There was a bee outside, clinging to the window screen.
John pulled the rust colored bedroom curtains back Thursday morning and it was the first thing he saw.
What did it mean? Was it dead? Was it waiting out the coming storm? Why wasn’t it warm in the hive? He leaned against the carved wooden bed frame for a moment, just watching its little body. No pollen on the legs. Wings tucked in across its fuzzy back. Completely still.
Did bees sleep?
He turned to ask James. But James wasn’t there. He was out of town on a business trip.
John kind of liked being alone. It was his natural state until James came along, anyway. Who knew? It might become his natural state again. Four years was a lot longer than he’d ever been with anyone.
That bee bothered him as he made coffee in the ramshackle kitchen with its slanting counters, repainted blue cabinets and peeling turquoise window frames. Bohemian squalor. Old, but cleaner than the places he haunted in his early 20s.
He turned 40 today and had no time for omens like bees on the window. No time for that at all. Before he headed into the garage, he carefully washed the hand painted lilac coffee cup and put it in the drying rack, adjusted his belt over his work pants, smoothed down his white t-shirt and then went back to the bedroom window.
The bee was still there.
He grabbed his heavy canvas work jacket and left.
The bus yard was already jumping when he arrived. Guys who lived out in the cheaper suburbs commuted in early, getting started at 6am. John clocked in at 8, staying later, since he lived close. When the weather was fine, he even rode his old Schwinn. It was heavy, but it’s gears ran smooth.
John could hear the clanking of metal against metal, the quick whine of a pneumatic ratchet, the low grunts of working men. The whir of hydraulics. The occasional curse. The smell of oil was a good scent. It was the smell of work and making things run again.
“Keeping the city moving” his shift boss, Alan would say. Alan was right. The work was getting harder as John’s knees and shoulders started to complain, but it still felt satisfying, keeping a big city like this going, all by making sure the buses were fit to carry people from the ocean to the bay and back again.
“Hey man, you know you got a passenger?” Rosco wiped his massive dark hands with a greasy red rag, gesturing to John’s right shoulder.
John looked down. A little bee was clinging to the fibers of his navy canvas jacket, right above the “Plenty Tough” gorilla patch. His breath stopped for a moment. “What the…?”
“There was a bee on my window screen this morning, too. I wonder if this is the same one.”
Rosco shrugged, picked up a wrench and slid onto his creeper cart and rolled back under the bus.
There was a stand of fennel just outside the cyclone fence. John couldn’t smell it now, the wind wasn’t right, but he remembered it from warm afternoons. Licorice. He walked over and cupped his hands around the little body.
“Hey guy. Let’s get you somewhere better, though I don’t know what you’ll do without your hive. Can you find it?” The bee was sluggish, its feet slipping in the transition from canvas to skin.
“You’re not that far away. You guys fly for miles, right?” He set the bee down on the constellation of yellow flowers and walked back toward the garage.
The farmer’s market was busy, bright stalls packed with people taking advantage of the sunny afternoon and cheap prices to score fresh produce on their ways home from work, or picking up the kids at school.
James was usually the one who navigated them through the crowds, pointing excitedly at some weird vegetable John had never heard of.
Someone jostled his shoulder, “Excuse me, man” and pushed past John, laden with a string bag of corn, leeks and carrot tops peeking out from a canvas bag in the man’s other hand.
Strawberries. John could smell them. He would get strawberries. James sliced them on vanilla ice cream last summer and they were so good… The scent was coming from somewhere to his right.
He turned the corner and saw a stand piled with the red fruit. There were mounds of strawberries, peaches, and deep purple blackberries. His mouth could almost taste them.
With James out of town, John didn’t have any real birthday plans. Marianna had taken pity on him in his boyfriend’s absence and was having him over for dinner, along with Terrance and Jools. She’d told him not to bring anything, but since the market was right here…
He looked around. Fresh bread. The juice stand. Piles of mushrooms and lettuces, red tinged and green. Turned back to the berries. “Can I get a quart of strawberries?”
The farmer picked up two pint baskets in her brown fingers and poured them out into his proffered plastic bag.
That’s when he saw the honey, jeweled amber in the sun. Quart jars. Pint jars. One giant gallon of it on display.
He stepped toward the table, half entranced by the sticky liquid encased in glass. He recalled the taste of it on his lips. Winter. He was sick. Dad had brought him chamomile tea with honey while mom was at work. He let him lick the spoon.
“I see you like bees! Or they like you.” The young man behind the table was grinning at him, gesturing to his sleeve. John looked down. A bee. Another fucking bee.
Looking into the man’s brown eyes, John felt no mockery, only warmth. “That’s my third bee of the day. I don’t know what’s going on. They’ve never done this before.”
“Maybe they’re trying to tell you something?”
John looked around the stalls, then up to the blue sky. No other bees flew. There wasn’t a hive nearby. Nothing to explain this.
“What do you think it means? Can you talk to it? Are you a bee whisperer or something?”
The honey seller smiled again. “Depends on where you’re from. In some places, bees are signs of prophecy. Other places, people say they are tears from the sun. Or they represent diligence. Sometimes immortality – a single bee dies, but the hive remains. Most stories, the people associated with bees are truth tellers. Is there something you haven’t been saying? Or something you need to hear?”
“I’m just a mechanic.”
John stared at the jars, remembering the taste again. He hadn’t tasted honey in years, not since he started drinking coffee. A long time.
“Mostly these days people say that bees are symbols of family, community, cooperation,” the honey seller said. “You know, the power of the hive.”
“I’ll take a pint.”
Dinner was great. They ate too much. Drank a little extra. Laughed. Ate the strawberries with the chocolate cake Jools had made.
It felt good to be around friends. When he got home, he checked the window screen. The bee was gone.
A day and a half until James came back.
He thought about what the honey seller had told him. Family. Truth telling. Friends. In the kitchen, he snapped on the light under the stove hood. The little jar gleamed amber on the counter. Popping the lid, he snuck his pinky into the jar, staring at the glob on his fingertip.
Before it could run down the side of his hand, John placed his finger in his mouth and sucked. A sigh escaped him. It was so sweet. It tasted just like sun. Warmth.
A longing rose up inside him, all the way from his sex to his sternum. He felt tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. Not enough to spill over, just enough to make his nose itch.
John hadn’t had a real cry since he was five years old, and sometimes wished he could wail and moan. But he just stood there in the deep shadows just outside the pool of light, and wiped his face with his hands.
He wasn’t even sure what was wrong.
“It’s just the wine making you maudlin, you asshole,” he said into the darkened kitchen. “Happy damn birthday.”
John crawled into the bed that felt too big without James to take up his side. Without anyone to tangle up the comforter in the night. Hugging a pillow to his chest, he rolled onto his side, and tucked his knees up. The sheets were cool against his thighs.
When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of a hive, busy and buzzing, segmented and golden.
James came home on Saturday and they made out on the couch like teenagers before rolling into the bedroom to tear the sheets apart. “Happy birthday, baby,” James had whispered in his ear as they drifted off to sleep. “I missed you.”
The next morning, John awakened to the smell of coffee. James sat on the edge of the bed, cup in hand, blonde hair standing up every which way, just the way John loved it. He scooted up, shoving pillows behind his back, and held out his hands for the cup. James leaned in and kissed him softly before handing him his favorite ceramic mug.
“Thank you, baby.”
James’s lips tasted of honey. The world fell away. A buzzing filled John’s head. Clutching at the mug with one hand, he grabbed the back of James’s neck with the other and pulled him in again. A longer kiss this time. Harder. The buzzing sound increased.
Everything was taste and sound, coffee, honey, James, bees, light. And a strange vibration, humming out from John’s head and cascading all through his body. Like the buzzing was taking him over. Like he was being broken into smaller and smaller pieces of himself.
Like he wasn’t just John anymore.
Then suddenly, it all stopped. Everything became clear.
John moved his mouth back, the barest space apart, and took in a breath.
He wasn’t alone anymore.
“Will you marry me?” He said it softly, lips still brushing at his lover’s mouth.
“What?” James pulled back. “What’s got into you, my love?”
John looked at this man, sitting inches away from him on the bed they had shared for more than three years. He took a sip of coffee. Smooth. Creamy. Slightly bitter. Not what he wanted at all.
What he wanted was that honey taste. He gave James another kiss.
“I don’t know,” John started. James was shaking his head. “Wait,” John said. “I do know…” But he couldn’t quite say it again. “You taste like honey.”
“Yeah. I found that jar you left out on the counter. It’s good.”
James scooted up on the bed next to him, wrapping an arm around John’s shoulder, fitting the sides of their bodies back together.
“What are you trying to say, though?” James asked.
John turned his face toward his lover. “I want to tell you the truth.” James’s face clouded over. “No. It’s not bad. It’s good.”
“I think I need my own coffee for this.” The bed rocked as James shifted off the mattress. John could hear him in the kitchen, getting a mug from the cupboard, stirring in some cream.
“OK. I’m back.” He climbed across the mattress again, not sitting quite so close this time. John could smell him, the fresh laundry scent of his green t-shirt, the coffee, the slight musk of sex from his shorts.
“Okay. Do you really want to marry me? I thought you were against all that.”
John sipped at his coffee. The warmth of the mug in his hands felt reassuring somehow. Like it anchored him to this world. This place.
“The truth is…I’ve been avoiding you for years.” His eyes scanned the pulled back rust curtains, the walls, finally fixing on a blue painting across the room, over the battered, scraped up chest of drawers. The figures of two men, holding hands. Broad strokes of periwinkle, cerulean, navy, and some green. Blocky. Not realistic. But real all the same.
He could feel James grow still beside him.
“I’ve been afraid to fall into you all the way. Afraid that I would drown.” He set his mug down on the night table. It gave a low thunk. He liked the sound. He liked everything about this place: the old plumbing. The funky blue kitchen cabinets. The hideous tile in the bathroom.
He liked it because it was home. Their home.
“I think I’m ready to swim now. Or at least fly above the water.” He shifted into James’s side, tucked a foot under a foot, placed a thigh against a thigh. He could feel the warmth of him through cotton, and skin on skin.
“I’m ready. I’m not scared anymore.” And he knew it was true.
James was silent for a moment. Placed a soft kiss on John’s shoulder.
“What caused the change?”
John leaned his head into the crook of James’s shoulder. “I’m not sure exactly. But I missed you. And I love you.” He gave a short laugh. “And it was really weird while you were gone. I got the honey because there were these bees…”
James reached across him, handing him the lilac mug again.
And John did.
copyright T. Thorn Coyle April, 2016
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