It's Always You

Muriel Cropp in fourth year. That was the first -- or, if there were any before that, he never told me about it. None of us were too surprised. She was pretty enough, and it wasn't like girls never looked his way. They seemed to get along very well, though nobody ever saw them do anything more than hold hands. If something else happened between them -- even then, I was sure it must've -- he didn't say a word about it. He always kept things from us. They weren't usually big things, but he never talked about quarreling with his parents (we assumed he simply didn't), or what he got for his birthday. Conversations were limited to classes, girls, Quidditch brooms, superficial things mostly -- the kinds of things school friends typically talk about. We fancied we all knew each other very well back then. Looking back, perhaps we didn't. Or perhaps we did and just never realized it.

After Cropp came a brief thing one sunny Hogsmeade weekend with Rosa Dawws. That was all we talked about for weeks afterward, and he was angry. We didn't mean anything by it, but I suppose nobody much likes being caught mid-snog.

Then came a very long dry spell. When we came back from summer holiday, he had nothing to report. He told us about his trip to New York City, commiserated about how miserable the Astronomy homework had been, mentioned that his family had moved to the seaside for his father's health. But there wasn't a single word about a girl he met over the summer, about some pretty cousin he'd caught undressing (everybody seemed to have one of those stories), about the skin magazines he'd found stashed in the basement. There was nothing. Even Peter had met some girl -- I've forgotten her name, but they corresponded all year. I think she went to some parochial wizarding school. Needless to say, he was more than happy to tell us all about his girlfriend, and we were all very impressed. He showed us a picture of her, and she had light hair and waved pleasantly from the photograph. When she smiled, you could see that her teeth were crooked, but nobody ever ribbed Peter about that.

But -- in any case. There was nothing. I thought then he was still upset about the thing with Dawws. (Dawws was a great, gangly Ravenclaw, and we never really did let him forget how she'd towered over him, how her hand had eclipsed his entirely. It was one of those embarrassing stories that often came up when we went out drinking.) He didn't tell us anything about his love life for months. There wasn't a word. Of course, we didn't push too much. He'd never been exactly overwhelmed with the need to fill us in. We were all content to talk about our own paramours, and I think he was more than happy to let it slide. When I thought about it -- which, admittedly, wasn't all that often -- it occurred to me that he might be embarrassed about it, or even ashamed. Dawws had been what you might call plain,' and we'd given him trouble about that for months. But, like I said, none of us thought about it much.

Then, right before Christmas holiday, I found out that he'd been seeing a sixth year named Julian Albrecht. I was . . . nonplussed. It had never occurred to me. He'd dated girls. He'd liked them, got on with them. He'd never shown any sign of being that way. I thought he was really upset I'd found out. He told me not to tell anyone, and it was only the second time I'd ever heard him really threaten anyone. I have to admit, I was intimidated. He'd never been the sort of fellow you want to cross. When he holds a grudge, he holds it deep down, and it gets all sort of hard and icy and mean while he hangs onto it. It's almost more terrible than any other kind of anger I've ever seen.

But -- Albrecht. Soon as I had the chance, I interrogated him about it. Why were they together? How long had it been going on? Why hadn't he told us?

It was all very simple, according to him. Albrecht was near the top of the class and especially good-looking. He was considerate and diligent and -- some other exemplary quality. Suffice to say, he was perfect. None of that was a secret. I didn't know Albrecht was queer -- he seemed the type to wind up in a respectable desk job with good salary, a wife, a couple of children, and maybe a niffler. Apparently I was wrong, because he'd most certainly been shagging a boy for a good three or four months.

I remember asking him: Come off it. Why?

And he narrowed his eyes and said, Well, he was interested, wasn't he.

I was furious. He seemed like some kind of tramp all of a sudden, some kind of cheap whore. He was selling himself short. So now you just shack up with any bloke who's got it for you, is that it?

That's not it at all. I could tell he was angry, but I was angrier.

I said to him, What if I came up and told you I wanted to shag you?

And he said, I'd tell you to piss of, I've got a boyfriend, and he left the dorm room, shutting the door smartly behind himself. Christmas holidays came and went before we spoke again.

You know . . . The way I tell it, it sounds like we weren't very good friends at all. We were. We slept in the same dorm, shared an Arithmancy textbook (mostly so that I could use his notes), spent every Sunday afternoon in the library together. We went out, the four of us, late at night to cause trouble. He stole books for me from the restricted section and I stole food for him when he missed meals. We never said much to each other -- not the way we talked to our other friends. As we grew older, all the superficial talk faded out. It almost seemed we didn't need to say much to each other. Even early on, there was a strange tension in our relationship. I thought it was because he was just more secretive, or -- more . . . personal but in retrospect . . . Well, we always become biased about things after the fact. I mean, now, looking back, I realize we should have been able to read the signs about Peter. Every one of us should have seen it. But we didn't. We're really blind, aren't we? It's amazing.

But in retrospect . . . I think even then -- there's some kind of tension between lovers, between the lover and the beloved, or something like that. When you're in love, you always keep secrets. I guess that's sort of cynical. You'll have to forgive me, but I think I've rather earned it. I think even then we were a little in love. Neither of us knew it, of course. But we were such -- it was different between us. I mean that it was different from how we were friends with Peter and James. It was quieter, maybe. It was all right that we kept some things from each other. At least, it was an accepted part of our friendship.

After Albrecht was Gustav Wood-Beardley, right at the end of term. That was the rumor, anyway. They both denied it. I didn't talk to him about it. He told me later that he thought I left it alone because it made me uncomfortable. It never made me uncomfortable. Angry, yes, and inexplicably jealous, but never uncomfortable.

Wood-Beardley, you see, was a Slytherin. That redoubled my rage. It felt like an even deeper sort of betrayal -- But, then, I suppose I sort of wanted him to myself, and it didn't seem fair that some Slytherin should get him. Not that I could quite figure that out then. (Hindsight, remember.) Everyone took the piss out on them when Snape started saying he'd caught them at it in a third-floor bathroom . It was always Snape. Neither of them could walk down the hallways without somebody whispering, pointing, insulting them. Needless to say, the Gryffindors were outraged, and so were the Slytherins. Like me, they'd all felt their House dignity had been betrayed. Dumbledore even talked to them, and he came back to he common room more sour-faced than he had looked in a very long time. He and Woods-Beardley never spoke again, I don't think, and if they were a couple, they ceased to be after that. That wasn't something the three of us gave him trouble about. James and Peter didn't like the idea much, I don't suppose. They were decidedly uncomfortable with it. And, as for me -- Well, I was too infuriated to touch the topic.

We came back after holidays, and he invented a girlfriend he'd met at the seaside. He never told us much about her, and said he didn't have any photos, and I knew he was lying. Of course, I suppose it's possible that he wasn't, that he really was still interested in girls. Sometimes, he would get owls from somebody other than his mother, but he never showed them to us. I had a gut feeling, though -- an instinct that told me he was lying. I often had that feeling, could -- I don't know -- I fancied I could feel it when he wasn't telling the whole truth. In reality, it was probably pretty obvious. But we were all young and stupid then.

I still have more questions than answers about what it all meant between the two of us. It doesn't matter to me, except when I'm feeling especially introspective. I don't think the meaning is really all that important (and maybe that's the cynic in me again). What's important is that things did happen between us. Life is too chaotic to be explained. It probably doesn't even have any intrinsic meaning at all. I can't believe that it does.

I don't know what it means, really, but I'll always remember this. It's a little like a brand.

One day, I asked him what he was thinking about. (He had that sort of distant, brooding expression I know others often recognize on my face.) He sort of looked up at me, twisting his quill between his thumb and forefinger. He was chewwing gum. I hate gum, the sound it makes slapping against a person's teeth . . . But somehow I stood it for him. I was watching his jaw work as he chewwed at it. It made him look thoughtful, and his jawline was straight and his skin still soft, and he seemed very handsome there in the half-light of the dorm room.

he told me. He was thinking about me.

I asked.

I think he put the quill down then. It's always you, Sirius, you idiot. It's always you.