Before I knew his name, I just thought of him as the Blue Boy. His skin, pale to the point of translucence, got its color from the spider’s web of veins criss-crossing his body. His eyes had the blue of a clear summer sky and seemed just as wide with his staring. His hair was a thick, wavy, black mound, so dark that an unmistakably blue tone reflected out of it no matter how the light caught it.
No one else called him the Blue Boy. They mostly called him “l’Anglais”—the Englishman. At first because his French had an anglophone accent, and later—after he clarified that he was Irish not English—because they realized how much it annoyed him. I never called him Blue Boy aloud. I don’t think I ever called him anything when we met in the South of France as children. We didn’t talk much. As two outsiders, we might have. But our teacher made an effort to keep us separated during classes, maybe hoping to encourage us to mingle with the French kids, and we avoided each other outside of class. Neither of us fit in, and instead of that bringing us together for comfort, it kept us apart. We feared association with the other’s oddities. At least I did.
I only remember clearly one conversation from those days. I didn’t like playing soccer, but I had to stay after school because no one was home, so it was soccer or the band and I preferred the fresh air to the stuffy, loud music hall. I avoided the ball scrupulously throughout any scrimmages, and then volunteered to help put away the equipment afterwards, dawdling until the other boys left the changing room.
But this time he was still there. His shirt and shorts lay on the bench beside him. He had his back to me, and I stared at the field of bare skin, made bluer by the effect of the fluorescent lights. He must have heard something, because his head snapped around to look over his shoulder at me. Embarrassed at staring, I would have looked away, except he stared too. His wide eyes took me in, and his initial fear faded. Finally he spoke.
“The other boys hit me there so my host family won’t see.”
He spoke English, and it took me a moment to understand the words, never having heard an Irish brogue before. Even when I did, I was still confused until he indicated downwards. Just across his underpants from the back I’d been staring at, yellow and purple splotches covered his skin. He turned to face me, and I saw the bruises were all over his thighs. Some were the pale red of fresh hurts that would soon bruise too.
“Why don’t you show them to someone?”
“I don’t grass on other kids.”
“Why don’t you wait outside until they all leave, like me?”
“I don’t run from fights.”
I looked away, shamed by his bravery, and started to get changed. He must have felt his near-nakedness when he saw me lowering my own shorts. Gingerly, he pulled pants over his poor legs. With the extra care he took, we ended up fully dressed around the same time. He stared at me again, and I stood still, waiting, like I needed his permission to leave.
“D’you miss Canada?” he asked suddenly.
“Will you get to go back there?”
“If Dad’s job moves again.”
“I hope it does. When I get back to Ireland I’m never coming back here.”
“Right. See you then,” he said, and left. I stayed to wash my face and hands to make sure no one saw us leaving together.
At home that night, I asked Dad how to treat bruises. He showed me a little brown bottle with Chinese writing on it and explained that was what he and his friends from Judo used. He opened it, and I could smell from across the room the harsh, grassy smell of cloves, aniseed, or loam. It left a yellow stain where Dad touched it with his hand, like turmeric. He offered it to me. I imagined gently rubbing it over the Blue Boy’s battered thighs. I told Dad no. I knew I could never get the courage to offer the massage. The smell would have just made him stand out more anyway. Most of all, I didn’t like the image of the yellow nicotine-like stain on his legs, covering the pale blue.
He finished the year and I never heard him complain about bullying. Then he disappeared back to Ireland. My family returned to Canada in time for me to start high school, where I actually managed to make a couple friends. When I went to university in Montreal, life got even better. It didn’t matter anymore that I liked books and didn’t care about sports. It still mattered that I wasn’t into music, but my social standing improved to the point that I got my first girlfriend, Audrey. She was pretty and kind. I liked having a girlfriend. Unfortunately, it meant I had to go out with her to clubs with loud music, or house parties with loud music. In a dimly-lit loft at one such party, I heard someone speaking English with an Irish accent.
I wouldn’t have recognized the voice, it had grown deep and powerful enough that—unlike me, Audrey, and nearly everyone else there—he didn’t have to shout to be heard. I might not have recognized him on sight either. He had grown big and broad-shouldered, though I was taller than him now. His arms were thick and muscular and covered in curly hair. He wore a well-kept beard, as black as the hair on his head. It carried that deep blue tinge, but so did most dark hair in the mood lighting.
He happened to look my way at that moment and, seeing his eyes, I knew him. I must have been staring. He gave me a bemused but friendly smile. I realized he hadn’t recognized me, but he excused himself from the conversation he was having with a circle of other guys and approached. “Where have I met you?” he asked directly. As soon as I said the name of the French town, recognition sparked on his face.
“Well, fuck me, you’ve changed.” His wide eyes looked me up and down.
I felt a shifting at my side, and quickly switched to French to introduce Audrey.
“Enchanté,” he said.
As he turned his wide eyes and charming smile to her, I felt a twinge of discomfort in my stomach. Then he reached a long arm back through the crowd of people and tapped one of the guys he’d been standing with on the shoulder. When he presented the guy, a boyish, blond-haired imp, to us as “mon chum”—his boyfriend—my guts twisted further.
We explained how we’d met, and marvelled about the odds of meeting up again. But, since we never spent time together as children, and neither of us liked anyone we’d met then, it didn’t take long for our talk to run dry. Then he said he wanted a smoke. His boyfriend turned up his nose at the mention of it, so I said I would keep him company. Audrey looked surprised, knowing I didn’t smoke, but I gave her a shrug meant to convey Just so we can catch up, and she smiled back.
We grabbed our coats from where we’d tossed them on a bed, and headed to the balcony, a little wrought iron Montreal job that looked like a fire escape without the escape. We stood quite close together once the doors were closed behind us. He offered me a cigarette, but I refused, saying I had quit. Really I had never started, but I knew enough people who had smoked as teenagers and quit now that I thought it sounded honest. He didn’t comment, just lit his own and exhaled the first breath with satisfaction. The street was dark. Snow glittered in the pool of the occasional street light. My hot breaths showed nearly as thickly as his smoky ones.
“Fuck,” he said, “and I thought Irish winters were cold and miserable.”
I smiled at him and watched as he raised the cigarette and closed his lips delicately around it. His beard was especially well-trimmed around the mouth, and his lips jutted freely. When they opened again, and smoke jetted out, he locked eyes with me, then proffered the cigarette, saying, “You sure?”
I took it. I tried not to hold it too tightly. I had it between the middle and index finger, like you were supposed to, but I suspect my stiff wrist gave away my quitting lie. I placed it in my mouth, him watching me now with his unblinking eyes. I took a shallow inhale. As my lips parted to blow the smoke out, his mouth opened slightly too, as if in sympathy. When he took the cigarette back, his hand was icy to the touch, and I said so. He agreed, and asked why mine was still so warm. I shrugged. We lingered, allowing some of my heat to flow into him, then I said, “Well let’s get you inside then.”
“Right,” he said, but made no move.
A noise came from indoors and I dropped his hand. More prospective smokers appeared in the windows. He looked at me with something like pity as he took one last drag, then we went back inside.
I invited him and his boyfriend over for dinner with Audrey and me, but he cancelled at the last minute. The next time I saw him he had his arm around a different guy. When I asked what happened to the blond one, he just grinned and said, “Didn’t work out.” He asked me how Audrey was, but seemed uninterested in the details.
The following week he turned up at my apartment. It surprised me, until he reminded me I’d given him the address when he was supposed to come over for dinner. I asked him to sit down, and he took a spot on the couch. I went to the kitchen to get beers, talking cheerfully about nothing as I did, but when I came back, his face was somber.
I asked what was wrong and he explained he’d broken up with the new boyfriend. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I chased him off. I always do if I feel it’s getting serious.”
“Maybe you just haven’t found the right person.”
He shook his head. “Nah. It’s never about them. I’m just fucked up.”
I set the beers down on the table and took a seat across from him.
“It’s my father. Every time I think I might like a guy seriously I start hearing what Dad would call him. Us. Puffs, homos, faggots. Or if he was feeling generous, he’d say: Couple of fairies. It’s funny, faggot I could take. I have. But not fairy. I guess it’s the dismissiveness.”
“He sounds awful.”
“It’s not all his fault. Got raised that way. My ma wouldn’t be thrilled about me bringing home a man either, although she’d probably just go off quietly to pray for us. They’d never admit it, but honestly, they already know. I’ve never made much effort to hide it. But they pretend not to see me.”
He looked up, his wide eyes shining, and I realized he’d started crying. “Can I have a hug?” he asked.
I moved forward to kneel awkwardly next to him and reached out. He embraced me and pulled me onto the couch beside him. I made a little noise of surprise, and, into my shoulder, he asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah. I just didn’t expect that. To be, you know, cuddling.”
“Is it okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, though I wasn’t sure it was. I thought guiltily of Audrey, but then scolded myself. He had a serious problem. My straight, square sensibility could handle a little discomfort to support him. He stayed in my arms for about an hour. Sometimes he would talk about his family or his church, sometimes he would just sit quietly. Then, abruptly, he got up and left.
I thought about telling Audrey, but reasoned that I wouldn’t have if it had been a straight friend, so this should be no different.
A couple weeks later he turned up again. He’d had another breakup, and a shitty conversation with his parents. We naturally moved to the couch. I felt somewhat outside myself as he cried quietly into my shoulder. Like I was still in the chair across from him, watching as someone else patted his back gently, and felt his beard scratch against their bare neck.
When it happened a third time, I decided to tell Audrey. I mentioned it nonchalantly, as a story, sad and kind of cute. She didn’t think it was either. She demanded to know whether he was hitting on me. When I pointed out that he kept dating other guys, she waved dismissively. “Mais pourquoi il est venu te voire chaque fois qu’il a pas de chum?”
I answered that he came to see me not because he was single, but because the relationship had ended, badly. I shared my reasoning that if he were a straight man who’d been dumped by a woman she wouldn’t have thought twice about me comforting him.
She scoffed at that. “Mais c’est normal pour eux.”
I asked who she meant by “eux”—them.
She answered, “Les mecs gays.” Gay guys. “C’est normal pour eux de sortir avec plusieurs gens au même temps.” That is, it’s normal for them to see a few people at the same time.
I didn’t mention it to her the next time.
Other than when he came over, I didn’t see him much. Very occasionally we found ourselves at the same parties or bars. He was always with a group of men. In that darkly lit nightlife, his blueness was nearly invisible—everyone had interesting shades and tints reflecting off their skin and hair. But I saw the blue in the white LED light of my apartment, when he came over to cry on my couch and I held him.
One Friday night near the end of term I found myself free from party or bar duty, while Audrey was out with her girlfriends. I had gotten out a book and settled on the couch, when a sudden tattoo beaten on my door made me jump. I opened it to see him standing there, eyes droopier than usual, but without tears.
“C’n’I c’m’n?” he slurred. “I want to talk to you.”
I let him in, and he picked his way carefully to the couch.
“I’m a little pissed,” he admitted.
“Do you need a coffee?” I asked.
“I’m not that drunk,” he said, frowning with his eyebrows.
I moved instinctively for the couch, then caught myself and sat in a chair. “Why did you want to talk?”
“I’m off soon,” he said. “After exams I’m going back to finish my degree in Dublin.”
“And before I go,” he said, “I wanted to… ah shit. Where’s your toilet?”
I directed him to the bathroom. I braced myself for the sound of vomiting but instead heard the deep splash of piss hitting water from height. I started making coffee. I heard the flush and the water running. Then he emerged, drying his hands on his pants. “You sure you don’t want a coffee?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “it’s alright. I’m not drunk enough for you to have to take care of me.” He went back to the couch. “You could come sit with me though.” I lowered myself slowly next to him. He leaned into me as he had many times, but without tears. Just a quiet sigh. “I’ll miss you,” he said.
“Yeah?” His hand traced up and down the line of buttons on my shirt. “How much?” he asked huskily, his hand reaching lower.
“Stop that,” I said, pulling his hand away.
He didn’t resist, he just asked, “Why?”
“Because I have a girlfriend. And besides, I’m not…” I left the thought unfinished.
“Not what? Not enjoying yourself? Not comfortable with me?”
“It’s not that, but I’m not—” I was cut off by the door bursting open.
“T’es là !” Audrey said as she walked in. “Ton portable marchait pas. Les filles sont—” She stopped, seeing him next to me.
“Audrey!” I blurted out, getting to my feet. “C’est pas ce que tu penses.”
“You know, it kind of is what she thinks,” he mumbled, stretching.
“Rien s’est passé, on parle, c’est tout !” I assured her.
“That’s true, we were only talking. You were telling me how you’re not—” He paused with mock gravitas, and then suddenly rattled off, “a-gentleman-who-prefers-the-company-of-other-gentlemen.”
“Shut up!” I said.
“No, you shut up!” said Audrey in her heavily-accented English. “I know what this means! He is saying you’re gay. I understand!”
He laughed at her sincerity, and she turned back towards the door.
“Wait, Audrey, stay!”
“And you,” I said, rounding on him. “Get the fuck out of here.”
“Right. Okay,” he said, getting to his feet with maddening calmness. “But something real happened between us, and at some point you’ll have to confront it.”
“Nothing happened!” I shouted. “I just wanted to be a good friend. You’re the one coming over and asking for cuddles, and making me—”
“Making you?” he said sharply. “I didn’t make you do anything.” I pushed him to keep moving towards the door. He looked to Audrey. “He’s telling the truth,” he said. “Nothing happened. Physically, I mean. I can’t speak to what he might have felt—”
My fist swung and caught him square in the face. Audrey yelped. He stumbled back into the door.
“Don’t you talk to her!” I panted.
He looked up, blood dribbling from his nose. “Right,” he said quietly.
I was angry, and I knew what to say. “Just get out, you fairy.”
I watched with satisfaction as his eyes widened and his jaw tensed. I half-expected him to take a swing at me next. I think I wanted him to. But he just spoke with quiet coldness. “I don’t ever want to see you again.” Then he was out the door. Before I could stitch together any kind of explanation, Audrey followed him, leaving me alone with the image of blood pooling in his blue-black beard, staining it purple.
But I did see him again. Approaching a small pedestrian bridge into the Grande Ile in Strasbourg, admiring architecture that reminded me of both medieval castles and quaint ski lodges, a flash of color caught my eye from across the canal. I turned to see a face that was strange to me. He didn’t have the beard anymore, and he carried more weight in his cheeks, but I recognized the blue of his skin. Surprisingly, he recognized me too, and even more surprisingly, he smiled and called to me.
We met on the bridge. Between us stood a closed baby carriage, but he pushed it to the side and pulled me into a hug. We had to get through, “What are you doing here?”—I was visiting on my way to a conference in Frankfurt; he was working as a translator for the Irish government— “How have you been?”—well, apparently—and “How long has it been?”—about 14 years—before I could ask him about the baby carriage.
“Hopefully she’s asleep.” He gently pulled back the cover and was greeted with a howl of displeasure. “Oh, you might as well meet her now,” he said. A chubby, wrinkled baby emerged. Her face, light brown to begin with, darkened and reddened as she cried. Her hair was as black as his, but fine and curly. “Mostly looks like her ma.” He rocked the carriage back and forth as he introduced us.
I flicked away a cigarette I’d forgotten was in my hand, before leaning in to look at her. “And her mother is…” I didn’t know how to finish the thought, but he helpfully stepped in.
“My wife.” He held up a hand with a wedding band as evidence.
“Then you’re not…” I trailed off again.
“Not what? Gay anymore?” he laughed. “It’s okay, you can say it. I didn’t go to some conversion camp or anything. It’s true I mostly prefer fellas, but there were always a few girls that did it for me. She’s one of them.” I nodded, wordlessly. “I won’t pretend it didn’t make things easier with my parents, the Church, or the government, but I never lied to anyone. Tell you who did give me shit for it though: my straight friends from Uni. Happy to tell me I’m lying to myself and my marriage is a sham.” He laughed this off, and I nodded sympathetically. He gave me a crafty grin. “You fancy meeting her? This one’s meant to go down soon. I’m just trying a walk to quiet her. D’you have dinner plans?”
I didn’t. In fact, I knew no one in the city. I tried to protest, but he was already on the phone telling his wife he’d bumped into an old friend and there’d be one more at dinner. As we walked, the crying quieted, and soon we could talk without shouting over her. “What about you then? You with anybody?”
“No. Still single,” I answered. “I’m out now,” I added.
“Oh you are?” he said. Then gave a little “Heh.” Coming from someone else it might have sounded nervous. But his clear gaze was unwavering, and his smile genuine. It was more like an unspoken ain’t that some shit.
We walked in silence a little farther, then I said, “I’m so sorry for what—”
He cut me off. “Don’t. It’s alright, we were both lost and messed up at the time. I don’t want to talk about it.”
When we arrived, I helped him navigate the carriage up three flights of stairs, then steadied it while he took out his keys. He fitted a solid, heavy key into the lock. The kind you never got in Canada, and which always gave me the same thrill as old editions of books or ruins of ancient architecture.
A woman turned from setting a table for three and flashed a lively smile at us. She noted the silence from the stroller and greeted me with a bizarre combination of enthusiasm and hush. She pressed each of her cheeks against mine in turn and introduced herself in accented French as “Nicole.”
“He speaks English.” His voice was muffled from reaching into the stroller.
“Well thank God for that,” she said, switching to a dialect I wasn’t familiar with but would later learn came from Manchester. “Call me Nikki. I prefer that, I just don’t like how the French say it. Knee Key!” she squeaked, the emphasis squarely on the second syllable.
The baby stirred slightly, as she was removed from the stroller, but gentle rocking, and a soft, blue cheek protecting her face from the light coaxed her into continued silence. Nikki invited me to sit and asked me about myself while he put her to bed. He emerged a moment later, to give her a kiss and me a drink. When I’d finished it, I suggested that I should be leaving, but Nikki insisted she’d already added the extra pasta and said that if I didn’t stay she knew where it would all end up. She prodded his slightly protruding stomach, and elicited a good-natured burp.
I tried once more to excuse myself early. I had trouble meeting their eyes. With my apology to him unfinished, and being unsure how much of the past Nikki knew, I felt restrained. But they weren’t having it, and the smell of her food and the twinkle of his eyes as he reminisced eventually seduced me.
They each moved so easily around the other in setting the table. He made it clear that nothing was out of bounds, so eventually I relaxed.
As it turned out we enjoyed ourselves a bit too much, because Nikki’s shriek of delighted laughter at one of the stories I told about Montreal set off a corresponding cry from next door. He rushed off, and after a few minutes of attempted soothing, ended up bringing the baby back out. She calmed a bit, in the big living space, but showed no indication of going back to sleep. I got to see a little sheepish smile now, and her open eyes. Despite their brown color, the wide-eyed stare was definitely her father’s. As he bounced her gently on his knee, I recognized a glint off her hair. True, it was just baby hair that might fall out, and its curls foreshadowed a texture more like Nikki’s, but it undeniably had a tinge of blue.
He offered to walk me to my hotel, insisting it was the best way to get her to sleep. So soon we were back out on the dark city streets, him pushing the stroller next to me. It had grown chilly since the sun went down, and when I noticed him shivering I insisted that I could find my own way. Instead of answering, he took one hand off the stroller, reached down, and took my hand. Then he gently guided it up, and across his thick shoulders until I had my arm around him. We walked like that for a few blocks before he said, “I’m not making a pass or anything. It’s just…” he searched for words. “Some guys have this, you know? A family. Two guys I mean.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“I sometimes wonder how that would feel different. I could have had that. You still might.”
“I can’t even look after myself, much less a baby.”
He didn’t laugh.
We walked in silence for a few blocks, when suddenly some noisy laughter surprised me. A few students spilled out of a doorway, headed to the bars. I instinctively started to retract my arm, but feeling his shoulders tighten, I left it. We walked past them. Probably seeming for all the world like a family. I don’t think any of them looked at us twice.
Then, we arrived at the street my hotel was on. I turned to him, my face very close to his. I could see individual veins under the skin of his face, rather than the general blueness I saw from a distance. His eyes flicked towards me, although he didn’t turn his head. “You know where you’re headed then?”
“Say thank you again to Nikki for a lovely meal.”
“She’s great by the way. I totally get it now that I’ve seen you together.”
His mouth formed a smile, though his eyes didn’t follow as he nodded. “Right,” he said. “Bye then.”
As I left, I looked back as he fussed with the cover of the stroller and sighed, exhaling steamy phantoms in the cold night air.
Born in New Brunswick, Jack Morton studied English and Writing at the University of Toronto. His stories can be read in Expanded Field Journal, NonBinary Review, Radon Journal, The First Line, Parsec Ink’s Triangulation, and Woodward Review. He currently lives in the South of France.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson