Fran was thinking about time. Almost two years had passed since that fateful day in Echo Park when Aiden failed to deliver the speech he wanted. Just over one year had passed since both her and Aiden’s father passed. About twenty minutes ago, Fran left her big brother to find her seat in the auditorium. She spotted Tom next to an empty seat, waved hello and made her way to him.
“This is it!” Tom exclaimed after they shared a warm embrace.
Fran smiled. He was right. It was time.
Fiona was forever fascinated by how much effect time had on personality and human emotion. With time came new feelings, new perceptions, new history.
As she entered the auditorium at the Hilton Chicago, she took a moment to look around her. Take in everyone that was gathering for this one moment. To hear one person’s story. Sometimes, she realized, all it took was one person to inspire.
“Where’s our seat?” A male voice startled her.
Fi turned around to see Aaron walking towards her. After a quick hug, she pointed to an empty row nearby. The two walked over and saw a familiar face sitting in the third seat next to them.
She gave a small smile and took her seat, Aaron flanking her. Still marveling at how much time has changed her for the better.
Fiona took both men’s hands and gave them a squeeze. She was happy.
Aiden was far from happy. He had tried so hard over the past few hours of getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and running around like an insane person to not get his crisp, Granny Smith green button down dirty before he took the stage; but, of course, as he walked around backstage, his Starbucks cappuccino pulled the ultimate revenge.
Shit on before, shit on always, he grumbled in his head.
He heard the moderator begin introducing him to the auditorium, resulting in a burst of all too real armpit perspiration. Aiden fumbled for his phone, rushing to submit his final blog post so it would hit as the conference began. He figured he had about twenty-seven seconds left.
Twenty-seven seconds to end his digital journey and begin a real one.
His eyes whizzed over the entire post. Rethinking its title, “Free,” Aiden paused momentarily while his cursor hovered over the ‘publish’ button. With this, he was effectively ending his self-therapy. He subconsciously always knew he posted to strangers simply to see his feelings in cold, hard words. Now, he was taking what he’d unintentionally done for others and bringing it to reality. Words to actions.
It would all begin with a click. Aiden breathed out and released his final words to the internet.
“…please welcome to the stage, Mr. Aiden Trighton!”
Clapping. Then, dead silence, something he both loved and abhorred, but this moment brought on more of the latter. The brightened stage lights made it difficult to make out Tom and Fran in their seats, but he supposed he shouldn’t rely on the two of them in this moment. Today was all about standing on his own.
With an imaginary slow motion effect applied to his feet, Aiden walked into the light, a smile just as bright as the fluorescents above him worming its way across his lips.
He took the microphone off the podium, fingers trembling but palm steady.
It will all be okay.
“It will all be okay.”
All eyes firmly on him.
“Those were the words I used to think to myself when I felt a coldness settling in my heart, into my mind, as if I was being suffocated by my own belief that I couldn’t survive a simple social interaction. Or that there wasn’t a point to survive it. .
“And that makes a guy sad. There isn’t another word for it. Being forever locked in a spiral in your own mind is more intoxicating than five Red Bull vodkas.”
There. In the shadows. Fran’s eyes glimmered through the spotlights, nodding in solidarity with her brother. Tom, next to her, his handsome face slightly, crookedly smiling. His family.
“Still, though, I told myself it will all be okay. Despite the new pressures of coming out as one of those god damn homosexuals, despite all the old pressures of being the son who was never going to amount to anything great, I repeated those words as the only effort I knew I could make to save myself.
“But that wasn’t enough, I guess. Words to yourself aren’t enough. Almost five years ago, I let the sadness take the driver’s seat. I watched myself become the coldest I’d ever been. I didn’t know which part of me was the real me. I became lost in myself as I tried to juggle parental expectations, sibling expectations, romantic expectations, social…any expectations.
“I chose to end my own life, because I knew I didn’t matter. Expectations were the only reason I saw to live, and I couldn’t fathom how that would be enough for me. I wanted to live in my own light, not a spotlight someone shone on me. But who the fuck knows how to do that?”
Aiden swallowed. It was around this moment he anticipated his anxiety to come crashing in, accompanied by the deep silence to cut him in pieces.
“Someone, something didn’t think that was the course I was meant for, because my sister Francesca found me as I felt every ounce of energy draining from my body.”
Some anonymous human started clapping in the back of the room. A few others joined in. Aiden’s voice cracked as two tears crashed from his eyes.
“I almost didn’t get to see my nephew grow up. I almost didn’t get to see my sister become head nurse. I almost didn’t get the chance to be at peace with my late father. I almost didn’t get to experience falling in love.
“To those of you in this room who are where I was back then, be selfish for a moment. Think of everything you could possibly experience were you to leave us today. Not what others want you to experience – what you want to experience. No nephews or nieces. No sibling or familial accomplishments. No peace. No love. You will feel none of it in your bones.
“How shitty does being that selfish make you feel?”
Gasps in the audience echoed as another voice from behind Aiden responded, “Pretty shitty. You do know how to make a suicidal human feel guilty.”
Aiden chuckled at how dramatic Lyle’s entrance was. He turned to embrace his friend, thinking how much had changed since they first met that day in the tower. Then, Lyle might as well have been a floating exoskeleton of the man he didn’t think he could be. Now, with a year of counseling behind him, the San Franciscan was taking charge of his life, joining Aiden on his national suicide prevention tour to inspire, to understand, and to reflect.
“Hey,” Aiden retorted jokingly, “friends who stop friends from jumping off towers can be shitty to each other every once in a while.”
Lyle turned to the audience. “Please excuse my foul-mouthed acquaintance. We’ve become quite used to airing our dirty laundry in front of everyone and anyone.” With that and a gentle nod from Lyle that he was okay to proceed alone, Aiden began to step back behind the curtains to watch Lyle tell his story.
The second he was backstage, a hand grabbed him and pulled him away into the dark. Warm lips that fit perfectly in his pressed against his own, the initial shock instantly melting to Tom’s loving grip.
“My turn to be selfish,” joked Tom.
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“You liked it.”
Aiden glanced down, where Tom’s finger was ever-so-slightly grazing his left forearm. The misspelled ‘triumph’ tattoo. It felt earned, for once.
Also, for once, he found himself being honest about his feelings. Evolving a relationship with Tom was never in the realm of possibility, especially considering their rocky start as friends all those years ago in college. After his father’s passing, Aiden had realized he needed to let go worrying about anything, an important step in regaining control of himself.
Tom enabled him to do just that. His first stint in San Francisco when he ran away had proven how easy it was to be around him. To share his feelings with him. Share a life with him. It all felt natural. Nothing was forced or out of control.
As Aiden kissed Tom back in the darkness, he felt an equilibrium set in.
Moments passed as the two stood in silence, listening to Lyle share his truths with the crowd. Waiting for Aiden’s cue to return.
“Ready to bring it home?”
“I’ve never talked about my dad before. Not like this.”
Aiden felt his shoulders being gripped. “Aid, you’ve come so far. I may not have known your father, but there’s no chance he wouldn’t be proud of everything you’ve become. Everything you’ve stood for. He’s made peace with you, too.”
Still a bit unsure, Aiden sighed as Lyle called for him to come back out. Tom squeezed his forearm and gave him a good shove into the lights again.
A smattering of clapping wormed his smile out again. He took his post next to Lyle as his microphone switched on once more.
“Couldn’t get rid of me!”
Lyle grinned. “I bet that’s what you said to your parents when they saw you in the hospital.”
Horrified laughs emerged from the audience, but Aiden cackled. He found it so easy to be crude with his past nowadays. His shit was his shit. If he couldn’t laugh about it, how else was he supposed to move forward?
“Too soon, dude. Too soon.”
“Aiden, we have about five minutes and twenty-four seconds left. What do we think we should leave these good people with?”
“I bet they’re wishing we would leave them with some Dominoes, but I’m not that rich so…” Aiden was just able to make out Fran’s distinctive laugh in the crowd. “But in all seriousness, there is one thing I’d like to say. If there’s anything I want all of you to walk away with from hearing myself and my dear friend here, it’s this…”
The spotlights above accidentally dimmed for a brief moment, allowing Aiden’s eyes to habitually pick out one face in the crowd. One he hadn’t seen in thirteen months. He knew that hard jaw anywhere. He had once longed to see it daily for the rest of his life: Rylan.
Sitting next to his ex-girlfriend Fiona, Rylan’s gaze was studiously focused on the presentation screen behind the duo. Almost a bit too focused. Aiden’s pause must have broken it, though, because suddenly Rylan’s piercing stare matched his own.
The world froze, giving Aiden a moment to marvel at how time had eased the electricity between the two. Rylan was now, shockingly, just a simple, uncomplicated piece of his past…a piece of the puzzle that was the journey he took to get to this stage.
Rylan gave Aiden a small smile of assurance. A signal: they would forever be aware of the influence each had on the other. Forever grateful to the other.
And that’s all it was meant to be. Time, too, had given them an equilibrium.
“Um…sorry.” Aiden shook his head. “Could these lights be more distracting? I don’t know how Sutton Foster does it on Broadway.”
Looking directly at his old not-so-confirmed flame, Aiden delivered the only message that truly mattered to him. “There’s something to be said about experiencing life. Feeling alive. Awake. Present. My father’s death just one year ago jolted me out of my relapse, awakening me. I discovered what it was to love another. I learned what it was to feel loved in return. My father taught me how to love myself – something I will never be able to show him appreciation for, because I decided to be selfish and withdraw from my family and friends.
“I know what it’s like to feel as though every facet of your being is in disorder. A chaos that will never clear. A haze that threatens to ensnare. Don’t let this wonderful world pass you by. Call yourself awake. You don’t know what’s ahead, which, yes, is scary. That’s the exciting part.”
He noticed Rylan wipe a tear away. Fiona rested her head on his shoulder. Fran’s clasped hands were pressed against her lips.
“Live to explore those possibilities. Believe in possibility. Your life is untitled.”
Rapturous applause and cheers all blurred as Aiden and Lyle took their bows, the former retreating backstage.
Before he found Tom’s arms, Aiden looked behind him one final time. Rylan was standing up, mouthing to him, “Thank you.”
Aiden shook his head. He owed Rylan more than he knew. “Thank you.”