The first time you see him, he’s standing in front of the administration building, west entrance, moving his arm in sweeping strokes as sprays of paint fan out across the weathered brick. First bright blue, quickly followed up with glossy black and a fluorescent shade of scarlet that easily shrouds the dull red of the stone beneath, coming together to shape distorted-looking words: markings that mean nothing to you, perhaps, but are not meaningless.
It’s a cold, bitter night. You’re bundled as far into your broad winter jacket as you can be, but he’s dressed in a thin, cropped sweater that hangs off of his frame, long limbs and long torso. Skinny like the wind blows right through his bones. He’s not even trying to be subtle: there’s a bright yellow beanie on his head, his sweater is a soft cream, and his skin is washed out in the low lighting of a neighboring streetlight. You’ve never seen him around – graffiti artists are rare enough on your college campus, as with anything taboo – but you’d know it if you had, in the confident way he carries himself, or reaches up to put a few finishing touches on the design. He’s quick; you’ve only been lingering in the walkway for a few minutes, and his cheeks aren’t even flushed with cold yet. His back is to you, but when he turns to rummage through his bag for another can of paint, you catch glimpses of his face. Pale. Delicate and angular.
When he finishes, he doesn’t even sneak off, just strides away from the scene with his bag slung over his shoulder and the paint still fresh, bleeding down lingering drops of black, blue, red. You don’t think he notices you. You don’t think he would care.
* * *
The first time you see him in daylight, it’s at the bus stop, on your way back home; fare for public transport throughout the city is free for students at your university. You’ve flashed your photo identification card at the bus driver numerous times but you still feel that same rush, like you can handle things. You, the quietest son with the least accolades and the most fears, finding your own unsteady footing in the world beyond your doorstep.
He’s there, four paint cans tucked into his bag and two lips chapped, two feet in red Converse. They are small. Everything about him is small, like his shoulders and his facial features and his knees. His waist as well, but you avert your eyes from that, flushing with shame. But everything looks strong, too. When your eyes meet his, you realize they’re sharp like razor blades. His smile is sweet.
His eyes linger on yours for far too long to be polite, heavy with interest, and you look away.
You do not speak to him. If you did, you think he would ask for your name first. Maybe he’d ask for directions, even though he goes out of his way to get lost. Maybe he’d ask you for a cigarette, for a light, for your heart.
(On the way home, you imagine this: He gets caught in the act, black and blue and red-handed. A professor demands why he’s defacing school property.
He says he wants to leave his mark on a place where he’s been.)
* * *
You walk out of your morning lecture, and he happens to be there, leaning against the door frame of the lecture hall. You stop by the vending machine before lunch because you need something to hold you for that last hour, and he is the one that picks up the quarter you dropped. When he returns the coin to you, No problem to your surprised Thank you, his eyes make it mischievous. Like it means something.
Little incidents later, you two fall into step and go from you and me to youandme. How do these kinds of relationships work, anyways? All you know is that there is a point when you move to open doors for him, he laughs into your shoulder and pulls one open for you. At first, you’re not sure whether he’s just being contrary, or whether it’s because the two of you have been taught the same manners. Whenever you accidentally collide with him, he laughs more and smoothes the awkward atmosphere out.
It turns out he knows three languages. You know two. He teaches you the last one quickly enough, and teases you when you get the tones all wrong. When he kisses you, his mouth is warm and very sweet, just like you expected.
He says he keeps you around for your solemn eyes and rare smile. You’re so pretty, he tells you one day, almost wistfully, and you wonder why your first reaction was to be offended at such a genuine compliment. Maybe it’s just the way he says it, like it should hurt.
* * *
Here, he says, handing you a red marker.
What’s this for?
When he starts taking off his jacket, you sit up in alarm, but can’t help but watch. I saw this online, he says. An art project where lovers write their least favorite thing on their most favorite body part. We’re lovers, aren’t we?
You stay silent as he pulls his shirt over his head, but you obey when he gestures for you to do the same. Yeah, you say at last. I guess we are.
Write, he insists, and uncaps the marker for you. After a long, thoughtful pause, you write “too rebellious for this world” on his collarbones, splitting the phrase between the two bones and shuddering when you feel his breath ruffling your short hair. Across your flat stomach, between the ridges of muscle you’ve so painstakingly earned, he writes “ashamed.”
He likes to talk about conflict. All conflict, any conflict. Goes out of his way to do it. But you don’t want to talk about it, about how your body and his body can’t possibly fit together the right way. How this kind of happiness is only for the people who know how to love right.
And for once, he is silent.
* * *
Eventually, youandme fall apart, almost effortlessly. Crossing paths without meeting. There were gaps between the times you saw him, and then there were the things that filled those gaps; eventually, there were more other things than not. He tells you about the handsome pianist he met the other day, with the phenomenal hands and sleepy eyes, and you just nod. There’s no use saying it anymore, but if you could go back to the first few days, that day by the bus stop, you wish you’d said something like, I wonder if you know yet that you’ll leave me. But that’s not like you, and maybe it’s best that you just kept quiet.
He graduates that year. You go to the ceremony and remember what it was like to find out he was years older than you, and you don’t go to congratulate him when the process is over.
And one day you walk past that same administration building, west entrance, and realize every word is gone, washed away to expose that same dull red. That every single mark he made was useless, and he probably knew that, locked in the cycle of returning every night to leave his graffiti only to have it erased by the next morning. A war of paint waging across the bricks.
You stop and stare at the solemn, cold wall. Hey may have lost there, you think to yourself, but “ashamed,” scrawled in his defiant handwriting, still lingers in phantom letters of that burning shade of crimson on your body.