Receiving the Blessings of a Two-Faced God

Series: Coming Up for Air AU – you can find the rest of the stories at http://brothersinarmsfiction.com/delilah/fics/cufa.html

Warnings: I’m not big on warnings but I know others may be … as such you are hereby warned of one discreetly described one-night stand contained within.

Thanks: As always to Lyn for the beta and for K, C and the rest of the Lurkers for patience, plot help and handholding. Oh, and despite this crew of terrific writers, Blair still insists on mixing his tenses. It is in no way the fault of any of them. Blair’s non-linear-ness and any other mistakes remain solely my responsibility.

 

This was not the time for Naomi to take up the Kabbalah. Not that I have any problem with her continual search for meaning. And, frankly, the idea of the Ein Sof representing the true hidden essence of God, entirely unknowable to humans, strikes me as pretty much a given. But for Naomi, Kabbalah has caused a return to her whole Judaic roots – and that means she wants to be there to perform the Hallel with me. 

I’m thinking Sally probably doesn’t have a recipe for latkes handy. And even if she does, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to go out and buy a menorah. 

She didn’t, by the way, ask how I came to be at some totally different phone number that’s answered "Ellison residence" – that’s the sort of thing Naomi takes in stride, having bunked in all sorts of other people’s houses for her entire adult life. Doubt she’ll even be thrown off by the whole haute grandeur of Ellison manor. Absolutely positive, however, the inhabitants of the big stone house on the hill will not be quite so able to keep their footing. 

Having Naomi for Chanukkah is sort of like having your life unwillingly feng-shui’d. 

~oOo~ 

I had thought that I could treat this week’s Ellison-family-dinner as a kind of celebration. It’s corny and a little too Leave-It-to-Beaver that William insists on presiding over the kind of family dinner that went out somewhere before 1962, but I think it’s been his way of showing his fatherly side and, with Jim, having the script, knowing that this family dinner is going to be exactly like the last family dinner, goes a long way to encouraging social interaction. 

Although I still don’t understand why every time it has to be meatloaf and mashed potatoes. 

But I’d thought since grades were in and undergrads were thankfully dispersed (which meant I was going to get to divide my time solely between Jim and the diss) I could sit back and enjoy watching my veins clog with saturated fat for at least one night.  

And then Naomi calls. 

Jim and I had been having an erudite conversation regarding the cat. No, not that cat. Not the big, black one that stares at me every time I hit REM. The neighbor’s cat – Sampson, a skinny Siamese who’s seriously cross-eyed and even more seriously vocal. And that’s without Jim helping. 

"Hungry." Two sets of blue eyes look at me pleadingly. Jim’s hands switch from indicating his stomach to making a finny, swimming motion. "Fish." 

While I truly appreciate Lisa’s theory that we let Jim’s behavior tell us what words he wants to learn, translating for hungry housecats was not quite what I’d had in mind.  

"Jim. Sampson has a home. In fact, according to Steven, his home has eleven bedrooms. If he wants fish, I think they can afford it." 

Jim scrunches up his forehead before signing "nasty" - apparently a comment on the quality of the kitty nosh next door. 

Sampson meows his protest at what I know is only the serious lack of cans being opened. Jim is *not* translating the neighbor’s cat. 

~oOo~ 

Putting up the tree is exactly what I did not expect. While the foyer and dining room swarm with people who somehow apparently feed themselves making plaid bows for a living, Sally takes Jim into the den and sits him on the floor next to three old cardboard boxes that still have ancient moving van stickers clinging tenaciously next to the word "Christmas" artfully written in faded cursive. I watch as Jim ghosts a finger over the florid script, tracing the letters. 

"Do you know what that says?" 

Jim looks up momentarily, his hand still hovering over the curve of the S, before dismissing me and returning repetitively to the movement. We’d gotten the perseverating down to a minimum, with the repetitive rocking only happening when Jim was stressed. This was new though. I’d never seen Jim attend to any sort of writing, had put that way out there, something to deal with after we got him to speak more than three times a year. 

"Hey." I stop the movement by taking his hand. "Do you know what it says?" 

When he finally pays attention to me I make the sign Lisa was trying to teach him a few days ago. "Christmas." 

He looks back down and tries to restart the motion, undistracted by even Steven’s clattering entrance through the back door, his arms wrapped around an unwieldy sacrifice to the solstice. In the ten minutes it takes us to wrestle the seven-foot pine into the tree stand, Jim repeats the motion dozens of times. After a few minutes, Sally comes and stands over him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Steven is no more forthcoming. He palms a hand over his forehead then goes to kneel beside his brother, opening the box and removing the offending lid. 

Diving a hand into the tissue wrapped bundles he comes up with a string of silvered glass beads shaped like railroad cars, tarnished and fragile-looking, that he places in Jim’s hand. "Remember these, bro?" He tugs at Jim’s wrist, suddenly looking thirty-four-going-on-eight. "Come on, you remember how to do this." 

I suddenly realize I’m looking at another script. That this same conversation has occurred for many, many years with the same results. Jim slowly gets to his feet; his extra inches making his brother look small as Steven carefully steers Jim’s hands in placing the decorations. 

Sally gingerly unwraps more of the ornaments, laying them out on the table where Steven snags them, checking their tree-worthiness, before handing them to Jim to hang. A couple of them are clearly the work of Jim and Steven – hand-drawn sentiments pasted on the back of those sticky bows. One says "Santa" in the tortured scrawl of a first grader and has a picture of a misshapen Claus. The other has a more-than-competent snowman and in neat, precise printing says "Mom." 

Sally sees me examining it and nods her head, answering my unasked question. Jim, the budding artist even back then. Steven comes back for another handful and carefully takes the pair from my hands, his expression one I’m not quite able to interpret. He presents the Santa to Jim, who runs his fingers over it. I’ve noticed he has to caress each one. He probably knows them intimately in a way I can’t even fathom, the way he knows his sculpture, by sight and scent and touch. 

The Santa is reverently hung and Jim turns to take the next ornament, holding it for a brief moment before he freezes – zoned. 

"Shit." I mutter softly, no one noticing as all attention is focused on Jim standing there looking literally *gone* from his body. 

Steven gently disengages the ornament from curled fingers then looks over at me. His brother, when lost, becomes my responsibility. The trick, at moments such as these, is to guess what stole Jim away and use the sense most in opposition, touch being the general, universal common cure. But probably, given the concentration he was placing on the ornament he held in his hands, the one that won’t work this time. 

Despite that, I find myself wrapping a hand around his wrist and inquiring softly, "Jim?" 

To my surprise he blinks, sagging slightly until both Steven and I have a grip on him. We manhandle him over to the couch where he sits, slightly dazed as he always is after a zone. One of the bow-people bursts in trailing handfuls of gauzy ribbon and stops dead in his tracks at the sight of us huddled around Jim. In a sort of fear-of-contagion move that I’ve seen once too often from people who suddenly realize Jim is … different, he speechlessly wheels around and returns to where things are more to his aesthetic tastes. 

"Bro?" Steven rubs the top of Jim’s lax hand, trying to get a reaction. He frowns as I pick the ornament back up from where he’d tossed it on the low table. The construction paper is crisped at the edges. The white stripes alternating with the green on the bow are yellowing. 

"Steven, when did your mother leave?" 

Steven’s breath is sharply drawn. I am treading in what the Ellisons consider private. "When I was six." 

"It was New Year’s." Sally’s hugging her arms tightly against her blouse. She nods at me, knowing what I can’t quite bring myself to ask. 

Judgmental is something I try not to be. People are far too complex for the answers to be easy, for motivations to decipherable. I realize I don’t even know the name of the woman who gave birth to Jim and Steven. Trying to fathom what made her leave her two sons behind on some cold morning when years turned simply won’t be possible. Whatever consequences she could have conceived, they wouldn’t have been this --they wouldn’t have been Jim. 

"Jim?" He wants to rock and doesn’t like my hand stopping his momentum, but it gets me his attention. "You made this, for your mom?" 

I do the best I can with the signing – until I realize I have no idea how to gesture "mom". You think sign is logical when you know just enough to hurt yourself and only learn better, later, when someone like Lisa does it with a flurry and intricacy that makes you appreciate it is a representational tongue all its own. 

Jim seems to realize my distress and a hesitant hand reaches toward the ornament I’ve abandoned on my lap. Never quite touching, his index finger follows the "M". I find myself gathering the cool hand into my own. With my own finger I stroke the letters against the upturned palm. M-O-M. 

"Mom."  

Jim looks at me, that elusive spark of connection flaring its always too-damn-brief light in his eyes. 

"You remember your mom, big guy?" 

Jim’s hand tightens around my fingers that still write the letters into his skin, the pressure gentle but firm. He holds on even as he begins, again, to rock. 

~oOo~ 

Lisa is probably glad for once to be asked more mundane words like "mother" and "visit". In attempting to explain Naomi to her -- so we could get some words to explain it to Jim -- I began to realize that Naomi is a force that must be felt to be understood.

It’s with a little hesitancy that I bring out the homemade ornament and explain a little about Jim if not necessarily *reading*, then at least understanding that the letters represented his mother. He watches it swing minutely in my hand like a hypnotist’s talisman as I relate what little I know to Lisa.  

She’s gotten pretty damn good at knowing when Jim’s slipping away from us, and she nudges him a little, saying if he knows one alphabet, he might be able to learn another. After twenty or so minutes she has him spelling "M-O-M". After that we go scrambling for other M-things for reinforcement. Mittens and music and muffins lightfingered from Sally’s baking rack. Lisa and I are laughing from the exertion of racing around like the denizens of a Sesame Street video trying to find very concrete examples of the thirteenth letter. Jim watches us contemplatively, maybe wondering if we’ve lost our minds.  

Don’t know if he ever *got* the whole-M thing or not but he seems to be processing when I tell him in my tortuously slow sign that my mom comes tomorrow. 

Jim-meets-Naomi. That one will be easy. It’s Naomi-meets-William that worries me. 

~oOo~ 

"William, this is my mother, Naomi." 

"Naomi, this is William, CEO of the biggest fucking company in the city." 

"William, this is Naomi, she was once arrested by the Cascade PD while protesting the construction of your headquarters in an ecologically sensitive patch of marshland." 

This is not going to be easy. 

Jim is watching me pace and mutter with a worried frown. Actually, we both have worried frowns – mine because I dread Naomi’s arrival and Jim’s because … well … because I dread Naomi’s arrival.

If you’re one of the people in Jim’s circle, one of those he’s not protectively oblivious to because the stimulation is too much, then you’re often the compass of Jim’s emotions. Like his own are so randomly buffeted by things too bright, too loud, too overwhelming, he trusts you to know what the right ones are.  

And right now I’m reading only a little due south of total panic. 

When Jim tilts his head, hearing a car turning into the curved drive, I take a deep breath and try to center.  It’s only a week. Seven days. A hundred sixty-eight hours. A little over ten thousand minutes. I just have to take them one at a time. 

~oOo~ 

Naomi is … Naomi. She engulfs me in a hug that’s reminiscent of the triumphant returns she used to make when I was a child. A living force. A presence that even commands Jim’s distracted attention. 

This introduction is easy.  

"My. M-O-M." I sign, taking Jim’s hand and placing it in hers. 

Naomi can be counted on to do a lot of things you wish she wouldn’t. She can also be counted on to unselfconsciously clasp Jim’s hand gently between hers before raising one palm to caress his cheek. 

"Well, Jim, I have to say that you have the most beautiful aura." 

I put a hand on her shoulder, trying to stop her before she begins telling Jim of the seven layers of the auric field but William’s not-so-polite cough is more distraction than I could ever produce.

"Ah … yeah. Naomi, this is Jim’s father. William Ellison. Mr. Ellison, this is my mother, Naomi Sandburg."

It takes a grand total of thirty seconds for the two parties to size each other up and stereotype each other into a convenient mental cubbyhole.

"And just what does my son do for you, Mr. Ellison?" Which is score one for Naomi, adding as she does, just the proper twist to make it sound like I’m still sixteen and she suspects him of practicing some kind of perversity after business hours.

"Ah …" I step between the two combatants. "Actually, in exchange for room and board I’ve been helping with Jim."

"I see." Naomi is still giving the evil eye to William, but what the hell, he climbed the corporate ladder I’m sure he’s been eyed like that before.

~oOo~

Jim is completely entranced by Naomi. So enthralled that, having managed to get him to pick up his eating utensils, he steadfastly refuses to bring his forkful of prime rib to his mouth. Naomi is daintily picking around at her potato and salad and regaling Steven with tales of dragging me all over the globe.

"Isn’t that true, Blair?"

"Uh … what? I’m sorry, Naomi."

"That the Peruvian shaman said you were marked by the spirits and wanted to keep you as an apprentice. I thought he was going to kidnap you."

"What Peruvian shaman?"

"You remember …" Actually I don’t remember a hell of a lot of the things Naomi says happened, my childhood’s just the same blur as everyone else’s – it’s just that it’s a global blur instead of the usual suburban one. "You were five. You ran completely naked for two months. I thought I’d never get clothes on you again. Even your little butt got tan."

Having embarrassed me, Naomi is now on a roll. If she’d had any idea there’d be an attentive audience she would have brought that little photo album with a year-old me naked on an Inuit polar bear rug. "He gave you that necklace. The leather one? The one with the black cat."

When I drop my fork with a metallic clash everyone looks at Jim, but he’s still got a grip on his cutlery.

~oOo~ 

"Blair?" Naomi’s been settled in one of the guestrooms upstairs and she sits in Padmasana atop the plump bed, Jim ensconced companionably next to her. "What’s wrong with Jim? Is he deaf?"

"Ah … no. Definitely not deaf."

A psychologist could have a field day with my whole obsession with Sentinels. Obvious yearnings for an ever-absent father. Possible Superman fixation of awkward teen all too aware of his own geeky, physical failings. It was never something I wanted to share … particularly not with Naomi who’d have done her best to help by dragging me to Katmandu or somewhere.

I stroke a hand over Jim’s arm. "Jim’s senses are hypersensitive. To the point they overwhelm him, make concentration impossible. I think … well, the reason I’m here is that I think in a more primitive society Jim would have been considered a Sentinel – a tribal guardian. I think they would have recognized what he was when he was a child, that he wouldn’t have gotten like … this."

The object of my admission snuggles ever-so-slightly closer to Naomi but still not close enough for contact. His hands move almost wistfully, halfway making his home-sign for "touch". I have only seen him like this a few times – with Sally or Steven – or with me. But this request is directed at Naomi.

"Jim’s mother left when he was ten." I amend the statement. Naomi left all the time, too. "She never came back."

I reach for Jim’s hand and he flinches back slightly. More than likely he’s near overload, the nearness of a new person adding too much to the mix. He can still get jumpy with Lisa if it’s been a rough day.

"It’s okay, Jim. It’s okay. It’s my mom." I cup his hand in mine and stroke the letters into his curled palm before bringing it to meet Naomi’s. "Naomi, I think Jim would like to shake your hand again."

Naomi’s fingers wrap both of ours with extreme gentleness. Jim’s fingers rest on her pulse point and he closes his eyes, feeling the beat.

After a few minutes Sally comes to retrieve him, probably Steven’s suggestion to give Naomi and me some time alone. But, without Jim, the connection seems broken. We talk, give each other updates. Naomi’s latest trip. The deplorable state of my diss. Naomi’s tired. I’m tired. After a half-an-hour or so, we call it quits.

Down in my bedroom, the blanket’s been turned on and the bed turned down. Sally, obviously, still ignoring my request to stop treating me like I’m a guest at the Hilton.

Lying there I try to remember Peru. Try to remember being five and running blond and naked through the undergrowth.

And when I finally sleep, I dream.

~oOo~

If only I remembered *what* I dreamed I’d have some clue why I wake up drenched in sweat, feeling like I’ve run a marathon -- with Jim hovering over me.

He wants to crawl in bed with me, but I can just imagine what William would think of that idea.

I peer blearily at the clock that reads a disheartening 3:24. Which explains the disorienting cloud in my brain and the stark light the normally dim bulb in the lamp seems to be throwing out. Wonder if this is what Jim’s retinas do all the time, fire madly, overcompensate just because they can. Like I need to be worried about the guy’s ophthalmology at this hour of the morning.

"Come on, Jim." The electric blanket was way, way too warm but now I stand in my damp t-shirt and sleep pants and shiver slightly on bare feet. I’d thought leaving the warehouse behind would mean an end to cold Cascade nights, but apparently William doesn’t want to waste his hard-earned capital on warming people who should otherwise be asleep, wrapped up in the cancer-causing electric field generator he so thoughtfully provided. "Let’s get you back to sleep."

The trip up the stairs is in Jim’s hands since he’s the one who can see in the dark. Halfway down the hall a door cracks open and Naomi sticks her head out, asking if we’re okay.

I wave her off, whispering, "Nightmare."

"Yours or Jim’s?"

You know there’s a reason a grown man doesn’t want his mother around. She knows too damn much about him.

"Everything’s fine, Naomi. Go back to bed."

I settle Jim. Check the temp on the blanket and turn it down a couple notches. I can see his hands moving, but it’s far too dark for me to make it out. I put a protective hand over his eyes. "I’m going to turn on the light. Close your eyes."

The snap of the switch brings Jim’s room into sharp-shadowed relief. Jim blinks a few times, his lashes brushing my covering fingers. When I lower my hand he blinks again, looking drowsy. "Okay, tell me again. What did you want to say?"

"Cat. Speak. What."

"I don’t know, Jim. The cat doesn’t speak to me."

"Wolf."

Is it some kind of rule that Jim can only make breakthroughs in weird places and at times when I’m far from mentally alert? He chooses *now* to remember the fine art of interrogatory conversation and ask what I was dreaming. When it’s a freezing three-friggin’-o’clock in the morning and I don’t know what I was dreaming?

"I don’t know what it was, big guy. I don’t remember." Jim’s brow furrows as I pull the covers up to his shoulders, effectively shushing him. "Go to sleep. Okay? Everything’s all right."

I turn the light back off and stumble out into the hall, waiting a minute to make sure he isn’t going to follow me. Convinced he’s been tucked in safely, I carefully make my way back downstairs. There’s things on at four in the morning that make Jerry Springer look like Masterpiece Theater. I swipe the afghan off the back of the couch and curl up with the remote.

~oOo~

I wake to Steven’s snorting over finding my raggedy ass asleep in William’s favorite chair, remote still in my hand, and Jim guarding me like the Sphinx. At least Cinemax has moved into the family hour and is now playing "Houseguest". I have no idea what time Jim started keeping watch. Hopefully some time after I drifted off watching "Slippery When Wet," a fairly comprehensive guide to underwater erotic videos.

"Bad dream?" asks Steven as I curl a hand around my stiff neck.

I raise my eyebrows at him.

"Jim told me."

"Jim told *you* that *I* had a bad dream?"

"Well, no." He reaches over and tousles his brother’s hair. "Jim signed ‘dream’ and I deduced the rest."

"Umm …" is about as conversant a reply as I can manage. I hold a hand out to my blessed protector and help haul him off the floor. A huge yawn stretches my jaw. "I smell coffee."

I’d start toward the siren scent if Jim were in a mood to move instead of gripping my hand solidly and pretty much abort any forward progress I try to make. His left hand makes the sign for "dream" that always looks like it pretty much translates as "thinking went flutter … flutter …flutter," which is pretty damned close to the truth. At least in my case.

"Uh, yeah. Okay." Jim is interrogatory *and* he’s making eye contact and damnit, I’m not going to be able to get any coffee to help process this. "I don’t remember …" Actually I don’t remember "remember." Shit.

Jim looks concerned at my faltering hands.

Not. Know. Dream.

If Jim ever gets standard grammar it obviously won’t be my fault.

"I don’t remember, big guy. It’s okay."

Blue eyes study me intently before Steven takes his brother’s free hand and gives it a tug, the distraction breaking Jim’s concentration, his usual faraway look returning to curtain his gaze.

It’s hard to get him to take the compulsory glass of juice. Harder still to return his attention to me from wherever he’s retreated.

"Work with me here, Jim. Conversations can keep going even if you move from room to room."

I wave a hand in front of his face then smile when he frowns at me. I make the fluttery-think then his name sign.

Dream. Jim.

He rocks a tiny bit, shifting back and forth in the chair, clearly thinking this over.

You. Tell. Your. Dream. I lean closer after I sign, whispering more to myself than my pupil. "This is conversation, Jim. You remember? I talk. You talk. I talk. You talk."

Steven is probably standing behind me with a plate of some delicacy made by Sally, afraid to move and distract us.

"Come on. I want to hear about your dream."

Dream. I prompt again, waiting while he thinks it over.

Cat. Speaks. Me.

I’m ready to pull him into a hug for just that, but he isn’t finished.

Trees. Move. Wolf. Cry.

"Yes!" Jim is bewildered to find himself suddenly hauled out of the chair but I had to hug him. "You just described your fucking dream to me, Jim!" I pull back enough to get a clear look at him. "And you probably didn’t get to say one-tenth of what you could if you had enough words but I’ll get you enough words – I promise. If you’re going to start making goddamn conversation, I’ll get you enough words."

I don’t hear Naomi come in, but I feel Jim shrink slightly from me and know there’s someone else in the room.

The thing about Naomi – she accepts everything at face value. She doesn’t know why I’m happy. She doesn’t ask why I’m happy. She just plunges headfirst into the general positive vibes.

So breakfast is this smiling exchange of muffins and granola. Though Jim doesn’t say anything else and intermittently looks at me with a sad, longing look. 

~oOo~ 

I took Jim to the kosher grocery and almost had to physically separate him from the pastry display, only managing to distract him from the cinnamon rolls by waving the donut the tiny wizened wife of the proprietor produced when she saw Jim in serious sugar communion. I’ve noticed Jim has that effect on older women. All I got was my cheek pinched and called "kaddishel".  

On the way back I gave him my Chanukkah 101 lecture to pass the time. After all, this is the cornerstone of Naomi’s visit -- to experience familial togetherness while we clumsily celebrate the relatively minor miracle that occurred after the Maccabees defeated their Syrian overlords. Probably both sides peopled by equally far-flung ancestors in my wildly diluted gene pool. 

I don’t know much about the guys Antiochus underestimated – well, except for the unfortunate fate of the one who was crushed to death by a military elephant but that’s kind of the whole point. You gotta like a holiday that for thousands of years has successfully ignored the military leaders and given thanks for pure light. 

Although apparently the burning issue was a burning issue. But since the start-with-one-and-work-up-to-eight versus start-with-eight-and-work-down-to-one thing was straightened out between the respective academies of Hillel and Shammai a couple thousand years ago, that means I can safely stand here by Naomi and Jim and only have my more conservative ancestors spin in their graves. Okay, probably some of Jim’s more conservative ancestors, too. 

With a thought towards our rather seriously non-orthodox status, Jim and I stopped and bought a blue stoneware menorah from a local crafts shop. And Lisa was kind enough to download instructions for the blessings in international sign but I’m going to have problems getting through the Hebrew.  

~oOo~

"Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha'olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu I'hadlik ner shel Chanukah."

Naomi’s voice is clear and she doesn’t glance down at the paper in my hand. I look over to see Jim looking at her with a sense of wonder that matches my own. 

"Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha'olam, she'asah nisim la'avotenu, bayamim hahem bazeman hazeh."

I don’t understand a word of it, but it is beautiful -- Naomi’s voice calm and clear, a look of remembrance on her face. Jim is utterly still and again I feel like an unwelcome doubter, impinging on something just beyond my reach. 

"Baruch ata Hashem, Elokenu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu vehigi'anu lazeman hazeh."

I take Jim’s hand into mine and cup the shamash in his fingers, lighting it then using it to kindle the first night’s candle. As I guide him, Naomi flawlessly recites 'HaNerot HaLalu Anu Madlikin'. Released, Jim returns the candle to its place with a steady hand. 

The light barely flickers as Naomi begins a hymn, also apparently from memories I did not know she had. Jim gazes steadfastly at the menorah, his eyes looking past it, beyond it. Seeing the living light dance in a way I am blind to. His posture is relaxed. A slight smile touches his lips. He is comfortable here. Whole. 

When the last note fades and the kitchen light is switched back on, flooding the den, everyone blinks, momentarily stunned. Jim worst of all. As I lead him to the couch, shelter his eyes with my hand, I push down a strange, sudden feeling of guilt. Had Jim found some place where he was comfortable? Some inner communion where pain could not touch him? Each time I force him forward am I drawing him further away from that place. And how is that my right? 

To look at Jim at work on the sculptures or at worship is to know he is whole – beyond any labels we may put on him. The problem is not that Jim cannot think, does not understand. Only that he can’t communicate that understanding. Jim must have always sensed things for which the rest of us have no words. I imagine what it must have been like to have a toddler to whom the sky wasn’t just blue, an apple just an apple, how every answer must have been a disappointment. Every question loaded with longing for answers that there was no way Jim could even ask for.  

Trees. Move. Wolf. Cry. 

Each dream loaded with meaning way beyond the words. 

I think of the look on Jim’s face this morning. Probably a look his mother saw many times. 

But then Jim is easily brought back by Sally’s gentle entreaty and the promise of the latkes she let him help stir. 

Maybe I’m being too deep. Maybe Jim’s my blank slate and I’m writing my own insecurities larger than life. 

Maybe next time I’ll remember my dreams. 

~oOo~ 

Except for Christmas morning when Naomi and William attempted to recreate the 14th century debate on the poverty of Christ – Naomi being very much on the side of the Spiritual Franciscans and William siding with the Pope – the rest of the holidays were merely quietly exhausting.  

A few days before New Year’s Naomi hurries out, her usual flustered self, to catch a flight to the British Isles where she’d been invited to watch the locals march through the town swinging large flaming spheres over their heads in some ancient Pagan sun-restoration rite. I make her promise to send pictures. With that and a little Internet research I’d have something new to keep the 101 class awake next semester. 

Jim watched her pack with a wariness I remembered well – it was the same look he’d had while playing tug-of-war with my still-missing duffle bag. You could see him wondering why he hadn’t thought to hide all the luggage. I don’t know if he just didn’t want her to leave or thought I’d try to go with her, but his reaction was to lock a hand on my wrist and not let go.  

That made it a little hard to obey Naomi’s pat on the bed, instructing me to take a load off while she did her goodbye scene. It’d been a while since I’d been treated to one of Naomi’s goodbye-doesn’t-mean-forever speeches, which had really been unnecessary since I was four or so. I would like to say she never resorted to actually singing the soundtrack to The Goodbye Girl, but I vaguely remember that a couple of times, in the light grip of certain banned substances, she had. 

She wanted Jim on her other side, but given the logistics, she gave up and scooted over. With a weird kind of dawning I realize I’m older now than she was the first time I remember her stopping her packing to sit me down and explain you have to be true to yourself.  

"So …" Naomi studies my face intently. "Are you happy here, Blair?" 

The already tight fingers on my wrist constrict another miniscule fraction. I twist a bit in Jim’s grip, trying to recover circulation. I wonder what Jim makes of all this. Do Naomi and I share a rhythm, a scent, some slight echo -- because half the genetic blueprint of my cells can be found in hers? Does Jim really understand that "mom" means both the memory he connects to that fading ornament and the woman sitting beside me?  

The brush of Naomi’s fingers jerks me out of my thoughts. "Blair? I want you to tell me—" 

Right, it’s been too long this time. I’ve forgotten my lines. 

"Yeah, Naomi, I’m fine. Food’s great. Steven and Sally look after me. Everything’s good." 

She stares a while at the juncture where Jim’s hand captures me then tentatively reaches out, placing her own fingers against Jim’s. Jim looks up but doesn’t move. 

"I muddy it." Naomi removes her hand with a small sigh. 

"Muddy?" 

"The blending. When we touch, our auras blend. Sometimes the result is pleasing." She smiles ruefully. "Sometimes it’s not. I’m sapping your energy. I better go." 

"Pictures –" I remind her as she bustles with her bags. 

"I’ll e-mail them."  

I hand Jim the lighter of Naomi’s totes and take the other in my free hand. The air in the drive is crisp and our words come out in little puffs of condensation. Naomi kisses my cheek and Jim’s.  

"Take care of each other." 

When she’s out of hearing range, Jim finally releases me. 

~oOo~ 

Steven, weary from the round of corporate parties, decides to call the holidays done the day before New Year’s Eve. He says he just wants to watch football and hang out with Jim. I think he’s worried I’m getting antsy – not having a social life outside the Ellison walls. 

To tell the truth, he’s right. 

Noel’s annual New Year’s celebration is an alcohol-laced blowout of her parent’s Christmas check. As she says – better to blow it all at once than let it sit in the bank worrying you. Its slogan is "Drink and be merry because January 1 we all go back to being broke." Although, luckily, the grant money usually recycles then – so we’ll live. 

Being crammed into the loud and sweaty confines of Noel’s student apartment should be invigorating. Music vibrates the walls. Trying to make my way through with two bottles of Bacardi’s best to give to our hostess gets me anonymously groped by people already too far gone to know if they’re trying to actually get in my pants or just being asses. If I told you how long it’s been since anyone’s been in my pants … well, hell, I’d surprise even me. 

I get snatches of conversation on media-obsessed culture and World Bank propaganda – even half drunk a grad student remains a grad student. Noel is surveying her kitchen, hands on her hips and dark hair falling lank over her forehead.  

"Last one, B-man." 

Even at this early hour the kitchen floor is a disaster of crushed chips and empty beer bottles. 

"I’m getting too old for this shit." 

I look at her with a half-smile, seeing too much of myself in the determined look in her eye. "You gonna throw them out?" 

She glances over my shoulder into party-central. "Nah, I invited them. Let them have their fun." 

"New Year’s resolution?" 

"Never," she says flatly. "Change in latitude." 

"Been there." Am there. Way to kill my party mood, Noel. 

"Go," she says, making little scooting signs with her fingers. "Not your fault I decided to grow up." She looks ruefully at her watch. "At 10:35 on December 31." 

Maybe at 10:35 on some long ago December 31, Jim’s mother was wrestling the same change of demons. I can see her looking a little like Noel – pale and tired and it all suddenly being too much or her not being enough and bags hurriedly being packed before she changed her mind … 

And Jim could never sleep through that. 

The kitchen suddenly looks the way Noel must see it – a mess that none of the revelers will be here to clean up in the morning. 

I know why she must have run – how William must have been oppressive, how Jim would have been a cranky baby, a picky child … how it all seemed overwhelming and escape tempted too well. 

Maybe Naomi did all she could – maybe if she hadn’t left for a few weeks here and there to regain herself, she knew she would have left forever.

I remember being hustled sleepily out of bed to say I was fine, I was happy … go Naomi, I’ll be okay until you get back. 

Jim might well remember hearing his mother pack on some cold, dark night. He would have heard her leave. Would have tracked her as far as he could.  Did she say goodbye? Even whisper it as the door closed behind her? Did she leave her son anything but the knowledge that packing brings loss? 

Noel’s looking at me, a funny expression on her face. She slides a hand over mine and takes one of the bottles, rinsing a couple glasses. Then she disappears for a moment only to return with a pair of blankets slung over her shoulder. The sliding glass door to the balcony lurches just enough to allow us to squeeze through and in a second we are outside in the cold, clear air. She reaches in and draws the curtain shut behind us.  

I greet the New Year on the balcony, bundled against the winter night, Noel’s hand in my left one, a glass of straight Reserva in my right; the abandoned party pounding its primal rhythm through glass and concrete. As Cascade shudders through a brief paroxysm at the changing of years, Noel and I perform the obligatory kiss. Our lips taste of chilled rum and when we part we observe each other with appraising looks – both weighing our friendship against the siren song of needs we have no one else to meet.

The second kiss is tentative, testing. The third, finally, a deep probing, a symbolic entering of each other’s bodies. Noel is an expert on tribal ritual and, in the shelter of the blankets, we perform an elaborate pantomime dance that gives some meaning to our release.

~oOo~

I don’t feel drunk but I’m acquainted enough with myself to know that I may be no judge, so I yell the address at a Cascade Cab dispatcher over the blaring retro-disco. In the cab I find myself doing my own near-zone. Seeing, but not seeing. Mind pretty much a blank. Confirmation that I was right not to drive.

I shut the heavy front door quietly behind me. The miniature white bulbs that festoon the shrubbery fill the foyer with a pale light. Enough for me to see the owner of the soft sigh that meets my arrival. Jim is dressed in his pajamas, but he’s too alert to have been asleep. His nose wrinkles at the scent that must pervade me. Jim is an innocent but he has lived his whole life with his father and brother – men who, due to their community standing, are compulsively discreet, true, but neither are saints. It is no doubt, a scent he’s encountered before. Even on me.

He frowns just slightly as he comes nearer and leans his face into my collarbone, a deeply drawn breath letting me know he’s scenting me further. His cheek presses into the side my jaw, soft, short hair rubbing against my cheekbone exactly like a cat re-marking its owner. Restoring the scent to something familiar and safe.

I take his hand and lead him back to his bed.

Maybe a one-night stand with a good friend wasn’t the best way to ring in the New Year but it wasn’t the worst either. It’s more of physical love than Jim may ever know.

I brush his hair back from his forehead after I pull up the covers.

I have long known Jim suffers from an extraordinary disconnection from the feeling of physical pleasure that, for him, rarely comes without punishment. Enjoy something too much and it may zone you, a caress may turn to pain, a pleasant sound to cacophony. That, in exchange, Jim can and does connect to the deeply spiritual is the gift of the same Janus god who blessed me.

I lean down and place a soft kiss on his forehead and Jim frees one hand from the covers to bring long fingers to my cheek.

This is also my gift. And Steven’s and Sally’s. That we can touch him in these small ways without pain, remind him that to be human is be both body and soul.

The fingers linger against my skin a moment before Jim closes his eyes and his hand slowly lowers to curl against his chest, his breath evening out in sleep.

We have a whole new year ahead of us. Another cycle of the spinning planet to coax Jim out further. A year ago I didn’t even know a Sentinel existed. And I still believe Pandora left us hope.

~ end ~