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  Jude had told him that he and Caleb had told no one in their lives about the other, and although Jude’s secretiveness had been motivated by shame (and Caleb’s, Willem could only hope, by at least some small glint of guilt), he too felt that his relationship with Jude existed to no one but themselves: it seemed something sacred, and fought-for, and unique to them. Of course, this was ridiculous, but it was the way he felt—to be an actor in his position was to be, in many ways, a possession, to be fought over and argued about and criticized by anyone who wanted to say something, anything, about his abilities or appearance or performance. But his relationship was different: in it, he played a role for one other person, and that person was his only audience, and no one else ever saw it, no matter how much they thought they might.


  His relationship also felt sacred because he had just recently—in the last six months or so—felt he had gotten the rhythm of it. The person he thought he knew had turned out to be, in some ways, not the person before him, and it had taken him time to figure out how many facets he had yet to see: it was as if the shape he had all along thought was a pentagram was in reality a dodecahedron, many sided and many fractaled and much more complicated to measure. Despite this, he had never considered leaving: he stayed, unquestioningly, out of love, out of loyalty, out of curiosity. But it hadn’t been easy. In truth, it had been at times aggressively difficult, and in some ways remained so. When he had promised himself that he wouldn’t try to repair Jude, he had forgotten that to solve someone is to want to repair them: to diagnose a problem and then not try to fix that problem seemed not only neglectful but immoral.


  The primary issue was sex: their sexual life, and Jude’s attitude about it. Toward the end of the ten-month period in which he and Jude had been together and he had been waiting for him to be ready (the longest sustained period of celibacy he had endured since he was fifteen, and which he had accomplished as partly a challenge to himself, the way other people stopped eating bread or pasta because their boyfriends or girlfriends had stopped eating them as well), he had begun to seriously worry about where this was all going, and about whether sex was something Jude was simply not capable of. Somehow he knew, and had always known, that Jude had been abused, that something awful (maybe several things awful) had happened to him, but to his shame, he was unable to find the words to discuss it with him. He told himself that even if he could find the words, Jude wouldn’t talk about it until he was ready, but the truth, Willem knew, was that he was too much of a coward, and that cowardice was really the only reason for his inaction. But then he had come home from Texas, and they’d had sex after all, and he had been relieved, and relieved too that he had enjoyed it as much as he had, that there had been nothing strained or unnatural about it, and when it turned out that Jude was much more sexually dextrous than he had assumed he would be, he allowed himself to be relieved a third time. He couldn’t bring himself, however, to determine why Jude was so experienced: Had Richard been right, and had Jude been leading some sort of double life all this time? It seemed too tidy an explanation. And yet the alternative—that this was knowledge Jude had accumulated before they had met, which meant these would have been lessons learned in childhood—was overwhelming to him. And so, to his great guilt, he said nothing. He chose to believe the theory that made his life less complicated.


  One night, though, he’d had a dream that he and Jude had just had sex (which they had) and that Jude was next to him and crying, trying to stay silent and failing, and he knew, even in the dream, why he was crying: because he hated what he was doing; he hated what Willem was making him do. The next night he had asked Jude, outright: Do you like this? And he had waited, not knowing what the answer would be, until Jude had said yes, and then he had been relieved yet again: that the fiction could continue, that their equilibrium would remain unchanged, that he wouldn’t have to have a conversation that he didn’t know how to begin, much less lead. He had an image of a little boat, a dinghy, rocking wildly on the waves, but then righting itself again and sailing placidly on, even though the waters beneath it were black and filled with monsters and floes of seaweed that threatened with every current to pull the poor small boat beneath the ocean’s surface, where it would glug out of sight and be lost.


  But every so often, too sporadically and randomly to track, there would be moments when he would see Jude’s face as he pushed into him, or, after, would feel his silence, so black and total that it was almost gaseous, and he would know that Jude had lied to him: that he had asked him a question to which only one answer was acceptable, and Jude had given him that answer, but that he hadn’t meant it. And then he would argue with himself, trying to justify his behavior, and reproving himself for it as well. But when he was being very honest, he knew there was a problem.


  Though he couldn’t quite articulate what the problem was: after all, Jude always seemed to want to have sex whenever he did. (Though wasn’t that suspicious in itself?) But he had never met anyone who was so opposed to foreplay, who didn’t want to even discuss sex, who never said the very word. “This is embarrassing, Willem,” Jude would say whenever he tried. “Let’s just do it.” He felt, often, as if their sessions together were being timed, and that his job was to perform as quickly and thoroughly as he could and then never talk about it. He was less concerned with Jude’s lack of erections than he was with the curious sensation he sometimes experienced—too indefinable and contradictory to even name it with language—that with every encounter they had, he was drawing closer to Jude, even as Jude pulled further from him. Jude said all the right things; he made all the right sounds; he was affectionate and willing: but still, Willem knew something, something was wrong. He found it bewildering; people had always enjoyed having sex with him—so what was happening here? Perversely, it made him want to have it more, if only so he could find some answers, even if he also dreaded them.


  And in the same way he knew there was a problem with their sex life, he also knew—knew without knowing, without ever being told—that Jude’s cutting was related to the sex. This realization would always make him shiver, as would his old, careworn way of excusing himself—Willem Ragnarsson, what do you think you’re doing? You’re too dumb to figure this out—from further exploration, from plunging an arm into the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past to find that many-paged book, sheathed in yellowed plastic, that would explain someone he had thought he had fundamentally understood. And then he would think how none of them—not he, not Malcolm, not JB or Richard or even Harold—had been brave enough to try. They had found other reasons to keep themselves from having to dirty their hands. Andy was the only person who could say otherwise.


  And yet it was easy for him to pretend, to ignore what he knew, because most of the time, pretending was easy: because they were friends, because they liked being around each other, because he loved Jude, because they had a life together, because he was attracted to him, because he desired him. But there was the Jude he knew in the daylight, and even in the dusk and dawn, and then there was the Jude who possessed his friend for a few hours each night, and that Jude, he sometimes feared, was the real Jude: the one who haunted their apartment alone, the one whom he had watched draw the razor so slowly down his arm, his eyes wide with agony, the one whom he could never reach, no matter how many reassurances he made, no matter how many threats he levied. It sometimes seemed as if it was that Jude who truly directed their relationship, and when he was present, no one, not even Willem, could dispel him. And still, he remained stubborn: he would banish him, through the intensity and the force and the determination of his love. He knew this was childish, but all stubborn acts are childish acts. Here, stubbornness was his only weapon. Patience; stubbornness; love: he had to believe these would be enough. He had to believe that they would be stronger than any habit of Jude’s, no matter how long or diligently practiced.


  Sometimes he was given progress reports of sorts from Andy and Harold, both of whom thanked him whenever they saw him, which he found unnecessary but reassuring, because it meant that the changes he thought he saw in Jude—a heightened sense of demonstrativeness; a certain diminishment of physical self-consciousness—weren’t things he was imagining after all. But he also felt keenly alone, alone with his new suspicions about Jude and the depths of his difficulties, alone with the knowledge that he was unable or unwilling to properly address those difficulties. A few times he had been very close to contacting Andy and asking him what to do, asking him whether he was making the right decisions. But he hadn’t.


  Instead, he allowed his native optimism to obscure his fears, to make their relationship into something essentially joyous and sunny. Often he was struck by the sensation—which he had experienced at Lispenard Street as well—that they were playing house, that he was living some boyhood fantasy of running away from the world and its rules with his best friend and living in some unsuitable but perfectly commodious structure (a train car; a tree house) that wasn’t meant to be a home but had become one because of its occupants’ shared conviction to make it so. Mr. Irvine hadn’t been entirely wrong, he would think on those days when life felt like an extended slumber party, one they’d been having for almost three decades, one that gave him the thrilling feeling that they had gotten away with something large, something they were meant to have abandoned long ago: you went to parties and when someone said something ridiculous, you’d look across the table, and he’d look back at you, expressionless, with just the barest hint of a raised eyebrow, and you’d have to hurriedly drink some water to keep from spewing out your mouthful of food with laughter, and then back at your apartment—your ridiculously beautiful apartment, which you both appreciated an almost embarrassing amount, for reasons you never had to explain to the other—you would recap the entire awful dinner, laughing so much that you began to equate happiness with pain. Or you got to discuss your problems every night with someone smarter and more thoughtful than you, or talk about the continued awe and discomfort you both felt, all these years later, about having money, absurd, comic-book-villain money, or drive up to his parents’ house, one of you plugging into the car’s stereo an outlandish playlist, with which you would both sing along, loudly, being extravagantly silly as adults the way you never were as children. As you got older, you realized that really, there were very few people you truly wanted to be around for more than a few days at a time, and yet here you were with someone you wanted to be around for years, even when he was at his most opaque and confusing. So: happy. Yes, he was happy. He didn’t have to think about it, not really. He was, he knew, a simple person, the simplest of people, and yet he had ended up with the most complicated of people.


  “All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”


  Jude had laughed, sadly. “Willem,” he said, “that’s all I want, too.”


  “But you have that,” he’d said, quietly, and Jude was quiet, too.


  “Yes,” he said, at last. “You’re right.” But he hadn’t sounded convinced.


  That Tuesday night, they are lying next to each other, half talking and half not in one of the meandering almost-conversations they have when they both want to stay awake but are both falling asleep, when Jude says his name with a sort of seriousness that makes him open his eyes. “What is it?” he asks him, and Jude’s face is so still, so sober, that he is frightened. “Jude?” he says. “Tell me.”


  “Willem, you know I’ve been trying not to cut myself,” he says, and Willem nods at him and waits. “And I’m going to keep trying,” Jude continues. “But sometimes—sometimes I might not be able to control myself.”


  “I know,” he says. “I know you’re trying. I know how hard it is for you.”


  Jude turns from him then, and Willem rolls over and wraps his arms around him. “I just want you to understand if I make a mistake,” Jude says, and his voice is muffled.


  “Of course I will,” he says. “Jude—of course I will.” There is a long silence, and he waits to see if Jude will say anything else. He is thin, with a marathon runner’s long muscles, but in the past six months, he has become thinner still, almost as thin as when he was released from the hospital, and Willem holds him a little tighter. “You’ve lost more weight,” he tells him.


  “Work,” Jude says, and they are quiet again.


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