The Lives of Saints

The Lives of Saints

The Lives of Saints 1067 1600 J.T. Sutlive

In London, in your bedroom, your eyes on mine were like a dendrite of lightning in the mothchoked dusk. In a stab at calm—I was all nerves, I wanted to hide my want—I picked up one of the unreadable novels from your crowded shelves. You are a translator, so you translated for me. “仲間,” you said, your chin on my shoulder, “a word that’s halfway between friend and brother.” You guided my finger along the order of the word’s strokes. You taught me how to read it.

You said you were straight, but when we kissed you exhaled into me. As we wrestled childlike in bed, you laughed into the curve of my neck at the newness of it all. I remember now how you’d prod at my beard like it was unlike the unruly itch of your own. “Mate,” you said, “I should’ve done this a while ago.” I tried my best to translate my body for you.

“That’s a cock,” you said, your hand in my pants.

“That’s a cock,” I agreed, my lips on your eyelid.

Afterward we spoke of what had happened to us. We spoke of it in the way that we as men were taught: blankly, with a forward stare. You had been twenty-three. You’d been awoken in a hostel and didn’t know how to say “I don’t want this” in Dutch. I had been twenty. It had been my first time at a gay bar. A man named John—or Matthew—who said he was forty—or twenty-six—fed me enough vodka to make me remember only this: my face against a fence. When I’d asked him if he’d worn a condom, he told me, “You should be fine.” When I’d awoken the next day, I told you, it was like I’d wanted to pull all the blood from my body. Since then, I’d been unable to reclaim the faith in miracles I’d held as a boy.

“I’m sorry,” you said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

We cradled each other like it was an affront to entropy.

In the morning I tried to watch the thin ribbon of smoke from a nearby chimney as it frayed out into the rheumy sky, but my view was cut off by the red corners of your window. Weak sunlight nuzzled itself against our skin’s pale ache. I tried to clamber out of bed to piss but you said “Not yet” and held onto my wrist. Our legs settled into an easy geometry. I told you your name is my middle name. Outside, a lost choir of birds echoed against the brick. But whenever we kissed, you screwed your eyes shut.

“You’re lovely, you know,” I said to you, eager, hungover.

“Aw, mate,” you said, and turned away. “Don’t make it weird.”

Amid the subway crowds, we hugged. “Well,” you said. “I’ll text you.” That was the last time I ever heard from you. Later that day I reunited with my family within the vast calcified ribs of the cathedral. The flat gilded eyes of saints glared at us from all angles. Inside I wore the scent of whiskey and rain like a ragged cape. My mother leaned in to whisper, “Someone had a night.” I excused myself before the tour began. In the bathroom, I wept into my fist over what I’d told you, over what I’d never told anyone before.

The life of Saint Swithun, the tour guide told us when I returned, was marked by the close bonds he’d held with men. As I listened, I held my hand against my chest where you’d lain your head last night. It’s said that miracles occurred at the shrine in which the saint was buried; there were crutches hung across the altar from those who could walk again. But, sadly, in 1538, Henry VIII demolished the shrine to “sweep away all the rotten bones.” Still, our guide said, as we gathered around the monument that observed this absence, some say there exists a kind of power here. From all over, pilgrims revisit this site to receive the peace offered by his memory.

I walked closer to this steel monument: a space built to honor lack. “All that could perish of Saint Swithun was by a later age destroyed,” the inscription read. “Yet none could destroy his glory.” It could’ve been the candlelight, but I felt a dim warmth as I approached, like your calm hand on my cheek.

Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan.

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