It was a cold Sunday morning with the wind cold enough to pierce through your skin. After shoving the snow out of his driveway, Jacob went inside to change his coat. He had to get milk and if possible, some flowers for his mom, though looking at the white cover of snow around, he wasn’t very optimistic about it. After much deliberation, he decided to walk to the convenience store. He had moved there a month ago and had barely gone out, so everything was new to him. He wished he could interact with his neighbors but nobody seemed welcoming enough and he was a shy man himself, so he didn’t make any move either.
As soon as he entered the store, a loud car stopped outside. He looked behind to see one of his neighbors, Shawn, coming out of the car with the same frown that he always had on. He had big dark circles around his eyes and his hair looked unbrushed. Though, he did have the body and muscles that girls would drool over. Jacob found himself staring at Shawn, so he quickly walked to the dairy aisle to get what he was there for. The store was owned by a local shopkeeper. Not too big or fancy, just the essentials. He found a carton of milk at the lowermost shelf and was about to pick it up when he found another hand reaching out for it. He looked up to see Shawn standing close to him. Jacob abruptly stood up.
“You can take another one.”, Shawn said coldly.
“But there are none left. And I was here first so, I should be”.
“Yeah but I was going to take it first.”, Shawn said cutting Jacob in between.
“That’s not fair, man.”
“Welcome to the real world, nothing is fair.”
Jacob was annoyed but in some obscure way feels intimidated by him.
“Please let me have it. You came here by car; you can drive to another store. I really need it to cook my mom’s favorite dish today.”
“None of them are open and why do I care about your mom.”, Shawn replied in the same cold manner.
Shawn instantly regretted his words. His mom did mean something to him.
“I am sorry. Have it. I’ll buy something else for breakfast. I just needed it for my cereals.”, Shawn apologized.
He turned around to go to the packed food aisle when Jacob stopped him.
“Hey, you are Shawn, right? I don’t know if you know me or not but I am your new neighbor, Jacob. I am about to cook breakfast for myself; would you like to join me?”
Shawn took a whole minute to process the fact that someone invited him to his house. Nobody was nice to him around after the word got out that he is more into men. But then he realized that Jacob wouldn’t know about it yet, maybe that is why he was being so friendly to him.
“Yeah I have seen you around but you don’t have to do it out of pity.”, Shawn lied. He hadn’t just “seen” him around, he had noticed him from the day he had moved to the old lady’s house.
“Why will I pity you? Just because you didn’t get the milk?”, Jacob laughed, “I haven’t had a lot of company lately and I’d love to have you at my place.”
Jacob was amazed at how he was handling the situation. Contrary to his almost zero social skills, he was doing pretty well for himself. As for Shawn he still wasn’t sure enough but he accepted the offer. Jacob paid for the milk and they both got out of the store.
“Get in the car. I’ll drop you.”, Shawn said.
“You don’t have to pity me now.”, Jacob replied with a smirk.
Shawn’s face turned pink in embarrassment.
“Oh, I completely forgot you are from India.”, Shawn said, looking at the spices lined up on the kitchen shelf.
“I am not from India, but my mom was, so I have a taste for its food as well.”
“I see. Your mom was the only one around here who was kind to me, you know. May she rest in peace.”
“She was a sweet woman but what’s wrong with other people?”, Jacob asked as he poured the milk in a bowl.
“So, you don’t know, do you?”
“What? Should I be worried or something?”, Jacob laughed.
“Unless you are homophobic”
Jacob stopped momentarily but went back to cooking almost immediately. He took a deep breath and said, “Now I understand why Mom was so kind to you. She had already seen her gay son struggle a lot. She would have wanted to help someone like me out.”
Shawn stared at him with wide eyes. Is this why he was so attracted to him from the very start? He quickly gained his composure and replied, “Oh, I didn’t know.”
“That’s alright. I barely talk to anyone around. By the way, I hope you have a sweet tooth.”
They both spent the rest of the morning cooking and talking about their interests. Shawn is a banker in his mid-30s. He would barely get time to rest, hence the dark circles. Jacob is a freelance writer and apparently a great cook. He had moved to his mother’s house after her demise a month ago.
“What is it called again?”, Shawn asked for the fifth time.
“Kheer”, Jacob replied laughing.
Jacob had prepared an Indian sweet dish, Kheer, to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He had never visited India, but his Mom taught him how to cook Indian dishes.
“It’s so good I might as well crash at your house every day to have these.”
“You will always be welcome.”, Jacob said with a warm smile.
Five months down the line, both of them had found a companion in each other. Shawn wasn’t the aggressive person that Jacob had predicted. He was just, lonely. They both made a cute couple but none of them had confessed to the other. It was a silent understanding. Shawn would spend almost all his free time with Jacob. Jacob had finally settled into the place and even went around the city with Shawn.
On one such days, they were out on a walk after having dinner at Jacob’s house. Spring had arrived with its bloom and warmth. The two of them were walking around casually when their hands brushed against each other. They hadn’t been public about their relationship but Jacob didn’t care much about it. He was happy to have him by his side. However, he didn’t know what Shawn really wanted so he made a bold move and went ahead to hold his hand. An electric feeling ran down Shawn’s body. He instinctively freed himself and moved a little away from Jacob. Before he could explain anything to him, a lady approached Jacob.
“Aren’t you the boy who moved here a few months ago?”, the lady asked him.
“Uh yes, what’s the matter, Mrs. Allen?”
Both of them recognized her as their next-door neighbor. Shawn knew what was coming.
“Do you not know who he is?”, she said, pointing at Shawn, “Stay away from this one. I am saying it for your own good. He is a faggot.”
“How dare…”, Jacob started.
However, Shawn interrupted him in between.
“Leave, Jacob. Right now.”
Jacob saw the same hate in his eyes that he had seen six months ago. He tried protesting but Shawn was adamant. He had no choice but to leave.
Jacob’s mind was brimming with questions. Why didn’t Shawn tell that woman that they were together? Why didn’t he let him talk to her? Was he ashamed of him? He tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. His silence was making him angry and anxious but there wasn’t much he could do. Just when he thought of going over to his house, his doorbell rang. It was Shawn.
“Hey, what happened over there? Are you okay?”
“I just came over to give you the handkerchief that you left behind. And never try to hold me again in public. If you can’t do that, then maybe we shouldn’t see each other.”, Shawn said sternly.
Jacob’s world came crashing down. Everything was perfectly fine until Mrs. Allen showed up.
“You can’t just ask me to keep my distance from you. Give me a reason.”
“Because I don’t want you to. Is that reason not good enough?”
Shawn slammed the door shut, leaving Jacob teary-eyed. He stood in front of his door for a good five minutes before regaining his composure. After his mother’s death, the only person that he had let inside his walls was Shawn and for a moment, he regretted it. He went back to his room with the same loneliness that he had felt six months ago. Shawn’s room was visible from Jacob’s bedroom but it was pitch dark. Resigned, Jacob went to his bed only to cry his heart out.
Shawn was sitting on his floor with all the lights switched off and cried for nearly 20 minutes. And suddenly two When questions occurred to him in quick succession. When had he ever done what he really wanted? When was the last time he stopped caring about what others thought of him? He was gripped by sadness that he couldn’t bring himself to understand, a sadness that went deeper than anything he had ever known. Just when he thought for the first time in years that he had finally found someone warm and kind, he sabotaged it.
It was as if he was punishing himself for loving someone, for experiencing happiness, for being his own self. He got up to change his clothes and started emptying his pockets when he found Jacob’s handkerchief. In the chaos of the fight, he had forgotten to give it back to him. He was going to keep it back again when a red embroidery on a snow-white handkerchief caught his attention. He unfolded it and found two small letters etched in a crimson thread at the end of the handkerchief.
Tears rolled down his cheeks and soaked their initials. He cried. He cried at the top of his lungs for the first time in years and it felt liberating. The ocean of his emotions that he had long suppressed was finally coming out as a tsunami of tears. The dark circles that had vanished since came back yet again to make their presence felt.
With the morning came the sudden realization that whatever happened last night, was not a nightmare. Jacob’s body felt too heavy for himself. He dragged his body to the kitchen only to find nothing left to eat. His heart was hurting but his stomach was growling as well. He wore the jeans he had on yesterday and went out to get something. Spring was here, but Jacob couldn’t feel its warmth anymore. For him, winter had arrived yet again. He went into the convenience store with no clue what to buy, so he headed for the dairy section. As soon as he reached out to pick a carton of milk, another hand, a familiar one, stopped it. Jacob looked up to find Shawn in the same clothes that he was wearing yesterday. The dark circles and the ruffled hair reminded him of their first meeting.
“Jacob, I am sorry.”
“I am not just angry, Shawn, I am hurt.”
“I did all of that to protect you from getting hurt.”, Shawn’s voice was cracking, “I know how it feels to be called out names and to be ostracized by everyone. If everyone sees you with me, they’ll do the same to you. I don’t want to be the reason that people hate you. They don’t know about you yet, so why don’t you keep it that way?”
“I never asked you to protect me, Shawn. All I wanted was to have you by my side. Do you think I have not been called those names? But you know what kept me going? Love. And I found it in you too. But apparently, you don’t want it. We cannot change everyone’s sick mentality, but we can face it, together.”
Shawn took Jacob’s hand in his own and pulled him close. He leaned in close and placed his lips on Jacob’s. For the first time in a long time, Shawn wasn’t afraid of the eyes that were on them. He knew he wasn’t wrong. He knew his feelings were valid. He knew he was valid.
Jacob blushed and all the lost color on his face came running back.
“You didn’t have to pull out such a stunt, you know.”, Jacob said shyly while still holding his hands.
“Ah well, if I didn’t, you would have eaten kheer all by yourself.”
They both walked out of the store with confessed love and a carton of milk.