It’s 5 in the afternoon, and Steven is sitting with me on a low bamboo stool, taking origami paper out of his suitcase. Have you ever loved someone? It’s said in a tone shimmering as the light falling on us through the open doors. Nothing has left either of our mouths. We sit contemplating each other in silence, me with paper in hand, him cradling his camera. He tells me about the boy he loved, who graduated years ago, who had a girlfriend. He tells me about nights after practice, at the gym, keeping secrets, caresses, silence. He tells me about the girl he thought he had a crush on, who was very pretty, who is one of his close friends now, who has dark curly hair. He tells me he loves boys, that it’s not a secret, that his mother knows. He wakes at 5 AM and runs until his heart slows through the smog and his mother follows him through the hotel curtain, anxious until he returns. She makes him tea and worries until he showers, wearing dry clothes and resting, camera in hand.
It’s twilight and I pick up the phone, twirl the cord around my finger as he talks. I told everyone I’m gay. He tells me about the one he embraces, who has a girlfriend. He asks me what to do. I tell him: I am worried, tell him: make sure you are safe, tell him: I care for you, tell him: I can’t say, do what feels right. He thanks me and I urge him to call again. He says I love you.
The sun is low in the sky and it’s humid as we sit on aisle seats in the back of the small tour bus. My headphone is nestled against his face, Bat For Lashes crooning as he naps. Nothing is moving except his chest, I watch it rise and fall, his hands on his knees. Everyone is quiet except for an occasional cough or bump on the road.
10PM and I’m getting ready for bed, but the phone rings. I run to the receiver, eager to pick up. He tells me about a fight, being pushed, his coach not caring, not being fast enough, his slow heartbeat, 5AM runs. He does not speak of love, but cutting the cord to life. It frightens me until he says I love you.
4 months later, I listen to Flowers never fade in the rainfall by Simon and Garfunkel and post to his Facebook wall but he is dead. My sobs rouse my irritable brother who checks my laptop screen and exits the tab before I experience the moment again.
I click through old photos and realize we’ve never taken any pictures together; he’s always been behind my mother’s camera, taking photos for her, but here and there I’ve caught his shoe next to a small dog, his back near a dragonboat, his profile in the background of Tiananmen Square where we first met. He is emerging from a temple on a less traveled section of the Great Wall, his mother staring into the mountains where so many men have perished in its construction. He has his camera slung around his neck as we push through the tourists in Wangfujing, stopping to observe the skewered scorpions and pounded blocks of peanut brittle.
24 months later my ayi says he was a trapped soul that needed to leave the earth. I still have the origami irises he folded in the back of a drawer. I can still feel how tightly his arms were around me the night we left Beijing, how no words left his mouth. We stood briefly in the aisle of the little shuttle where we traveled together as adults lined up behind us, our mothers in the distance.