today I walk to store, buy food. I see beautiful man walking, but sleeping. I follow, get ideas. This man so sad. I understand this sadness, I think. I will help this sad man wake up. I want him naked with me.”
Jake stiffened, rage taking him. “How dare you! You have no idea. You say I’m a poet, but I’m not. Howar–” The name stuck in his throat, and a vision rose, of Howard reading in his armchair, long brown hair falling around those goofy wire-rim glasses. “Howard was the poet, not me. And he’s dead. You have no right to think you can use my sorrow to get me into bed.” He sneered, wanting to hurt Jiri. “I bet you’re no poet, either.” He pushed his chair back and stood, trembling.
“Chake. You sit. Now.” Jiri’s voice was kind, but unquestionably in charge. Against his will, Jake sat.
Jiri leaned forward, eyes dark. “I understand suffering. You so proud of your suffering, no? Only you can suffer this way. So tragic! Jiri can’t understand, for sure! I tell you about suffering. When I am little boy, my country is downwind Chernobyl. Half my country is poisoned. So many dying. No one dare say why. My older brother is god, GOD to me. Too soon his lungs full of cancer. No hope. I watch him die. I want to die too.”
He slapped his chest. “Maybe Chernobyl still waits for Jiri, here in body. No one knows. We find out one day for sure. Jiri have adventure until.” He released Jake’s hand, patted it. “Yes, Jiri understand. He see Chake mourning. But he is part of Jiri’s big adventure. Jiri will wake him up, even if Chake not want. But I think Chake want. I think maybe Chake is little afraid of what he feel for Jiri. Is so?”
Jake nodded, mute.
Jiri’s irrepressible smile unfurled. “Outstanding! Jiri will be good for Chake.” Jiri took Jake’s hand and held it in both of his and crooned, “Wake him so gently, so well, Chake never go back to sleep again! We go to my house now, yes?”
Jake nodded, mute.
Later, in the half-light of early evening, Jake lay spent in Jiri’s arms while Jiri snored softly into his neck. He shifted slightly, and Jiri woke.
“I am outstanding lover for Chake, no?”
“Yes, Jiri, outstanding. First since Howard. It’s been so long, over a year. My body – I’d forgotten. But I’m not ready for a relationship yet.”
Jiri rolled on top of Jake and peered at him in the half-light. “Relationship? No. Too soon. You are swimming man, Chake. In middle of big, cold river, very fast. Howard one side of river, no going back. You stay in river too long, you drown. I am rope for you, not other bank of river.” He rolled again so Jake was on top, and wrapped his long legs around Jake’s waist, squeezing. “I pull you to land. That is Jiri’s work. What you do on new side of river is work for Chake.” Jiri smiled wickedly. “I think for Jiri to get Chake to dry land take many nights, though.”
“You are a poet, Jiri,” Jake murmured, “and very wise. And beautiful. And sexy.”
Jiri rolled again, beaming, and leapt to his feet. “Come, I show you something. No clothes. Just come.” He strode into the living room and lay down on his back, arms flung apart. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog galloped over to where Jiri lay and squirmed onto his back in the crook of Jiri’s arm, legs splayed, tongue lolling. Jiri brought his arm around Sascha and scratched his tummy. “I teach him this trick. Clever, yes? Now I teach you! Chake come! Come snuggle, Chake!”
Laughing, Jake lay down on Jiri’s other side, and imitated Sascha, including the tongue. “Is perfect, Chake! You learn fast.” Jiri drew his arm around Jake and scratched his tummy. “When I return Minsk, you take Sascha, yes?”
“I find Sascha six weeks ago, abandoned. So alone. I take him to vet, all shots, very good. I return Belarus in one month. When I go, you take Sascha, yes?”
“You had this in mind all along, didn’t you? You picked me up because you want me to take your fucking dog!”
“No. Not only. Most, I want you wake up. But I also want you share Sascha with me. Jiri and Chake stay close through Sascha for long time.”
“God, Jiri, you’re making me crazy! Let me think about it.”
“You think three days. Condition is you sleep here each night. I not finished waking up Chake, who is too beautiful for one night only.”
Jake rolled onto an elbow and gazed down at Jiri. “You are one helluva rope, Jiri. If you can’t pull me to shore, no one can.”
Jiri grabbed Jake’s balls, laughing. “I pull hard enough, not more.”
Jiri had been gone for over a week, and Jake was at Bess and Sarah’s place out in White Rock. Full of barbequed chicken with trimmings, Jake snoozed in the sun on the back lawn. He was startled by a wet nose against his cheek. “Sascha, come snuggle! Snuggle, Sascha!” The dog jumped across Jake’s face to land in the crook of his arm and rolled onto his back, tongue dancing, dripping. Jake laughed, and sent a kiss to Jiri. Jake could feel the whole earth under his body. He was on solid ground again.