Ceasar read an article once about memory palaces, vast psychological constructs designed to commit important information to memory. They had been used primarily by ancient peoples, the Greeks and such, back when few could read and fewer could write, when all information had to be passed carefully from person to person, when knowledge died with the mind that held it.
Ceasar had tried the exercise once, building a room in the back of his head and placing in it everything important, but he soon realized there was far too little to fill the room. All his important memories fit inside a shoebox, shoved under his bed. When he died, there would be no one who knew its true value; it would be nothing but a box of tattered knickknacks from days long gone.
“It’s different this time,” Ceasar would tell himself whenever someone new made his heart skip. “My chest never ached like this before, my throat never felt so tight. This is it, this is love, this is what it’s like to love someone.” Fleance made his throat close up and his heart flutter. So had the one before him. So had that little girl in the third grade, pink ribbons in her hair. He’d stolen one, a memento of his first love, shoved now in a drawer or box somewhere with everything else important.
“This time is different,” he said again.
“I believe you,” Ice had told him. “But Fleance, he’s not that kind of guy.”
Fleance had a vase of flowers beside his bed one day, simple things that grew near the woods. Ceasar didn’t know why they were there. He plucked one from the vase, twirled it slowly between his fingers. Digging around in the bottom drawer of his nightstand, he found a pink ribbon and knotted it around the stem, then shoved both back into the drawer, under a pile of old math homework.
“The yellow one is gone,” Fleance said when he came back, and Ceasar’s face flushed red.
Ice and Ceasar sat in the far corner of the pub, tucked out of sight. “It was worth it,” Ceasar said, his head resting on the table, “to figure out about love.”
Ice made a face and ruffled his hair. “I told you, he’s not that kind of guy. You knew it’d turn out like this.”
Ceasar watched the bubbles in his drink rise to the surface, listened to the fizz and crackle as they burst, over and over. “I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I thought, here’s a guy who’s not scared of me. He’s not scared of anything.” Ceasar heaved a sigh. The heavy bass line reverberated in his stomach, and he felt sick. “He made my chest hurt. Isn’t that what love’s like?”
“I think so. Something like that.”
“Stop petting me,” Ceasar batted Ice’s hand away, “I’m not a dog.”
“I know, I know.” Ice pulled Ceasar out of his chair and dusted the crumbs off his shirt. “Come on,” he said, “We’re going to get some phone numbers and forget this ever happened.”
“It’s not that easy,” Ceasar said, but a smile was already tugging at the corners of his lips. He fell asleep that night with his heart fluttering, his fist closed around a napkin with seven digits scrawled on it in red ink. It was different this time, he thought.
“So what are you gonna do?” Ice asked him one afternoon near graduation. “You got a place set up?”
“I got into the dorms, so,” Ceasar shrugged, his pen tracing idle lines in the margin of his notebook. “I guess that’s what I’ll do.”
“You’re going to UCLA, right?” Ice leaned back in his chair, arms tucked behind his head. “I was thinking of heading out there, too. How about we share a place instead?”
Ceasar’s pen stopped and he grinned wide. “Seriously?” he asked.
“I already bookmarked the classifieds,” Ice told him, grinning back, “I’ll print out some hopefuls.
“Alright, but you better not be one of those guys who leaves his towels on the bathroom floor,” Ceasar said, laughing. His heart was fluttering, but he didn’t notice.
“What’s this?” Ice asked, holding up a shoebox. Empty cardboard boxes littered the room.
Ceasar snatched the box out of Ice’s hands. “It’s got all my important things in it,” he said, “it’s private.”
“Oh? You can fit them all in there? Can I look?”
Ceasar shook his head furiously. “Maybe when I’m old and senile and not so easily embarrassed,” he said. “Until then, keep your hands off.”
Ice shrugged and gathered up the empty moving boxes, kicking the ones he couldn’t carry out the door. Ceasar shoved the shoebox under his bed, thinking of a classified ad circled in red ink and blushing.
Ceasar didn’t know when Ice started making his chest feel tight and hot, like there was too much inside it. It was late June. A surfboard stood propped up in the living room of their tiny apartment.
“For your birthday,” Ice said. “Is it alright? The guy at the shop said…”
“It’s perfect,” Ceasar choked, his fingers stroking the smooth, waxed surface of the board. He could tuck it under his arm and run the half-mile to the beach, paddle out into the water. “It’s too much, you shouldn’t…
“He threw this in,” Ice said. He held up a string of puka shells. Ceasar laughed and fastened them around his neck.
“For your birthday,” Ceasar said six days later. He pulled his shirt over his head and kissed Ice on the mouth.
“It’s too much,” Ice said, and his hand slid up Ceasar’s bare back. The string of shells was in a box in Ceasar’s closet, next to a dried yellow flower tied with pink ribbon.
“I never thought it’d be like this,” Ceasar said. They lay side by side, their mismatched twin beds shoved together in the middle of the room. “For awhile it seemed like it’d always be wrong for me, you know?”
“I know,” Ice said, “who do you think was watching all that time? I thought it’d always be wrong for me, too.”
Ceasar laughed. “You can’t have been, not the whole time,” he said. “You wouldn’t be here if you’d been watching the whole time. ‘Cause I wasn’t… normal. I did things.”
“The whole time,” Ice told him, his hands on Ceasar’s back.
Ceasar’s breath caught. “Weren’t you afraid I’d hurt you?”
“I’ve never once been scared of you,” Ice whispered in Ceasar’s ear.
Ceasar’s fist slammed against the table. “When were you planning on telling me?!” he shouted, his voice heavy and dull against the close walls of the kitchen. “Did you think I’d never notice? Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out when we were both supposed to be old?”
Ice’s knuckles were white where he gripped his glass. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t know how to—”
Ceasar’s hair hung in his eyes. “All this time I thought… I don’t know anything about you, do I? Who are you? You’re no one.”
“Ceasar,” Ice was up and trying to hold him, “We can still—”
“I want to be normal,” Ceasar said, and his chest was in a vice, it was hard to talk through the heavy lump in his throat. “Ever since… that’s all I’ve wanted for so long. Is that so much?” Ceasar’s voice was shaking, but he pushed Ice away with considerable force. “Get out,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll be here when you come back.”
Ice called his name softly, over and over again. When he left Ceasar swept the glasses off the table and watched them shatter to pieces on the kitchen floor. He laid his head on the empty table and wept, though he wasn’t sure why.
Ceasar met a girl at work who made his heart skip. When she smiled at him his chest ached and his throat tightened. “Do you want to grab a bite to eat sometime?” she asked him one afternoon, “Here’s my number.” She handed him a post-it note with seven digits scrawled in red ink.
Ceasar lay in bed, his cell phone in his hand. His chest had ached so many times before, he thought. He hadn’t really noticed it until now. He tried to think of faces but they were already growing hazy, but he remembered yellow flowers and pink ribbon and seven digits on a napkin that smelled like lilacs. It had always been the same, he thought, the fluttering.
He remembered, too, smiling all the time, even when he didn’t want to. He remembered wanting more, more, every minute, he remembered. He remembered blue eyes, and a classified ad circled in red ink, and a string of shells, like it had happened yesterday. He clutched his chest, surprised to find tears dripping from the corners of his eyes. This was it, this was love. “This is what it’s like to love someone,” he said, and he crumpled up the phone number and tossed it in the trash.
Ceasar sat in his chair, cradling a shoebox in his lap. His hands resting on the top were frail, blue veins showing through paper-thin skin, and they shook.
“What’s that?” asked the young man who pushed his wheelchair through the park on sunny afternoons. Was it one o’clock already? Ceasar hadn’t heard him come in.
“It’s a box,” Ceasar said. “It has all my important things in it.”
The man’s fingers brushed against the lid. “Can I look?” he asked. Ceasar nodded and lifted the top for him, let it fall on the floor beside him.
The young man was silent for a few moments. “There’s only a broken cup in here,” he said softly.
“There were other things,” Ceasar said, settling back in his chair with a sigh. “There was a flower and a ribbon and a string of shells… but I didn’t know what any of it meant. This is all that’s left in my memory palace.”
Ceasar frowned a little, the wrinkles in his face deepening ever so slightly. “In my head,” he said, “there’s a small room with a window. I’m sitting at a table in the middle, and the floor is covered in broken glass. The light from the window shines off it like…” and here Ceasar stumbled, searching for words, “like snow, like a glacier, like… it hurts my feet to move, the glass does,” he explained, shakily pushing back his coarse grey hair, “So I just stay still.”
There were tears in the young man’s eyes when he finished. “Ceasar,” he called, over and over again, holding him tightly. Ceasar didn’t push him away.