A short story I wrote for class.
Icarus could never tell which conclusion was more distressing to believe: that God didn't exist, or he was a cosmic sadist.
The freshman walked in from the parking lot towards the spread of the northwestern campus quad that February morning, his hands shoved into the tailored pockets of his designer trench-coat. The still air felt akin to sandpaper against his pale olive cheeks and forehead, the tips of his ears and his thick cherry wood hair tucked underneath a slouching beanie he regret buying. Few things fit him the way that he had hoped.
Icarus contemplated his uncle's suggestion upon handing him the small gift bag with the Virgin logo printed on the side: Wait 'til your roommate's with you before you open it. Icarus had nodded distantly at the mention of Cliff, the corners of his lips and the ends of his eyebrows stiff as stone.
Icarus recalled the first time he laid eye to the posters of the all-too-familiar bands and the framed prayers on the opposing wall. They had slipped past the crowds of fellow students buzzed with anticipation and their parents with pride, he and his uncle, to his room to find Mrs. Stratum pinning a Not Of This World poster over the desk. Mr. Stratum greeted them with an almost indistinguishable drawl. How y'all Saints doin'? You my son's roommate? Pleasure to meet you. Instantly, Icarus was caged into the man's acquaintance, and although he thought that if he simply smiled and nodded, Mr. Stratum would say what he needed to say about whatever he wanted and be done with it, perhaps the hardly bearable thing about Mr. Stratum was that religion was all he really talked about. He was about his Uncle Cirrus's height, close to six feet, and had a headache-inducing brightness to his voice. He seemed the type of man who didn't know how to chuckle, and instead bellowed full-blown guffaws at all of his own jokes and kids. It wasn't long at all until both Icarus and Cirrus had diverted most of their energy into keeping a straight face, concealing several instances of irritation at Mr. Stratum's seemingly inexorable presumptions, so much so that they found themselves hardly listening to Mr. Stratum at all.
"But listen, bro, are you a follower of the Lord?"
That question penetrated Icarus's entire facade of complacency leaving him without a response. At one point, he had started to notice the condition of the man's face, particularly how it was much like his uncle's: youthful, with rough stubble for facial hair and a button nose. Icarus couldn't help but wonder if he was really Cliff's father, for, though his mother looked the better half of forty, this man looked like he had yet to reach thirty. Cirrus was thirty-one.
"Are you Christian brother?"
Icarus bit his lip before answering. It was then that he saw Cliff for the first time, his bright eyes peeking from behind the computer desk, his hands filled with books he had been tasked with stocking into a shelf by the nightstand. Even Cliff's mother looked from her duties of infecting his blank slate with symbols of the past.
"Spiritual," he said.
He was met with a lot of false nods of understanding from the wife and her much younger husband. The conversation to a predictable turn, and Icarus found himself deflecting a lot of attempts of what sounded like offers for salvation. He didn't bother to tell him that he was actually Christian Spiritual, or that he knew the verses that Mr. Stratum had attempted to pile upon him. People who were so bold to identify themselves by their faith were all well and fine, but he learned a long time ago that none were so ineffective in their evangelism than the evangelists themselves, who were obdurately deaf, but amazingly immutable.
Icarus passed the courtyard where the bell tower played baroque music every half-hour. The sun shone like a single starry diamond above him, the clouds lining the horizon everywhere he turned. Icarus liked to pretend that, when the weather was as perfect as this, he was standing somewhere in the human iris, betwixt the outer edge of the lens and the pupil. That's where he was every time he saw Cliff. The wheat-colored tan and royal blue that reminded him of two cat eye marbles. The eyes he never got bored of watching, and wondered if he'd ever see again.
His tentative silence had been interrupted by a zipping flutter, and his gaze darted to a bush of where a hummingbird drew nectar from a spectacular lily bloom. Cliff loved birds, although he had never owned any pets and would never tell you. Icarus entertained the thought they may be one of his spirit animals.
"You've asked Jesus into your heart, right?" Cliff looked from the desk.
"But I thought you weren't Christian?"
"Spiritual." He repeated.
"So.... you believe... what, exactly?"
Icarus looked up to see Cliff staring back towards the window, Icarus just missed the cat eye marbles as he focused on his Western Literature comparative term paper, his legs crisscrossed on the bed, his back straight against the headboard. Cliff's spiral-bound notebook compressed underneath an elbow propping up the distant face of the marble David, the curls placed atop his head in a crown-like fashion. His attention had diverted to a swallow covering her eggs in the branches just outside the window. She had arrived shortly after the semester started, building her own nest right outside the window while both were out and about, and by mid-October, there were two eggs beneath her. It was November then, and with November came rain, enough to distort and distill the outside world from the dorm room window. Yet, Cliff had fixed his gaze on the struggling, seemingly husband-less bird. That seemed to be a law of birds: the father never stays long.
"How's it look?" I asked.
"She's hanging in there," He said, not looking away. "She's staring at me."
"You're staring at her.""
Cliff looked back down to his notebook. An act of embarrassment, really, than spite.
"I was talking about your assignment, anyway."
"I'm on my eighth blank page."
He had to chuckle at that. Then: "I'll bet she was listening to you."
Cliff thought it was stupid; Icarus could see it on his face. But he kept silent, irritably tapping away with the edge of his pen on the thick spiral-bound.
"Or..." Icarus closed his laptop. "Maybe you were trying to listen to her?"
Cliff couldn't hide his befuddlement. "What?"
"The bird." He nodded towards the window.
Cliff stared at his roommate as if he was genuinely stupid. Icarus ogled greedily into those wheat fields in the Mediterranean sky of the October harvest.
Cliff shook his head. "She just looked cold." He hushed him, returning to his work. "I felt sorry for her."
Icarus nodded, slightly amused. Cliff was sitting at Icarus's desk, stating that he couldn't concentrate with all the loud colors on the Haste the Day poster above his own. Not on writing, anyway. Icarus had a hard time believing that.
He threw his legs over the side. "Did I ever tell you that Icarus was not the name I was born with?"
Cliff looked up yet again. "That's easy to believe. What'd you do, change it yourself?"
"Nope. It was given to me. Though I had to find my own spirit animal."
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then: "You never told me what it was you believed in."
"I do believe in God. Isn't that enough for now?"
"You really don't have a belief, do you?" Cliff's eyes narrowed. "Just whatever works for tonight, right?"
"You don't get me at all." Icarus shook his head this time. "Here's something that I believe. I believe that that swallow is trying to connect with you, and I bet you she has, which is why you are so defensive. I also believe--" he added before Cliff could open his mouth, "that each spirit animal, just like that swallow, is a gift from God. For all you know, that could be yours right outside that window, watching over you."
Cliff had lost the annoyance in his eyes, his brows softening like a loosening grip. "What do you mean?"
Icarus only gave a knowing shrug. "What does it mean to you?"
He sat back in the swivel chair, eying Icarus. "That's really not telling much about your spiritual tenants, is it?"
"Are you sure?" Icarus cocked his head. "I was sure I just told you at least two things about what I believed about God."
Cliff's eyebrows drew forward as if hooked to twine. His face was comparatively blank, mentally replaying the comment until he understood. He turned back to the shivering, faithful mother, his brow heavy with pity for the dutiful sight, reflecting on what he had been witnessed: Icarus had confessed that God was good, and that he protected those he loved.
"Did you end up finding yours?"
"Yep." Icarus reached into his shirt and scratched his right breast. "I have a tattoo of one right here. A swallow. But don't worry," He reassured Cliff as he turned back to him. "That one's yours."
If there was one thing that Cliff did to Icarus, it was poignancy. There was a undertone, in all of his idiosyncrasies and movements, telling undertones and glances that gripped Icarus helplessly. It struck Icarus when he came in from a long day of class and studying to spy Cliff still in his pajamas, just sitting on his bed, surfing the web. He declined party invitations and study invitations, often instead choosing to be alone, watching the world and his bird from behind a glass pane. Icarus rarely saw him on the first floor dining hall, and, unless he was fooling himself, the food in the fridge seemed to be ever-replenishing.
"How was your break?" Icarus asked as he unzipped his suitcase. The question was half small-talk.
Cliff said nothing, his gaze glued to the floor.
"Did you do well last semester?" Icarus continued. The only thing he really wanted to ask, the same thing that was in his mind all winter break: what's wrong?
"I'm on probation." Cliff's eyes narrowed. He threw himself onto the bed, his back towards his roommate. "I failed a class."
"Psychology. I didn't turn in my term paper."
Icarus could not forget that assignment. Cliff brought home piles of dissertations one day in the beginning of the semester for his psychology and sociology class. For three weeks, Icarus crashed into slumber with his roommate burning electric wax into the wee hours of the morning. Cliff didn't go anywhere but class then as well, but the boy before Icarus was not the same one as then, who's every action was governed by passion for the study of psychotherapies and various dissertations. He had no idea who this new guy was.
"Why not?" The bewilderment punched out a few more decibels than intended. Cliff didn't answer, the question hanging between the two of them like a wall too high to climb and too thick for their voices to reach the other side.
Icarus pushed the convenience store door open into blinding curtains of sunlight, setting his eyes on glassy fire. He liked the way his eyes looked in sunlight (he had seen a picture of them once); the color made him wonder how fresh grass would look frozen. In his left hand was paper cup of scalding water, a water bottle in is right, the small virgin bag halfway up his forearm. He slipped through the steel tables that checkered the quad, heading directly to the rosebushes tucked away on the side of a small hill on the west end. Placing the open cup by his side and unscrewing the water bottle, he mindfully plucked petals from the pink and red bushes, rubbing each one with his thumb as he trickled water onto his palm, and placing them in steaming cup. After some time he lifted himself up, the water bottle empty, the blood-colored petals diluted into a fierce magenta rose tea.
"Have you told your parents?"
Cliff nodded. "Over the summer."
Icarus nodded out of understanding, not agreement. "How did they take it?"
"My mom said she'd call the pastor and see if there were any recovery ministries I could join."
"And Mr. Stratum?"
"He wasn't around then. My dad--" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "he didn't like the idea."
"Of you...?" He tapered off as Cliff gave a wince before shaking his head.
"I know what it means, too. I know what will happen to me if I can't change. I... I'll..."
"You'll go to hell." Icarus finished grimly. He watched the contortion of Cliff's face into mourning, unable to turn away. He knew the story: Cliff's parents were just like the televangelists. "Is that what you believe?"
"That's what the bible says!" Cliff protested.
"But is that who God is?" Icarus pushed. "Is he someone who would allow something like this happen to you if he truly thought it was wrong? Is God someone who just toys with us like we're his playthings? Is God that much of an asshole?"
Cliff looked up at him, his expression hot with offense. "How can you call yourself a Christian?" He accosted his roommate, rising to his feet. "You say that you believe in God, yet you act as if you don't! You suggest pagan ideas and commit blasphemy against my God!"
Icarus threw up his hands. "Maybe I'm not! I wouldn't want to serve a God to used me like that; I'd be outta there!"
Cliff's right fist came out of nowhere, merely grazing his cheek bones. It was a bad throw, neither boy really having fought in years. However, Cliff was smaller than Icarus, and the months of forced starvation had taken a toll on his strength. When Icarus recovered from the initial shock, he easily pinned his roommate to the floor.
"What the hell was that for, huh?!" His blood boiled in his voice. "You wanna fucking FIGHT ME?!"
"SHUT UP!" Cliff screamed. "You don't get, Icarus! You don't fucking get it! How could you or my dad ever understand?"
"What are you talking abo--" his blood went cold, his eyes refracted: he didn't understand. "Your Dad didn't have a problem with you being gay, did he?"
Cliff shook his head, his eyes dewing up with tears. Icarus released his grip from his roommate, slowly pulling from on top of him. "My dad... said it was fine. That I shouldn't have to change." His voice was like barren land, cracked and shriveled somehow. Icarus watched, the stark truth he had sought this whole time unfurling itself before him.
"He stopped going to church, and all of a sudden they were getting divorce. Every day my dad and I would fight over it. I tried to tell him that this was what I wanted. I wanted to get better, you know? I didn't want this. And then, after what seemed like weeks, he finally said that he would rather go to hell than serve a God like that. Right in front of my mom and me! And then he had to go and crash into a semi. Don't you get it?"
Icarus sat there, a barrage of emotions leaving him speechless before the pleading plum-juice stained eyes. He could not bring himself to answer to what felt like charges brought up against himself, the victim scorching him by a fiery truth. His neck felt stiff, his head was heavy. He could only nod, nod like a pleading of guilt before those damned life sentences. "I do," his voice cracked.
"God punished my dad for renouncing him, and he's punishing me for being this way. I sent my dad to hell, Icarus. I sent my dad to hell!"
And Cliff wept. Hard, palpable wails of utter pain and guilt bleeding through his hands. Icarus leaned against the bed, feeling, for the first time in what seemed like ages, and yet still altogether too soon, lost, and a perpetual anxiety. "I-I'm sorry," he managed to get out of his heavy lungs. "I'm so sorry I pushed so hard. That's all I've really done, is push. I had no idea things were like this. I really didn't."
He had almost walked right past Cliff, the unusual sight of his roommate apart from the dormitory setting making him almost unrecognizable in the open, empty quad, hunched over what looked like a shoebox. He was usually asleep-- all he did was sleep on Saturdays.
Cliff looked up at him, and Icarus's jaw fell slack as he his gaze fell upon Cliff's face. He didn't bother wiping his face of the tear stains and the runny mucus, but Icarus was glued to the portrait eyes stained with spilt plum juice.
"Dude, what happened?"
Cliff face fell, and he muttered, a tinge of anger sharpening his voice. "The fuckin' bird died."
Icarus walked behind Cliff as he opened the dorm room door, another shock stopping him in his tracks. Cliff's computer lay on his bed, thrashed, a dent above his bed. He turned to his roommate.
"They sent me out to cool off," Cliff plopped onto his bed. Icarus sat opposite of him, the shoebox in his hands. Cliff plowed his hands through his hair. "Why'd you bother to bring that back?" He asked, a tired sneer and a half-hearted endeavor of contempt in his voice.
Icarus simply shrugged. "Why'd you bother to give it a coffin?"
"It's a fuckin' shoebox."
"Which is more than any other student here would've done."
Icarus watched Cliff's face. There was only heavy exhaustion on his face these days, where all other emotions were like jelly on a laminated document, sliding off his face to the same defeated resignation.
Icarus placed the shoebox on the desk, suddenly remembering the gift bag on his forearm. He pulled it off, digging through the tissue paper. He retrieved a CD, the cover art of what looked like the partially shaded woman with a profile that reminded Icarus of an apple . On the front was a yellow post-it note that read, "#3."
"What's that?" Cliff asked.
"'Gift from my uncle." He shrugged, pulling off the sticky, then the cellophane. "He had insisted that I waited until we were together before I played it." He reached into his desk, taking out the sleeping laptop, and popped it in, both students temporarily distracted by the cryptic gift. Icarus set it to the third song.
"I've made up my mind,/Don't need to think it over./If I'm wrong, I am right,/Don't need to look no further..."
Icarus stared at his roommate, the wandering voice of the music scrubbing their expressions naked. Cliff leaned his head into the cusp of his hands, staring off into nothing, his lips giving the smallest tickle. The chorus sirened into the space between them.
"Should I give up?/ Or should I just keep chasing pavements?/ Even if it leads nowhere?/Would it be a waste?/Even if I knew my place?/Should I even dare?"
The questions gripped the both of them like an angry father. Cliff's eyes grew wide, a stillness carrying the two of them from one chorus to the next.
"Should I give up?/ Or should I just keep chasing pavements?/ Even if it leads nowhere?/Oh...Would it be a waste?/Even if I knew my place?/Should I even dare?/ Should I give up?/ Or should I just keep on chasing pavement?/ Should I just keep on chasing pavement?/ Ohhh... Ohhh..."
Cliff lips trembled. He buried himself into his hands, Icarus watched as he sobbed uncontrollably, the song playing the chorus in one grand finale before drifting away. It was then that Icarus understood precisely where Cliff was: laden with so much uncertainty that he was already old with regret.