Graham slipped onto the hard pew, discarded the small candle beside him, and then surveyed the sparse congregation scattered below him. John claimed the sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Church was never full for the midnight service. The rows of empty pews did not sit right with Graham’s childhood memories. Where were the children? Graham surveyed the preponderance of bent grey heads. It was the late service after all. Graham shifted his heavy belt to a more comfortable position, wishing he had not worn his uniform. He might have come to that earlier family service, but it was hard enough for him to come to the late service. It was harder still to endure the service alone. Christmas was hardly a holiday for John, and Graham preferred the years when his own work served as a convenient excuse to beg off joining John in church. The clean white plaster vault and aged oak failed to touch his soul. St. Paul’s was not so very different from the church of his youth; the church where his family would likely now be gathered together. Graham found his eyes tracking the few family groups arrayed below. He felt suddenly like Ebenezer Scrooge confronting his lost past. A spirited John had whisked him to these shadows of Christmas’ past with a quiet plea and the eternal magic of his warm eyes. There was not much Graham could deny John. Graham saw echoes of his parents in the faces of fathers and mothers settling their restless broods. He saw himself in the youths slumped uncomfortably beside pesky siblings. God bless us everyone, Graham turned his eyes back to the glory of the organ pipes arrayed across the front of the sanctuary. He tried to lose himself in the heavy music. Ten years and he never could. Christmas simply reminded him of the unbridgeable gulf that lay between him and the close knit family he had stepped away from at eighteen. The excited families below also reminded him of the awkward phone call home and the unexpected tears that flowed so freely afterword. Graham looked toward the pulpit for comfort, but it was still empty. Merry Christmas, bah humbug, a voice whispered in his ear.
Graham’s eyes drifted back to a rangy youth self-consciously fidgeting three pews down along the left curve of the balcony. He had captured Graham’s attention when he arrived. The tousle-haired teenager had paced the perimeter of the balcony twice scanning the sparse congregation. Despite the bitter cold, he was simply dressed in an oversized hoody and an equally shabby vest. The youth sat once, craned his neck over the railing and then moved on until something below finally caught his eye. He settled near Graham. He had sat ridged in his seat staring down at something below until a garrulous old voice broke the silence. The youth’s head darted up and followed the noise. He seemed suddenly aware of the sprinkling of people around him. His eyes rested on Graham briefly and the dark orbs widened at Graham’s blue uniform. It was an all too familiar reaction and Graham looked coolly back until the youth turned away. Graham sighed. The teenager’s reaction depressed him further. The teen was Graham’s present; another adolescent, lean and hungry, stalking the dark winter streets, always wary of a passing cruiser, always shy of the law. They shared another look and then the youth began peeling the ragged layers of his winter wear away. An ill-fitting black dress shirt and a badly knotted tie hung loosely from his slender frame. When the organ began to play a familiar carol the youth opened the order of service and began studying it earnestly. Graham watched the teen’s right knee bounce nervously. His stomach fluttered sympathetically as the service began.
Graham turned his thoughts to John. John was his anchor, his center. John loved all this. You could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. Graham tried to let John draw him in, but as much as John had found shelter in this church, it offered Graham no consolation. Graham tried to keep up with the flow of the service that was at once so familiar and strange. The teen at hand seemed distracted. At each carol he would lurch to his feet, fumble to the right page, then stare, lips moving imperceptibly. At the conclusion of each carol he sank gratefully back onto the dark oak seat. Graham wondered what had brought the youth out so late by himself. Graham’s attention shifted between the pastor at the pulpit and the teen. His young companion shifted forward to watch someone below. Graham caught hunger in his face. It softened the sharp adolescent angles and called forth the almost hopeful look of a small boy lost in a dream. Graham found himself warming to the youth. The older man had felt that smoldering passion.
The youth slid suddenly upright against the back of the pew. He sat primly with his hands clasped in his lap. Graham caught the movement of another youth moving up to the lectern rising from a riot of poinsettias. He was a finely-dressed youth who walked with the confidence of a well-loved son. When he reached the steps he took them two at a time before swinging around quickly to look at the sparse congregation with an infectious grin. Jesse, the name came to Graham suddenly. John had mentioned him in reference to the youth group he struggled with. John had counselled Jesse through some personal crisis. Jesse glanced down and when his face lifted again it was composed. The light tenor of his voice was strong and true. Graham was distracted by the youth’s demeanour and the all too familiar passage made little impression on him. It was the animation in the teen’s voice. The young speaker mixed an irrepressible enthusiasm with a gravitas that brought a slight smile to Graham’s lips. It connected him suddenly to his own earnest participation in the church at that age. Graham’s smile faltered at this unwelcome memory. He was weary of the regrets and forced them away again in much the way he did his best to bury each gritty moment on the street and the angry souls whose want was rubbed raw on festive nights like this. At that thought, Graham spared a glance toward the solitary figure of the self-conscious youth sharing the isolation of the balcony. His young body remained a coil of nervous energy on the hard bench, hands thrust tightly between his thighs.
The voice below drew Graham back to the youth at the lectern. Jesse’s young face might have been buried in an unfamiliar text but instead his eyes cast around the congregation with a dramatic pause very reminiscent of John. The youth seemed intent on gathering everyone into the compass of his gaze. Finally, his face lifted to the balcony and with a sweep of his eyes invited Graham and the others into the mystery of the evening. Jesse paused on Graham registering his presence and forbidding uniform before moving on to Graham’s left where they paused again. Their journey ended, dancing eyes dropped back to the pages on the lectern. The youth finished with a final burst of eloquence and a smile at his parents. He turned toward his minister and basked in the warmth of his smile. Graham saw that Jesse was the sort of boy people were drawn to. Graham recognized that in the way John spoke of him; as if Jesse possessed some unnamed quality that Graham would appreciate and empathize with as much as John did. Jesse abandoned the lectern after a final smile thrown toward the balcony where Graham and the youth sat in their isolation. Bright joy trailed him back to his place beside his family. The nearby youth sat quivering, eyes glued on Jesse.
The awkward youth was an interloper. The contrast between Jesse and his neighbour in the balcony deepened Graham’s Christmas depression. Graham had been like that bright boy at the lectern once but then, he had also felt like that boy on the pew caught in a lonely turmoil. The painful desires of youth, wanting the unattainable; the fragile light of love bursting into life but so easily extinguished by life's rough winds. Graham wondered if he was projecting too much of himself on the stiff and awkward stranger craning to follow the progress of the youth below.
Jesse sat down on the very edge of Graham’s vision. He was almost cut off by the heavy railing, but not quite, the curve of heavy oak pews on the sanctuary floor gave Graham a view of the youth’s neatly trimmed hair. The youth nearby had a better, though equally discrete, view. Graham decided Jesse must have been the object of his neighbour’s search when he came in at the beginning of the service. He had certainly picked the right spot to view the teenager.
Despite their location in the balcony, Jesse might have been conscious of his audience. From time to time he would turn his head toward the youth in the balcony. Jesse sat on the aisle fidgeting beside two younger siblings. His composure had been broken in some way. His attention strayed constantly. The younger brother drew him back to the orbit of his family with whispered comments that earned him a series of pokes from the father, who had to reach impatiently across a small girl. Jesse twisted once and looked up to the balcony and then turned his attention back to the progress of the service.
The contrast between the well dressed Jesse below and the scruffy boy nearby was stark. Graham tried to lose himself in the reassuring cadence of John’s voice. The words wash over him. Even John’s smiling eyes couldn’t break his melancholy mood. He must have telegraphed this to John because the twinkle faded perceptibly. Five years and they knew each other well. Graham forced a smile out. It was a weak effort. John knew Graham’s moods well enough. Graham always felt like an intruder in the sanctuary. His partner knew he was more comfortable out on the dark streets.
Another hymn, painful in its familiarity began and Graham mouthed the words conscious of the mirror the nearby youth seemed to offer as the boy self-consciously shuffled his feet and clutched the hymnal awkwardly against his chest. He made no effort to join the discord raised by the scattered congregation following the lead of the choir. Below, Jesse slipped away from the annoyance of his brother and headed to the narthex. As the familiar holiday hymn reached its conclusion Jesse materialized in the aisle beside Graham. His presence surprised the policeman, as did the smile the handsome boy tossed his way before dropping down the final steps. Graham watched Jesse’s progress over to where the other teen stood, head bent over the hymnal. “Theo,” Jesse called softly and then their greetings were lost in the swell of the final verse. Theo shuffled over to give Jesse room beside him, the hymnal forgotten. Jesse touched him quickly on the shoulder and Theo’s face flashed into a bright grin that erased the shy awkwardness. They stood connected until the music subsided and John moved to the pulpit, then both teenagers dropped quickly to the seat.
Graham dismissed them for a while as he turned his attention to the only person who could draw him back to a church. John's life was the church. “It’s not some sort of a statement Graham, I need this, do you understand? Will you do this for me?” Not the most romantic proposal of marriage. They lay that day in each other’s arms, their minds as twined as their limbs. John knew Graham had walked away from his church, or more exactly, Graham's church and family had walked away from him. Church and family were inseparable in Graham's world. He had given up on churches, but he persistently tried to return to his family. John knew Graham would walk through fire for John. They married discretely in the chapel and despite the continued discomfort, Graham found himself a public figure in the congregation. Being noticed didn’t bother Graham. He had broken with his family because the only way he could live his life was open and honestly. John found a moment to smile some Christmas cheer his way and Graham smiled back. It was genuine this time and fed the flames of their love affair. Graham telegraphed his love and joy, and some of the bliss they would share later warmed Graham like John's strong embrace. John’s eyes responded and then they flickered suddenly toward the two youths. Their connection was temporarily broken and the midnight service carried them both closer to the moment John would go to their silent home and Graham would start his long night.
Graham noticed the two teens were no longer attending to the service. Young mouths breathed thoughts against bent heads. Private words drew forth soft smiles. Jesse slipped Theo a small red package. Theo turned the carefully wrapped gift over in his hands for a time. Graham watched as the taller boy split the wrapping. It was a knit snow boarding toque. The boys exchanged shy smiles before Theo modelled it for his friend. Jesse made a small adjustment giving the toque a rakish angle and then Theo pulled the cap off and placed it on his hoody.
The service shifted once again but the youths were wrapped up in themselves. Graham lifted the order of worship. Instead of the words, his eyes returned to the pair. Theo fumbled in a pants pocket and drew his own small gift free. He thrust a small box at Jesse with a hurried motion. Jesse lingered over the task of unwrapping it. Both youth’s heads were bent close together as Jesse opened it. A silver bracelet threaded through his fingers when he lifted his hand. It was so very plain but the teenager immediately set about putting it around his wrist. He fumbled with the clasp one-handed as Theo watched. Finally Theo reached out and helped him attach it. He pulled his hands back quickly when he was done and rubbed his palms on his pants. The youths exchanged looks and then settled back together, fluttering fingers tapping a common code lightly on slender thighs, centimetres from each other.
Graham turned his eyes from the young pair and up to the vault of the sanctuary. He liked the symmetry and the way the room drew his eyes naturally to the array of dull brass pipes. Christmas closeness and the intense joy of coming together, the youths reminded him of what had once been. Graham spared another thought for his family. At thirteen, perhaps a few years younger than Jesse, Graham had been invited to offer witness briefly at a service. His mother had been so proud. Hunter, his younger brother, sat attentively listening for a change. Graham had known the fulfilment of family and brotherhood in a wider community that day. The first hesitant doubts about who he was still lay outside that familiar circle of warmth. His mother had squeezed his hand silently in acknowledgement of her pride. It is easy enough to feel like a stranger reflecting back on the child you were. Day by day we step further away from that person until we are the other and not our young self. Graham had been striving for a numb detachment from that boy for years. He accepted that he had joined the incomprehensible multitude of lost souls. He was now one of the insane worldly ones his parents shook their heads over, ones who could not accept the blinding simplicity of the one word of God and chose to go his own perverse way. The lines of the organ pipes drew his eyes back to John orchestrating the service. John was still like Jesse and Graham’s younger self in this moment sharing the Christmas mystery with his congregation. Graham shifted back to the two youths. Had Jesse simply said the word hello? Graham was not sure of the youth’s name, but Theo looked less uncomfortable beside his friend. Graham felt good, Theo was not alone. Go back to church, his father had hastily concluded before he stepped out of the frame and left the conversation to Graham's younger brother Hunter. While this liberal church was not at all what his father had meant by that comment, it had turned out to be good advice. Graham's family still seemed lost to him; but like Theo, he was not alone. He could relate to the youths’ joy in each other. He had another connection with Theo it seemed; they have both come to the service to be with someone they cared about.
The midnight service was approaching its conclusion. About the sanctuary slight rustling sounds signalled people’s preparations for the traditional final carol. Graham glanced at his own little candle where he had discarded it on the pew beside his coat. Theo and Jesse were holding hands. It was a mute confirmation of their relationship. Graham thought them oblivious to the eyes around them until Theo scanned the surrounding balcony. His gaze met Graham’s for the first time since he had settled where he could see Jesse. In an instant, he pulled his hand away from Jesse’s. Theo’s face flickered between embarrassment and caution like a shoplifter confronted with his transgression. Graham’s professional detached stare unnerved the youth for only a moment. Determination settled on his face and without breaking the connection with Graham his hand groped until it had recovered Jesse’s. Graham could read the familiar defiance of the street in the youth’s eyes: up yours. His point made, Theo turned his eyes on Jesse who had been looking at his friend since the hand had been snatched away. Theo smile reassurance before returning his attention to Graham. The smile on his lips took on a sardonic cast. It was all he had to counter the weighty authority of Graham’s police uniform. Graham met the youth’s bravado with a smile of his own. He liked Theo all the better now.
Jesse must have sensed the tension in his friend. He followed Theo’s eyes over to where Graham sat and began to lift a hand to wave at Graham. Theo was unwilling to release it. His eyes still challenged Graham. Jesse glanced between them and then leaned in to whisper something to his friend. It was all too familiar to Graham and he was not surprised when Jesse used his free hand to point down at John. John’s man pointed out to each fresh member or visitor in the old downtown church; once the source of congregational division, probably a liberal trophy to many, and always a point of interest for the congregation. Young members tried to draw him in. The older members offered him their patronizing approval for being a police officer instead of being engaged in some more swishy occupation. Across the way Jesse smiled brightly at John’s husband. Theo’s eyes widened at Jesse’s revelation. He bit his lip and relaxed beside his boyfriend. The defiance was gone and all that remained was the worried look of a young man anticipating the challenges that lay ahead. Graham sympathized. Theo chanced another look Graham’s way. He had questions Graham’s guarded face would not brook.
The organ launched into Silent Night and the sanctuary darkened. The music played softly as across the sanctuary the candle light began to spread. Graham considered the little candle that had been thrust into his hand along with the bulletin by a smiling matron. He was too self-conscious to light it. He was here for John that was all. Candles of hope, he connected that with Theo’s defiance. It was so like his own as he weathered his parent’s disbelief; hard to keep a little candle flame alive against that sort of gale and he had not had John in his life then. Jesse stood beside his friend holding a candle as Theo lit it.
Somewhere below, lost in the twinkling lights was Jesse’s family. It was all too easy to imagine Theo walking away from some indifferent family. It was all too easy to imagine Graham would encounter Theo later that night roaming the streets looking for trouble. Jesse though, he would face the grief Graham had faced. After the shock, these decent people might slowly withdraw from Jesse; detach from the strangeness of the life he led. Shunning happened many different ways. Graham stood in his own shadows as Theo stole a quick kiss to the light of a small flickering flame. The light caresses interrupting the movement of the other youth’s soft lips. Jesse smiled quickly and resumed singing. Theo stood silently watching his own personal angel sing Christmas Day into being.
Theo’s gesture made Graham smile. He turned his attention back to John. His lover’s face was bathed in its own soft light as he stood confidently singing with a candle in his hand. Graham did not even bother mouthing the familiar words. His microphone was still on, one of many minor snafus during the service, Graham could hear John’s strong baritone leading the congregation. Even in the shower, with Graham’s hands on him, John could stay at tempo and on pitch. The thought amused Graham and then suddenly the slight figure of a teen was beside him, candle thrust out. Graham was taken back for a moment, then their eyes connected over the small flame. Jesse’s intention was clear. There was a fire in Jesse's eyes that came from somewhere brighter than the wavering flame between them. The simple steel bracelet he had just received hung loosely from the extended wrist. Graham scooped up the discarded candle and held it out. The wicks touched and Jesse’s face shone brighter and the combined flame seemed stronger. He smiled shyly up at Graham with an unexpected look of admiration Graham did not understand. Jesse did not retreat to where Theo waited as Graham thought he might. At the transition to the final verse, he turned and waved his friend over. Theo approached more cautiously and by the time the congregation reached the final chorus Jesse was singing sandwiched between the two reluctant participants. Graham could sense John smiling at him.
Graham left the sanctuary balcony unnoticed by the boys talking happily together as Theo gathered his hoody and vest. He walked down the stairs slowly ignoring the occasional greeting. Jamie, his partner would be already waiting for him outside the church. His shift pressed closer, but he did not rush. John would not be done yet and Graham needed their moment alone before he left for the cold streets. Soon enough he would be strategically spoiling people’s nights, distributing DUIs like confetti. Better that anyway then the visits to homes where disappointments had reduced Christmas to a hysterical shambles. He heard the raspy adolescent voices behind him. Theo and Jesse had paused on the stairs before the landing for some last moment of privacy. Graham was glad for that. The excitement in their voices recalled the sense of well being captured by their presence beside him for that final carol. Graham paused on the stairs, not really listening, but absorbing the joy in their voices. He watched the stream of parishioners filing past the minister in the narthex. He recognized Jesse’s family. The pesky younger brother laughed beside Jesse’s father as Jesse’s mother stopped to greet John. She must have asked about Graham because John pointed toward where Graham stood and she turned her curiosity on him. The small girl’s voice rose above the general murmur asked after Jesse and then the waif tugged at her mother to get her attention. Jesse’s mother smiled down affectionately and took the little girl’s hand. Graham’s anxiety returned. He wondered how this seemingly close family would react to their son Jesse if he ever came out.
Jesse stepped past him as he descended the stairs two at a time; Theo trailed behind a few steps, the new hat on his head. Theo stopped beside Graham and watched as Jesse retrieved his coat from his father. Jesse was soon enveloped in the swirl of family departure. Graham eyed Theo standing alone, watching Jesse. He seemed tense. It was a sad contrast to Jesse’s open joy. John pressed a last hand and patted a last mink-sheathed shoulder and then his smiling face drew Graham forward, the youth on the steps was temporarily forgotten.
“You made it.” Conversations could be had in the space of a few looks between married couples. “You got through okay?”
“Yes, we talked for half an hour.”
“Skype helped; it helped being able to see them. I think it helped their being able to see me.” The reassuring normalcy of who he was perhaps. Graham paused recalling his conversation. It had depressed him so much to think about it earlier. Now, standing beside John after vicariously sharing the joy of those two teenagers, the conversation seemed far less restrained. “Hunter’s daughter, six I think, a real sweetie. He spoke with me the most I think; dad a little, Sharon and Samantha too.”
“Not your mother though,” John said it lightly.
“No, not mom,” Graham confirmed bleakly. He turned away and caught sight of Jesse’s mother fussing with the small girl’s coat near the heavy oak doors.
“In time,” John suggested tentatively.
“Perhaps,” Graham responded without enthusiasm. “Hunter wished you a merry Christmas.”
“Maybe I’ll call him later.” John made no comment. He never pushed. Graham’s eyes shifted from mother and daughter to the eldest son. Jesse stood, feet barely touching the ground, beside his father. The fair teenager could barely contain his excitement, turning once or twice to look over to where Theo slouched against a wall. “He read his piece very well. Such a bright light, I can see why you like having him in your youth group. People seem to like him.”
“He reminds me of you Graham.” Graham lost himself for a moment in John’s eyes.
“Perhaps once,” but Graham could see the justice in the comparison. Even now, he rarely let his angst come through. He was too happy in his work, too happy with John to let the world grind him away for what he was. It had been different at eighteen, suddenly adrift from the anchor of his faith and family. “It’s so hard being their age John. The losing is hard and you don’t have the wisdom to put it all into perspective. There is just the now and if the now is bad then it is all blackness.” He could feel John’s fingers through the stiff Kevlar of his vest as his partner caressed his back.
“It will be better for them Graham. We’ve pushed things a little farther for them. The paths are clearer and the drifts smaller, more shelter, and warm fires.”
“So it seems now. What happens when we go the way of the States and one morning they say we are not married or your church decides having you in the pulpit no longer reflects God’s will?” Graham knew John’s response before the words were uttered.
“Come what may, we will still be married and I will go back to teaching.” John’s fingers brushed against his momentarily, “Hey, it’s Christmas.” John stopped Graham’s reply with a sharp squeeze on his hand. “Oh good, he’s going to do it. He has been fretting this moment for a month now.”
Graham and John watched as Jesse swung around and hurried over to where Theo leaned against the wall. The young friends stood facing each other. Graham and John could see the trepidation on Theo's face. Jesse waited patiently a moment before he grabbed a handful of his taller friend’s hoody and began pulling him back to where his family stood. Before they had closed the distance Jesse had Theo’s hand firmly in his. The two men could not quite hear the words, but they could see the friendly smiles on Jesse’s parent’s faces. Theo awkwardly shook the father’s hand and then suffered a hug from the mother.
“Merry Christmas Jesse,” John whispered horsely.
“And they know, about Jesse and Theo?” Graham was moved too.
“Just recently, it took Jesse quite a while to work up the courage. It went well, they are good people.” Something was offered but Theo shook his head and took a step back. “Well it is a first step; I gather things don’t go so well in Theo’s home.” After a few more words with Jesse’s parents, Jesse herded his boyfriend in the direction of the two men. Jesse was all smiles but Theo eyed Graham with a guarded look that signalled the law and he were rarely friends.
“John, I wanted you to meet Theo.” Nothing could extinguish the youth’s bright flame at that point. Theo was all of Christmas wrapped into one rangy, ill-dressed package. “Theo, I told you about John, this is his husband Constable Sorenson.” Theo mumbled something monosyllabic to the two men. He huddled in the folds of his hoody, hands jammed tightly in the worn vest. Graham and Theo abdicated the brief conversation to their partners. The teenagers turned away at a word from Jesse’s father. “Come over tomorrow as soon as you can, okay?” Theo reassured him. “Wait,” Jesse exclaimed. He pulled a fleece scarf off and looped it around Theo’s neck. He clenched his fists in the fleece fabric. Graham would have sworn in the pause that followed Jesse was going to kiss the youth. Instead they both took a step back and let their knuckles softly brush together. Theo watched the family a moment and then pushed his way out into the cold night.
Graham lingered beside John knowing they had to part. He switched his cell phone on and almost immediately heard a burp from his partner waiting patiently for his return. “Got to go,” John commented for both of them.
“Guess so,” Graham replied. The teen’s shared passion was still entangled with his own strong feelings for John. They shared a smile, “Sleep well.”
“Be careful,” John’s eyes masked his constant concern. The years had not jaded him to Graham’s work. “I’ll have breakfast ready for you.”
“You will,” Graham smiled back. They were not awkward teenagers. Graham leaned in for a brisk kiss and followed Theo into the night.
The cruiser was waiting for him across the street by the public library. Snow was falling and it was beginning to shroud the city in a soft blanket. Behind him, Jesse’s family stepped out onto the sidewalk and began to walk toward their car. A lone figure stood in shadow watching their departure. He glanced at Graham before turning his attention back to Jesse’s retreating figure. “Officer,” Graham swung around at the word, “Merry Christmas.” The hooded eyes and insolent mouth were gone, Theo looked like he could burst and Graham saw he simply needed to share his bliss with someone.
“Merry Christmas to you too Theo,” they smiled at each other. Theo finally gave a shrug and with a final grin, started down the empty street. Their paths would cross again. Graham opened the cruiser door and paused at the sound of Theo baying his ecstasy to the empty sky. He stood, head flung back, arms outstretched, howling, and then he broke into a swift run disappearing from Graham’s sight, but not from Graham’s memory.
“Merry fucking Christmas,” Graham’s partner Jamie growled as he settled in beside her in the warmth of the cruiser, “coffee?” The radio burped and coffee was forgotten: domestic dispute in progress. They pulled a u-turn and followed the direction Theo had taken. There was no sign of him, but the snow-muted lights of the street recalled the two youths kissing by candle light, John’s strong hand on his and his younger brother’s smile.
“Peace Jamie,” the carol lights still flickered on, “Merry Christmas.”
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