“Let Your Heart Be Light”
Milo was living the dream.
That was, he had come to New York City with not much more than a fuzzy plan and forty bucks in his pocket and somehow had managed to eke out an existence by sharing an apartment, working two jobs, living on a diet of mostly ramen and peanut butter on Wonder Bread, and feeling exhausted all the time. Still, he’d made it to New York, something he’d been wanting to do since the age of twelve when he first saw a TV show set there and thought, “I’ll get there some day.”
And now here he was, spending a Friday night staring at the one bulb that had burned out in the string of Christmas lights one of his roommates had put up around the perimeter of the living room, surmising that he’d very likely be spending the holidays with the mouse who lived in the cupboard because all of his roommates had families to go to, but Milo could not afford the flight home.
Shane, the beefcake ex-football player who lived in the bedroom adjacent to Milo’s, came into the living room and said, “Bro.”
“I know,” said Milo.
“It’s karaoke night at Franklin Station. I’m meeting Ellie there.”
Shane sighed. “Come with us, dude.”
Milo sat up a little straighter on the sofa. “It’s cute that you think I can just conjure up money to go to a bar. I need my last twelve dollars to feed myself, thanks.”
“I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Fine.” Milo peeled himself off the sofa and looked down at his clothes. He was still wearing the black polo and unfortunately pleated pants that were his uniform at the restaurant where he waited tables. “Uh, let me put on some less dorky clothes.”
When they arrived at the bar, there was a balding guy singing “Piano Man” on the low stage at the back of the bar, and maybe a dozen other people milling about. Someone had put silver tinsel garlands and blinky colored lights around the stage. Shane’s girlfriend Ellie was leaning against the bar, sipping from a pint glass. “Hi, boys,” she said. She gestured to a girl standing next to her with short dark hair and big glasses. “This is my friend Liz.”
Milo shook Liz’s hand. She smiled at him beatifically.
Shane ordered two beers and handed one to Milo, who took the glass gratefully. The beer was dark and bitter, not quite what Milo would have ordered for himself, but then, the taps were a confusion of carved animal figures and brands Milo had never heard of. Like many of the bars around Milo’s Brooklyn apartment, this place catered to a specific rising class of hipster twenty-somethings who liked the unique and obscure. Which made Shane look a little out of place, actually; by rights he should have been butting heads with other guys who looked like linebackers at a sports bar.
Shane immediately got to work flipping through the songbooks and recording his choices on the little paper slips that came with the purchase of a drink. Then he looked over at Milo. “Hey, bro, you want in on this?”
Milo walked over and flipped through the songbook, which was as thick as a dictionary. He was overwhelmed by the number of choices. Shane handed him his last slip and a pen, so Milo decided to choose his one song carefully. While he was looking, Shane handed his other choices to the DJ and, up on stage, a girl in a very short skirt broke into a thin rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“I hate this time of year,” said the DJ.
Liz sauntered over to Milo and said, “So you’re Shane’s roommate, huh? Ellie was right, you are really cute.”
“Also gay,” Milo said. “I mean, just so we’re on the same page.”
The DJ cleared his throat. “Blondie, you’re up next.”
Shane ran up to the stage as the opening lick of “Sweet Child of Mine” resonated through the bar. Milo groaned, having forgotten that Shane loved Guns n Roses. Shane even did the Axl Rose dance, swaying his big body on his feet as he sang.
“What a dork,” said Ellie. “You pick a song?”
“I think so,” said Milo. Normally, a karaoke song wouldn’t be the key to the whole night, but he couldn’t afford to buy another drink, so this really was his one shot. He handed the slip to the DJ.
A blond dude was screeching like Axl Rose from the stage when Aaron walked into the bar. He did a quick scan for Liz and found her stroking the bicep of some guy—albeit some really hot guy—so he walked toward her. He caught her eye just as the blond dude on stage was tacking some unneeded melisma onto “mi-i-i-ine” at the end of the song.
“Oh, Aaron!” said Liz, grabbing Aaron’s arm.
In his peripheral vision, he saw the blond dude hop off the stage and hand the mike to a brown-haired girl who looked like Liz’s friend Ellie. She started to sing a Fleetwood Mac song, so yeah, definitely Ellie. She had a bright, high voice totally unsuited to the Stevie Nicks catalog and yet that was always her karaoke go-to.
The blond dude was headed toward Aaron and Liz. Oh, right. He was Ellie’s hulk of a boyfriend. But who was this hot guy with the lean face and the chin and all that thick brown hair?
“So how are you doing?” Liz asked, her face all sympathy.
“I’m all right,” said Aaron. He didn’t want to linger on the fact that his father had lost his fight with cancer a month before. The wound still felt too raw. Mostly, he’d spent the three weeks since the funeral going out as often as possible to avoid having to think about how he’d never see one of the most important people in his life ever again. Karaoke had seemed just the thing when Liz suggested it.
When Liz pouted at him and tilted her head, he turned to the bartender and ordered a beer.
“Oh, Aaron,” Liz said. “You know Ellie’s boyfriend Shane. This is his roommate… Miles.”
“Milo,” said the really hot guy. He extended his hand toward Aaron.
So Aaron shook it. Milo’s hand was warm and calloused. On closer examination, Milo seemed too thin, too tired, too scruffy, and yet there was something endearing about that. Aaron met Milo’s gaze and for a brief moment he imagined he had just encountered a kindred spirit, someone who wanted this damned year to just end already so he could start anew in the next.
Or, well, Milo had really pretty eyes, kind of green in the light of the bar.
Ellie tried to get everyone at the bar to sing along about the chain, but no one was really biting. She finished off and descended into the audience, looking flush and happy. Shane threw an arm around her.
“Uh, Milo? You’re next,” said the DJ.
Milo shot Aaron what could only be interpreted as a self-deprecating grin and then grabbed the mike from the DJ on the way to the stage. The opening piano tinkles of the song sounded familiar, but it wasn’t until Milo crooned, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” that Aaron fell in love.
Milo’s voice was soft and rich, like honey, but more forceful when he got to the crescendos. The second verse was what really got to Aaron. Milo winked when he sang, “Make the Yuletide gay,” which told Aaron everything he needed to know about Milo’s orientation, but then Milo closed his eyes and sang about troubles being miles away.
Liz walked up and nudged Aaron’s arm with her shoulder. “He’s great, right? Ellie’s been talking him up for weeks. Said Shane had a gay roommate who was cute as a button, and I just knew I had to introduce you.”
Aaron raised an eyebrow at Liz. “You know, just because two guys are gay doesn’t mean they’re meant to be together. You hadn’t even met him until tonight, had you?”
“I’d be more mad if he wasn’t adorable,” Aaron said.
On stage, Milo was still singing, his voice ringing out over the growing crowd at the bar and warming up Aaron down to his toes. A hush came over the rest of those gathered as everyone stopped to listen. How could they not? Milo had some serious talent.
This year had sucked, no doubt about that. But in Milo, Aaron was suddenly seeing possibilities.
When Milo walked back to the bar, that guy Aaron was still there, and he was smiling. Aaron was no-joke hot, all curly brown hair and a chiseled jaw and probably there were serious ab muscled under his dark-red sweater.
Back on stage, some dude started belting out “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a tone-deaf, growly way. Milo winced.
“They’re not all Sinatra,” Aaron said.
“No, I guess not.”
Aaron looked Milo over. “Can I ask, what made you want to sing a Christmas song?”
Milo glanced back at the stage. Why had he chosen it? He hadn’t known exactly why at the time, just when he’d seen the song listed, it seemed perfect. “Homesickness? I don’t know. I can’t afford to fly back to see my family this year, so I’m trying to fit in the holiday spirit where I can.” He smiled. “Plus, my mom had this recording of Judy Garland singing that song, and I know it’s a total gay cliché, but I loved it. That’s one of my favorite holiday songs.”
“You sang it well.”
“Thanks.” Milo felt the flush come to his cheeks. “And you? What will you sing?”
“Undecided. Or I might ditch this crowd and go somewhere else.”
“Oh.” Milo’s disappointment was a palpable thing. Which was crazy because he’d known this Aaron guy for all of ten minutes. But there was a spark here, or something, some little bit of magic that Milo wanted to explore.
“You could come with me,” Aaron said with a smile.
“Honey, why didn’t you say so. Let’s go.”
They walked. It was cold out, but Aaron barely felt it because he was too busy concentrating on every word that came out of Milo’s mouth. Because Milo was sweet with a sassy edge, because he worked his ass off to live in the city of his dreams, because his holidays were on the verge of being ruined but he hadn’t given up hope yet.
Aaron had lived in the neighborhood for a few years, so he pointed things out to Milo: the bars and restaurants he liked, the coffee shops he frequented, the nondescript bagel place that sold the best donuts anywhere. He showed Milo the vintage store that sold clothes for cheap and the schoolyard that hosted a flea market on the weekends.
As they got to Grand Army Plaza, Milo was saying again that he was a little sad he couldn’t see his family for Christmas, so Aaron said, “My friend Christine does this orphans’ pot-luck thing on Christmas. All the people who can’t go home gather at her house. I went last year because…” And then Aaron remembered.
“Because…” Milo said.
“Well, my father was sick, so my parents spent the holidays in the hospital. Mom told me not to come home because she didn’t want me to see Dad that way.” Aaron’s voice caught. He tried to swallow the emotions that threatened to burst out of him. Quietly, he added, “He died a month ago.”
Milo clapped a hand over his mouth. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. You must be devastated.”
Before he really understood what was happening, his face was pressed against the scratchy wool of Milo’s coat, but then he sighed and sank into the hug, because he needed it.
He pulled away gently and took Milo’s hand. He didn’t know what was really happening here, but he thought it was the beginning of something important.
He gestured toward the Christmas tree under the arch in the middle of the plaza. “That thing is here every year. It’s not real, obviously.”
Milo squinted in the direction of the weird electric tree that faded from blue to purple to pink as they watched. “There’s something deliciously tacky about it.”
Aaron laughed. “Yeah, I always thought so, too. And over there is what is allegedly the world’s largest menorah.”
Milo turned around and looked at the menorah. “That’s it? Really? It’s not even that big.”
Aaron squeezed Milo’s hand.
And then, in the neon color-changing light that bounced off their faces from the deliciously tacky Grand Army Plaza Christmas tree, Milo smiled and cupped Aaron’s face. “You feel it too, right? I’m not crazy?”
“You’re not crazy.”
So Milo kissed Aaron and Christmas became a little bit merrier.