This is a story about how you are not supposed to knit a sweater for your boyfriend.
The thinking goes like this: a sweater is some of the most complex knitting one can attempt. First is the expense: it takes a lot of yarn to knit a sweater, especially one for a well-built, broad-shouldered man who works out, and if you’re being fancy about it you want the good yarn, the all-natural merino blend, the pretty, pettable yarn, and that stuff isn’t cheap. Second is the sizing. Knitting a scarf requires no sizing at all, you just keep going until it’s done. Hats are easy enough to estimate and stretchy besides. But a sweater? Has arms and armholes and necks and lengths and widths that all have to be just right if the finished product isn’t going to be a laughable, lumpy mess, or just sad. Never mind if you decide to put in cables or some other pattern. A lot of anxiety goes into knitting a sweater, especially if you’ve never done it before. Not to mention time.
The thinking goes that putting all that effort into the gift will jinx the relationship. You will knit the sweater, which becomes symbolic of far more than a quaint handmade garment. You will give him the sweater, and he will gaze upon it not with love and admiration, but with dismay, because on a deep subconscious level he will understand the symbolic commitment involved in knitting a sweater for him and realize he does not reciprocate. The sweater, which you have so devotedly created in stolen hours on lunch breaks so you could surprise him, hurriedly shoving it into a bag and bringing out a decoy project if he comes home unexpectedly, putting love into every stitch, will come to mark the beginning of the end when he realizes he maybe isn’t as into you as he thought.
The thinking goes, do not knit a sweater for your boyfriend until he is more than a boyfriend, until he has committed.
My thinking goes, even that’s no guarantee that he’ll regard your epic project with the same fraught love that you put into it. Making a commitment is no guarantee that he, or you, will keep it. So my question is this: when is it all right to knit your boyfriend a sweater?
And if your boyfriend has wings: how?
• • • •
I’ve knitted sweaters before. I’m confident of my ability to knit sweaters that fit well, using the expensive yarn. That isn’t my problem.
I’ve snuck a tape measure under the pillow so that once Alex has fallen asleep, I can size him up. He’s half on his side, half on his stomach, hugging the pillow so it pooches up to cradle his head. His skin is between tan and brown, his hair dark and swept back, just long enough to delightfully tangle one’s fingers in. He has an almost constant dusting of a near five-o-clock shadow. He’s muscular, broad shoulders sweeping down to a trim waist, curving backside, strong legs. Sheets draped alluringly over his hips, his wings spread out behind him.
The wings have cream-colored feathers. The curve of them reaches up by his ears, the tips sweep down by his knees, and they smell of linen drying in sunshine.
Tape measure deployed: seven inches between the wings, six inches down from where his neck meets his shoulders. Where they attach to his back: six and three-quarters inches. Actually, the left is six and one-quarter, a whole half-inch smaller, and it makes me wonder if angels are left- or right-winged. I stare at him a moment, trying to work out the physiology of it, which makes no sense. As muscular as his shoulders are, they’re not enough to support much less operate a pair of wings this size. He’s too heavy to fly, one would think.
I try not to touch him—he’s a light sleeper. I hold the tape measure hovering just above his skin. He feels it anyway and shifts, looking over his shoulder.
I quickly hide the tape behind my back.
“What’re doing?” he mumbles, blinking sleepily at me, face still half-pressed to the pillow.
The thing about dating an angel, even a fallen angel, is they know when you’re lying. I usually have no interest in lying to him. I wince a little and say, “It’s a surprise.” It isn’t a lie.
He lifts a brow. Smiles a little. “Okay.”
When he reaches for me, I drop the tape off the side of the bed and snuggle up to him. His arms wrap around me, and the nearer wing settles over me like a blanket.
• • • •
I don’t know where Alex gets his clothes. He might magic them from the ether. I’ve never seen him do this, but I’ve never really seen him do anything magical. He wears clothes, and they fit, somehow. I’ve never bought clothes for him—there are plenty of other gifts to bring him. He likes homemade food, craft beer, microdistilleries, and unusual soaps. His current soap is juniper and he smells faintly of a forest after he showers. I never seem to be looking right at him when he strips. Even when I’m the one peeling off his shirt, I somehow get distracted by the hair on his chest or the way his arms flex before I can really study how the shirt fits over the wings. I’d much rather look at him than his clothes, which is why he takes off the clothes, after all.
Which begs the question of why I want to knit him a sweater in the first place. It isn’t like he’s ever complained of the cold. He’s one of those men who’s a furnace, who I can stick my icy feet against and he doesn’t complain.
It’s not a sweater, it’s a symbol, and the old knitters’ warning rises up again.
It’s just a sweater. I want to knit him a sweater because I can.
If I can figure out how to get it over the wings.
• • • •
Not many people can see the wings.
I can see angels because I almost died once. I couldn’t see angels and then I could. We met at the local farmer’s market when I was looking at asparagus, and he brushed past me. I saw the wings and tried to get out of the way. He turned back to look, his brow furrowed.
“Did you just . . . you can see them?”
“Yeah,” I said a little breathlessly. He was six inches taller than me and his T-shirt was just exactly tight enough. We moved a little closer—we were blocking traffic. “I drowned when I was eighteen. Well, almost drowned. I got better. Obviously.”
His expression relaxed with understanding. “I’m sorry. That you almost drowned, not that you got better.”
“I’m glad I can see you.” I immediately blushed because it was such a silly forward thing to say.
“So, this is going to sound weird, but I work as a lifeguard sometimes and I’d be interested to hear how . . . professionally speaking, I mean. If it’s not too traumatic.”
“Oh, it’s fine. There wasn’t actually a lifeguard around and I honestly don’t remember it very well, I don’t know if that will be helpful at all.” I’d been river rafting. It had been a very slow river, a very lazy trip, and somehow I still managed to fall overboard and get stuck. Next thing I knew I was staring up at sky with EMT’s surrounding me and being told I’d stopped breathing. The next day I saw my first wings. That was how I knew I’d really been dead, just for a moment or two.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asked.
Yes. Yes he could.
• • • •
I’m thinking buttons. Maybe a reverse cardigan, though that seems strange. Put a couple of holes in the back, or a flap that can button down between the wings. That might do it.
I work in a yarn shop, so I can tell myself this is a professional problem as well as a personal goal. It’s a slow afternoon, only a couple of customers: a man pawing through sock yarn in the corner, and his long-suffering boyfriend, who clearly isn’t a knitter, patiently waiting a couple of feet away and staring at his phone; and a determined gray-haired matron in a suit peering at a rack of needles through reading glasses.
I’ve got my base pattern laid out in front of me, the basic size and shape of the sweater I’ll make. I’ve got my yarn picked out, a good, soft wool with a colorway in dark blues and grays, like a stormy twilight sky. I just have to figure out the back. I’m making notes.
Bette, who owns the shop, comes by and looks over my shoulder. “What’re you planning?”
She studies the pattern. Tilts her head, squints. “That . . . looks like it has too many pieces to be a sweater. “
I’m playing around with the idea of panels, or a gap with an i-cord binding for the wings to go through. “It’s an experiment.”
She’s skeptical. So am I, to be honest. Well, if it starts to go wrong I can always frog it and try again. A big part of knitting that beginners don’t always understand is you have to be ready to unravel anything, no matter how much work you’ve already put in.
I choose my needles: 24” circular, size 7, at least to start. I draw out a length of yarn from the first skein.
I cast on.
• • • •
Now and then I see someone else with wings.
We’re sitting in a park sharing lunch. These days, Alex is working as a bartender at a brewpub. I’ve learned that angels really are guardians, and they have their focus, their interests. Alex likes lifeguarding, as he said when I met him, but he really likes looking after makers. People who make things. He likes working for businesses that started out as someone making something, so he ends up at a lot of craft breweries. He’s worked in wood shops and garden centers, and even a van conversion business once. His eyes lit up when I told him I work in a yarn shop. It was the first time a date ever had that reaction to my job.
“There. You know them?” I nod at a tall being with their hair cut very short, wearing a tank top to reveal ropy, powerful arms. Brown wings sweep behind, and I can’t quite tell how the shirt fits over them. They’re walking across the other side of the park. They glance over once, give Alex a little nod, and continue on.
“Yeah,” he answers with an unenthusiastic sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”
I hadn’t actually worried about seeing angels until he said not to.
Angels are veterans of the War in Heaven, and the War in Heaven created this debased world. People forget that angels fought on both sides. Lucifer was an angel.
You can’t really tell which side any individual angel fought on, not just by looking. While you tell yourself of course you’d want to be with a soldier of Heaven, you actually need to think about that, because the soldiers of Heaven are, well, obedient. Perhaps unimaginative. I’ve never learned for certain which army Alex fought for. He says it doesn’t matter, because the world that war was fought in doesn’t exist anymore.
He likes helping people. Whatever he was then, that’s what he is now.
• • • •
We share an apartment within walking distance of downtown, which we picked together, mostly because the kitchen was big enough for him and his wings to turn around in.
When I get home he’s already gone to work, and I’ll have a couple of hours to work on the sweater before he gets back. First, I clean up a little, get the dishes out of the sink and the clothes from the bedroom floor. They’ve piled up and Alex kind of just doesn’t notice messes, so I do it. I study his shirts, and they’re just shirts, solid, no way to tell how he gets them over his head or how the wings fit through them. Some divine miracle.
I’m just knitting a sweater. It won’t be miraculous but it will be fine.
The ribbing for the collar goes quickly. Next, the yoke, increasing the stitches to expand across the chest.
Knitting is binary. There are two basic stitches upon which every pattern is based: the knit and the purl. Needle up or needle down. The one and the zero. It’s a language. You can combine the stitches a dozen different ways after that to make all sorts of shapes and patterns, but it starts with the binary. Experienced knitters can see what the finished pattern will look like just by glancing at the code, the Ks and Ps and ss1s and k2togs. I’m not quite that good, but I can read a pattern.
Once I start, the pattern knits up faster than I expect.
• • • •
And then, suddenly, the thing on my needles doesn’t look like a sweater.
That’s okay, it doesn’t need to look like a sweater yet. It doesn’t have sleeves. It’s just a length of soft wooly fabric. It’ll come together in a later step.
“What’re you making?”
Alex walks in the door. The surprise sweater is here in the open. I quickly hide it in my lap under a throw rug. “It’s a surprise,” I say.
He smiles, amused. “Well, all right then.” He comes over to kiss my forehead and his touch is a shock, electric. I flinch, and he tilts his head quizzically. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. I just need a break.”
I’ve been knitting for six hours straight and haven’t noticed. My hands aren’t even stiff.
The shower starts running. I have a sudden urge to join Alex there and talk him into washing my back. My nerves are tingling. Sitting in one place for too long.
I strip my clothes and throw them with his, even though I’ve just straightened up, and tentatively push back the shower curtain. Wearing a big smile he draws me in under the hot water and puts his arms around me. His damp wings hovering nearby feel like shelter.
• • • •
I knit in the park. Alex isn’t meeting me for lunch today and I thought I would get out and get some sun while I add a few more rows to the surprise sweater, but the sky has gone cloudy with an unexpected storm. People mutter about it and glance up, shading their eyes. Parents gather up children and rush them away.
The fall of knitted fabric fills my lap, growing. Row after row.
The wind starts blowing and I can’t keep the page with the pattern written on it flat, so I pack up. I’m late getting back to the store.
As I walk through the door, three displays fall over. Bette jumps and screams, and the couple of customers look over in a moment of terror and flee.
“Every time the door opens . . .” Bette mutters and starts picking up skeins of yarn and knitting magazines, wrestling the wire racks back upright.
“There’s a storm.” I head for the main desk and get out the surprise sweater. The rows curl back on themselves. Every time I try to straighten it out to see where I am, it curls back again.
“I don’t suppose you could help me with this?” Bette says, a bit testily.
She sighs, and I blush. I hadn’t noticed the mess, shelves of yarn fallen over, bursting away from the front door like a bomb hit.
“Oh. Right.” I rush to help clean up, even though the needles catch in my sleeve as I shove my project aside. As if they’re trying to hold on to me.
“Something’s in the air,” Bette mutters and we finally get the space cleared up. “Mercury retrograde?”
Mercury always seems to be retrograde. Alex says that kind of thing doesn’t matter, and he should know if it matters or not, shouldn’t he? Seeing where he came from.
It’s the panels in back, designed to fold around angel wings, that have made the garment look like it has six or seven extra edges, and I’ve added in a bit more ribbing to make it more stretchy. I’m sure the yarn is glaring back at me.
• • • •
Soon, I suspect something has gone terribly wrong with the would-be sweater. There’s a thing that happens when you knit in the round, but twist the stitches wrong on that first row, so you’re not quite knitting a straight line. The thing you’re knitting will become a Mobius strip.
I think I accidentally did that when I cast on the sweater.
I have asked this yarn, this pattern, to do something otherworldly. And bless it, it’s trying. But it’s going wrong.
I should frog it. Unravel the whole thing and start over.
But I kind of want to see what it looks like when I’m done.
• • • •
Do you know what’s a miracle? Knitting. Knitting is a miracle. Can you imagine? How did it start? Who sat down and figured out how to use a couple of sticks to make loops of yarn to make fabric that stretches? All the things you can do with fabric that stretches. Did it arise independently in multiple places? Or did an angel whisper in the ear of some woman spinning wool, Let me show you a trick. You could look at yarn wrapped around a spindle, maybe a couple of strands that got crossed and looped together by accident, and think, a-ha. Before you know it everyone in your family has socks and nice wooly mittens. A goddamn miracle.
• • • •
I have an insight. How shirts fit over wings, how they seem to emerge seamlessly from jackets and tank tops: the clothing can’t see the wings. The fabric has to pretend not to see the wings, and the problem with the surprise sweater is that it’s covered with eyes.
I cannot knit the sweater because I can see the wings. I have seen a thing I should not and the sweater knows it.
On my walk home, I see three angels, and none of them are Alex. I try not to notice. It’s not like they’re together. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.
• • • •
I’ve ruined everything. And I mean everything.
My phone screams an alarm. A tornado siren blares.
Alex doesn’t come home from work.
I call the bar, and it’s closed. I leave a message, then another one because the first one wasn’t clear, that I am Alex’s girlfriend demanding to know where he is and not some crazy person. I probably sound like a crazy person. I tell myself I’m not worried because he’s an angel and he’s not going to get hit by a car or fall into a ditch. He can’t get hurt, he just can’t.
At least, I don’t think he can. At least, he can’t be hurt by the ordinary things that hurt humans. And there’s no War in Heaven. At least not right now. I don’t think.
In the morning, he still hasn’t come home, and I’ve stayed up waiting for him, all night, working on the sweater that has veered far off the pattern I wrote in ways I’m having trouble understanding. The object on the needles definitely doesn’t look like a sweater. It might look like a storm, with twisting, billowing clouds roiling in on themselves.
I will walk to the bar and look for Alex there, since no one’s called back. I’m worried, and I’m not worried that he’s gotten hurt because he’s an angel, he can’t get hurt. I’m worried that he’s left. Because I got annoyed at cleaning up. Because I’m just a human and he finally got tired of me. Because I decided to knit him a sweater. That started it all. He’s gone. He didn’t even say goodbye. I suppose secretly I’ve always known this day would come, because the other big miracle is that someone like Alex would ever be with someone like me.
I head to the park, which has always felt safe to me. I find a bench and sit, just sit, and the needles are in my hand, and the pattern is in my head. The not-a-sweater surprise is pulsing in my hand.
A circle of quiet surrounds me, while a dozen yards away the wind howls, a wall of chaos.
I hug the needles and the knitted thing to my chest because I don’t think I should leave it alone. It seems to be expanding by itself, the fibers and knots twining around my fingers, constricting. Clinging and comforting me. It’s all right, it’s fine, you have peered into a cosmic truth and it’s just fine. I study the stitches to try to figure out what went wrong and I lose time, hours. Knitting is binary but this has stitches I don’t recognize. Impossible stitches, neither up nor down. I have seen what I shouldn’t.
In the street, people are running, screaming, like some overblown disaster movie and I wonder where the monster is. It’s in my lap. It’s not a sweater. I’m almost knocked over by someone fleeing nothing in particular. Angels arrive, dozens of them, walking, gliding, flying. Wings broad and powerful, barely moving. I’ve never seen Alex fly. The angels are stabs of light against the storm. I look for Alex among them. Even if he’s there I’m not sure I would recognize him.
The angels converge. Here. The not-a-sweater cringes away from them. It hisses a little.
There are eyes and wings and wrath in the storm bearing down on me.
The angels have their own language. No one can speak it but them, and no one can hear it without going mad.
I start to scream, but suddenly there are words in the wind.
Be not afraid.
And there is Alex.
He is cosmic, the sun and moon, and he is armed for battle, wearing a cuirass made of quicksilver and carrying a spear forged from comets. He seems to draw in light and throw it out again. And his wings—they’re spread wide, flecked with iron, a weapon themselves, tensed and ready to launch. They’re moving, a nervous flutter, like the tapping of a foot. They whisper.
I should be blinded, I should look away. If I hadn’t already been crying I would have started.
The host is arrayed around him, ready to fight a war. But Alex stands in front of me, and we regard each other with no small amount of confusion.
I’m in a bit of a panic. My gaze is pleading. “Help?”
He says, “What are you doing?”
“I’m knitting you a sweater. It’s a surprise.”
This seems to make perfect sense to him. He sets his jaw. “Sweetie, I love you dearly, but you need to stop.”
I look at the mess of celestial knots draped around me, whose shapes I can’t even see anymore, though if I studied them I might, might be able to replicate the pattern or go mad trying. I’m not entirely sure what I’ve done, but I’m at the center of the storm that rages, and Alex is only one of the angels standing here, weapon in hand, wondering what the hell it is they’re supposed to be fighting.
It’s only a sweater.
I yank the needles out of the live stitches, leaving a row of dozens of angry little lost loops behind. They’re like empty eyes. When I tug on the yarn, the staring loops vanish.
Then the next row vanishes.
And the next.
• • • •
Right there in the park, he sits cross-legged in front of me and helps, holding the remains of the work taut while I pull the yarn loose and wind it into a ball. All partners of knitters know this ritual, holding a skein in outstretched hands, maintaining tension so the strands don’t become tangled.
The would-be sweater is unmade.
The wind stops, the storm vanishes, and the angels disperse. Many of them look sidelong at me and come to speak to Alex in a language I can’t hear. The armor and swords and spears are gone and they all look like people again. Except for the wings.
I just concentrate on winding the yarn into a ball, so that it’s nothing more than potential again.
“Maybe we should get rid of it? Burn it or bury it or something?” There’s still a charge in the air, the sense of rocks sliding down a hill into an avalanche. The pattern was cursed, certainly, but what about the yarn?
“No, it’s good yarn,” he says. “It’s okay now.”
“The sweater. I thought I could make it work with your wings.”
He smiles. “I think it’s amazing that you tried. Maybe knit me something else?”
And maybe trust that an angel understands something about symbols.
• • • •
“Tell me about God,” I ask.
We are naked in bed after performing several acts that certain reactionary religious sects insist will damn us.
“You don’t want to hear about God,” he says.
He’s right, mostly. “I’m just curious.”
“Unsatisfied curiosity is the essence of the divine. You must feel without knowing.”
But there must be a God somewhere. “You can’t have angels without God, right? So where is He?”
“After the War, that question isn’t as pressing as you think it is.”
“But you all are ready to go to war again. You’re just ready for it.”
He wraps his arms around me, pulls me close, and doesn’t answer.
• • • •
The problem with knitting a sweater for a boyfriend is you go through all the effort of making it, and what happens if he doesn’t wear it? It might be a perfectly good sweater. Him not wearing it might have nothing to do with you or it. He might be allergic to wool. He might never have worn a sweater in his life—which is something you should have noticed, before knitting a sweater for him. You will be quietly, subtly hurt, if he doesn’t wear it. You’ll try not to be but you will, and you’ll realize you should have noticed that he’s allergic to wool or doesn’t wear sweaters. The flaws in the fabric have been revealed. It was never about giving him a sweater, but about the need for a symbol that will bind him to you.
Not knitting a sweater for your boyfriend doesn’t mean you don’t love him. That’s the kicker. The absence of a symbol is not its opposite. It’s not binary. Neither is knitting, really, whatever the pattern says.
I knit Alex a scarf in a simple garter stitch, which is only a knit stitch over and over again. The first pattern anybody learns to knit. Not even a clever border or ribbing. I use a different yarn, chunky and undyed, that came from sheep raised in the Navajo Nation.
It’s a nice scarf, and Alex wears it. It fits neatly around his neck and over his wings. He puts it on during the first driving snow at the end of autumn, and smiles at me, and that’s the miracle.