The first time things went sour with Mimi, Roger hocked his guitar and bought the car that took him away to Santa Fe and back. Mark had suspected Roger had been on the verge of doing something like that for several weeks before it actually happened. He'd begun to behave oddly. Instead of sitting in the middle of their industrial loft parked near the wood burning stove, plucking away at his guitar like usual, Roger had taken to locking himself in his room and sleeping all day.
He was absolutely miserable without Mimi, and Mark hated her for doing what she did to Roger. Mimi drove Roger away with her unfaithfulness and her inability to give him his space when he needed it. There hadn't been anywhere left in the city for Roger, so Santa Fe had looked like the perfect safe haven to him. Out west, sunny, warm, and away from Mimi. When Roger unexpectedly returned from Santa Fe (almost as quickly as he'd left), Mark went with him, uninvited, to get his beloved guitar out of hock.
The second time things went sour with Mimi, Roger hocked his guitar and bought a seat on the Greyhound that took him away to Sacramento and back. Mark had figured it was coming; he'd begun to recognize the signs. The guitar had gotten packed away, the bedroom door shut and bolted, and Mark went for days at a time without seeing Roger step one foot outside the small sanctuary of his room. Mark wondered why Roger bothered to stay with her when Mimi took to cheating on him nearly every other week.
Mark tried to be supportive of Roger and Mimi. It had been obvious that Roger was mad about her; Mark didn't have to zoom in with his camera to see that, to watch re-plays of their interactions on an endless loop to get that. When Roger was around Mimi and they were good,there was this sort of electricity in the air of the industrial loft, more vibrant and alive than anything crackling through the thick extension cord snaking out their window. When things between Roger and Mimi were bad, the static chill that set in the apartment was much fiercer than the usual cold from lack of heat.
In the beginning of Roger-and-Mimi, Mark had been supportive; he didn't need to try. Mimi, he'd thought, was good for Roger. She got him out of the house, got him to live life instead of spending every day slowly dying cooped up in the loft penning song after song that sounded like "Musetta's Waltz." But when Mimi started cheating on Roger and he started to curl into himself like he'd done after April died, Mark's opinion of her changed. Mark just hadn't realized that it did until he watched Roger throw that last duffel bag into the back of the rickety car that took him away to Santa Fe.
Last Christmas Eve, Maureen and Joanne brought Mimi to Mark and Roger's apartment. Mimi had been nearly-dead from fever and God-knew-what-else she'd gotten from weeks of living on the streets and Mark forced himself to swallow his dislike and dissatisfaction with her. They thought they'd lost her for a few painful minutes and Mark hadn't known what to do. Roger had been so raw. The rawness was so much bigger and agonizing than the day Roger had found April dead in the bathtub.
In the moment when the last note from Roger's song for Mimi faded, Mark had an epiphany. He understood what it was between the two of them at last. With April, it had been about giving and taking and getting high, having a good time. But with Mimi, it was all about passion and need and want. Roger and Mimi had been perfect together.
They'd been perfect and Roger threw it away by sending her into Benny's arms and driving out west. An odd feeling settled into Mark's chest right then and he knew it was anger and jealousy. Roger had had something real. He'd had a connection and he'd blown it because he was afraid of getting too close. When the fingers on Mimi's hand wiggled and she shocked the hell out of them all by sitting up and announcing that she'd jumped over the moon, the anger and jealousy dissolved into something Mark didn't understand until much later.
The fifth time things went sour with Mimi, Roger tried to pull an April in their bathtub. Mark hadn't seen the signs. Roger had been too busy taking care of Mimi's funeral arrangements and visiting with her mama to pack up the guitar and lock himself in his room, so it never crossed Mark's mind that Roger might try to run away again or escape everything once and for all.
Roger had only managed to slice open one wrist by the time Mark found him. Bile rose in his throat but Mark forced it down, thrusting his arms under Roger's shoulders and hauling him out of the tub. The hem of the "Dykes on Bykes" shirt that Maureen had given him one birthday served as an impromptu bandage around Roger's wrist.
Mark kept a steady eye on Roger while he muttered impatiently into the phone, waiting for 911 to take him off hold. If it hadn't been for Collins' rewiring the ATM at the Food Emporium, Mark wouldn't have been able to afford the ambulance or Roger's medical bills.
Two months had passed since Mark pulled Roger out of that bathtub. Although Roger wore a thick leather bracelet around his wrist, Mark knew there was a pale scar running along the underside of the wrist. It was a badge, another scar earned in this war against life that Roger has been battling ever since he read April's note that said "We've got AIDS."
In the two months that had passed, Roger had picked up his guitar exactly three times. Once to play the song he wrote for Mimi, only to stop after two chords and drop it to the ground. The second time had been to pick it up from the spot he'd left it in for two weeks, placing the Fender in its case before stowing it in the kitchen closet. The last time had been to destroy it. Roger took it out of its case, walked over to the window they usually opened to toss the key down, and dropped it right onto the street. It narrowly avoided hitting a homeless woman in the head and splintered with a spectacular discordant crash into dozens of pieces on the hard concrete.
Currently, Roger was sitting on the centerpiece of the loft, a second-hand couch with stuffing leaking out of the seams. They'd bought it in St. Marks Place months ago and had been meaning to re-cover it. They meant to do a lot of things together, but nothing had gotten started, much less finished, since things had gone sour between Roger and Mimi the fourth time. Mark stared at a threadbare spot on a cushion just to the right of Roger's limp hand.
"You need to eat."
Mark pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Roger could say he wasn't hungry all he liked, but Mark knew better. He'd been listening to Roger's stomach growl for the past fifteen minutes. He needed something to eat, not only for the nutrition but because of his medication, too. Whenever Roger forgot to eat before taking his AZT, it wasn't a pretty sight.
"I bet we've got some ramen. I can make some on the hot plate," Mark said quietly, his eyes darting up to meet Roger's. They were heavy-lidded and old and Mark knew his own looked the same.
Roger grunted and shifted, sitting up a bit straighter, straining to see the tv screen over top Mark's head. "Chicken?" he asked as the pointless and decidedly un-artistic crap on MTV broke to a commercial.
"Don't know," Mark admitted, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck. "I'll check."
"Fine," Roger mumbled, sinking back down into the safety of the couch's lumpy cushions and leaking stuffing.
Passing the television, Mark glanced at the screen and barely bit back a comment about the drivel on the screen before padding back to the tiny kitchen. The cupboards were embarrassingly bare; he wasn't going to get paid for another week and they'd already hit the Food Emporium ATM once that month. Couldn't risk doing it again so soon. Pushing a few packets of generic soup mix out of the way, Mark curled his fingers around his prize - Top Ramen chicken noodles - and pulled it out of the cupboard. Out of the adjoining cupboard he took a bowl and started to close the door. Just as the hinges began to groan in protest, something shoved way in the back of the bottom shelf caught Mark's eye. He elbowed the door open again and thrust his hand inside, withdrawing a long-forgotten bottle of Stoli. He glanced at the vodka and then the ramen.
Maybe what they both needed was to just get trashed.
They hadn't had a real conversation in weeks, and it had been over two months since they'd had an honest one. Besides, the bottle Mark held in his hand had been a gift from Collins and Angel two Christmases ago. It was high time they indulged a little.
Tucking the bottle under his arm, Mark plucked two glasses out of the cupboard and headed out to where Roger waited.
"That doesn't look like ramen," Roger said faintly, craning his neck to get a glance at the screen.
"Hot plate's busted," Mark said, the lie rolling easily off his tongue as he handed Roger the Stoli and glasses. "Knock yourself out." To his surprise, Roger didn't protest when he turned the TV off. One corner of Mark's mouth quirked in appreciation as he sank into a cloud of stuffing and threadbare linen beside Roger.
Mark tucked his legs under himself and took the proffered glass from Roger, waiting until his roommate set the bottle on the cable spool doubling as a coffee table before raising his glass in a toast. "To Angel," he said solemnly, watching the clear liquid swirl this way and that as he tipped his glass.
"To Mimi," Roger muttered, his chin dropping to his chest.
The half-smile dissolved and Mark's collar felt too tight. "Right," he said, staring so hard at his glass that he was beginning to see spots. "To..." He floundered for a minute and said the first thing that popped in his head, not wanting for things to be somber and uncomfortable yet again. "To us. For surviving. And continuing to survive."
Roger laughed, a low laugh laced with a bitterness that hit too close to home for Mark's liking. "To us," Roger said after his laughter died down, lifting his gaze to meet Mark's.
"Us," Mark repeated, the word reverberating in his mind in a strangely coherent way. He was still repeating the word silently to himself when Roger refilled their glasses.
"For hating the couch potatoes at NYU and all their conspicuous consumption, Collins sure loves the expensive shit," Roger said, taking a swig of his drink.
A grin curved the corners of Mark's mouth and he nodded. "Yeah," he agreed, downing the contents of his glass. With a satisfied shudder, Mark leaned forward and snatched up the bottle from the cable spool, sloshing vodka into his cup and topping off Roger's glass once more. "It's good."
Roger inclined his head, bobbing it in agreement while taking a drink, dribbling vodka down his stubbled chin and onto his shirt. "It is good," he said slowly, staring back at Mark with sudden intensity that made every last one of his nerves stand on edge.
It was like someone flipped a switch on inside Mark, like he'd been in the dark his whole life and in one single instant someone turned on the lights and he could finally see.
"What's the matter?"
"Huh?" Mark blinked and stared back at Roger.
"I said 'what's the matter?'" Roger repeated, slurring slightly.
"Noth-" That was a lie. It wasn't "nothing." Worrying his bottom lip, Mark tried again. "Couldn't see."
Roger smirked and tilted his head back for a long moment. Mark squared his shoulders and stared at Roger, taking in the faint pink flush that had crept into his skin. No doubt he was warm and buzzed, just like Mark. The thought made Mark giggle a bit, even though it really wasn't funny. Roger picked up his head and the smirk deepened, his eyes flickering over Mark's face.
"What?" Mark asked, shoulders slumping self-consciously. He curled his fingers tightly around his glass and stared back at Roger almost defiantly, not wanting Roger to know that anything was wrong.
"Your glasses, Mark," he said, stumbling over the words as he leaned in close to inspect them. Roger's breath, warm and smelling just as strongly of Stoli that Mark suspected his own did, puffed against his cheek and he tried his damnedest to remain very still while Roger removed his glasses. He blinked, the world around and in front of him becoming blurrier than all hell. Roger tapped a fingernail against an old, scratched lens. It'd been years since Mark had been able to afford a new prescription. "How old are these, anyway?"
"Old," Mark breathed. "Had to buy equipment instead of new glasses."
Roger was a blurry mess, but Mark knew him well enough to know that he was rolling his eyes at Mark, which didn't even make sense because Mark knew Roger had gone without his AZT for a month once because he'd bought a new pedal for his guitar.
"Sure you did," Roger said, taking up his glass for another swig of Stoli. Draining it, he turned it upside down and slammed it onto the cable spool top. "Here." He opened Mark's hand and set the glasses in the center of his palm.
"Thanks," Mark said softly, fingers curling around the frame.
"So you're pretty blind without them, huh?" Roger stretched and then settled back down into the couch, his shoulder brushing against Mark's smaller one.
"I can see."
Could he ever.
Mark slid the glasses back home and Roger came back into focus.
Roger told him once that he couldn't see, but he was wrong.
Mark could see.
Roger laughed again, but without a trace of bitterness this time. This time his laugh was deep and rich, and it warmed Mark from the inside out. "What do you see?"
"You," Mark said simply, turning in to face him.
"You're not trashed enough," Roger teased. Mark couldn't remember the last time he'd heard him use that tone. It was fucking great. "I see at least four of you, Mark. You need s'more Stoli till we're matched." Biting his lip in concentration, Roger leaned forward, his shoulder grazing across Mark's chest as he did so.
Reaching out a hand, Mark wrapped his fingers around Roger's wrist and stopped him. "We are matched," Mark said simply, leaning forward and - fuck it - screwing up his courage before it left him completely or he sobered up and touched his lips to Roger's. At first, Roger didn't react; he just sort of froze. A slight beat passed and then Mark felt Roger move beneath him. He was sure Roger was going to push him away, that he'd been incredibly stupid in allowing himself to think there was some unspoken connection between them, that he just fucked up several years' worth of friendship, et cetera et cetera.
But Roger didn't push him away. In fact, Roger pulled him closer, his fingers fisting in Mark's sweater and hauling him nearer.
Kissing Roger was incredibly wonderful but extremely odd at the same time. Mark hadn't ever kissed a guy before, and Roger's lips were so different from a woman's. They were less soft than what he was used to, chapped and insistently demanding and Mark wasn't sure if he was leading or following. The specifics didn't matter so much, though, because he was too caught up in the way Roger's stubble rubbed against his own stubble and the feel of Roger's tongue moving against his, flickering and then circling slowly before questing into his mouth, filling Mark up with the taste of him. One of Mark's hands rested on Roger's thigh, squeezing firmly as lips and teeth and tongue moved and slid and nipped and collided with and against each other.
Only when his lungs began to burn did Mark remember that occasionally it was important to breathe. He pulled back from Roger with a gasp, the world spinning slightly around him.
Roger's eyes swept over his face and Mark pressed into the opposite corner of the couch, almost scared to say anything. Digging the remote out from the cushion between them, Roger turned the TV's power back on and a loud commercial for Starburst Fruit Chews came on. The remote got discarded on the cable spool, traded for another glass of Stoli. After raising the glass to his lips, Roger paused and turned his face toward Mark.
Mark took in a large, gulping breath of air and nodded emphatically, relieved and exhausted all at once.
"You're not..." Mark started tentatively. "You're not going away, are you?"
Roger muted the TV. "I've been away and came back four times now, Mark. It's about time I learned to stay where my home is."
"I ought to get that on film," Mark said after a long pause, unsure of whether or not he could believe him.
"No, you shouldn't," Roger said, his brows knitting together. "You heard what I said. You saw me say it."
"Yeah," Mark said slowly, a small smile beginning to form on his lips. "I see you. I see."