portion of the artwork for Clifford Garstang's story

Last Lilacs
Clifford Garstang

First Chips went missing, our sweet pug, the black one, the one who licked our faces with his rough little tongue and would wag his whole rear end if we so much as glanced in his direction. And then Sascha, the tan one, who mourned the loss as much as we did, who burrowed under the sofa pillows and glared, two beady eyes peering at us accusingly from his damask cavern. Sascha, who no longer allowed Charles to touch him, would snarl at the sight of him. Sascha, who once loved to romp with Chips and the little demons in the next apartment—those poor boys whose mother died in that horrible accident—and after Chips vanished wouldn’t give them the time of day.

It started on a glorious damp Friday, when the daffodils had just opened, bringing color back to D.C. after a bleak winter filled with government scandals and terror alerts. The sunny darlings were everywhere—in the shabby gardens of tenement towers, thriving on otherwise barren roadway medians, even in a tacky vase in the faculty lounge of the blighted school where I taught. As I walked home from the Metro that day, the sight of those buttery trumpets put a spark in my step. I may have whistled—not something I’m known for—and not even the sight of the dreary façade of the Nanking Mansion, where Charles and I had lived since its ill-conceived gentrification, could dim my spirits. Inside, I flung open windows despite the lingering chill, slipped a cheery Stravinsky disc into the CD player, and lit a lilac candle I’d been saving for just this day of awakening. I believe I closed my eyes and let my senses carry me in time, to childhood gardens, to first loves.

And then Charles dragged in, a mess, hair disheveled, coat slathered with mud, and only Sascha was with him, pacing and jumping and nipping at my feet.

“Where’s Mr. Chips?” I asked, and I might as well have addressed Sascha because Charles couldn’t speak. I turned the Stravinsky down and poured Charles a drink, the citrusy gimlet he favors.

“I took the boys for a walk,” he began, after a healthy swallow of vodka. It was their afternoon routine, a treat for all of them to meet and greet at the doggie park. “I suppose I was in a hurry. Distracted.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

He flapped his hand at me as though to shoo the question away.

“Anyway, we went the short way, down New York, instead of along M, and it was so ugly I practically had my eyes closed.” He closed his eyes as if his disgust needed demonstration.

I could picture the threesome, dodging broken glass and discarded drug paraphernalia, the tiny legs of Chips and Sascha churning like the wheels of wee locomotives to keep up with long-limbed Charles, stopping every so often for him to light a new cigarette or to spoil them with a beefy treat.

“But where’s Chips?” I asked.

Charles opened his eyes and downed the rest of his drink.

“As we passed one of those derelict row houses, we were set upon by thugs.”

It wasn’t funny, of course, but the way he said it nearly brought a smile to my lips that I fought mightily to suppress.

“It happened so fast, I don’t know exactly what hit me.” In a flash he was sprawled on the sidewalk, his camelhair coat soaking in a puddle, his wallet and bejeweled Cartier chronometer gone, and Chips nowhere to be seen, whether snatched along with everything else or giving heroic chase Charles could not be sure. Only Sascha was left behind, yapping at the top of his diminutive lungs.

We searched the neighborhood, even as the daylight ebbed. We posted hastily printed fliers with a grainy snapshot. We enlisted the help of our fellow Nanking Mansion residents: the revolting sculptor next door, the insipid hand-holders from the front unit, and anyone else we could conscript, even those awful little boys.

* * *

Chips had been a gift, a wedding present of sorts from clients of Charles’s, the Van Arsdales, one of those Washington power couples with the glorious Georgetown manse and a fancy horse farm in Middleburg. Charles designed both interiors, from chandeliers to hand towels, powder room to tack room, and the Van Arsdales were so appreciative that they showered him with gifts for years, long after he’d left the business, having grown weary, absolutely nauseous, of the all-time gayest cliché. But when they heard about us, and the elaborate-yet-tasteful ceremony we’d planned to solemnize our commitment to one another and our joint future—not that we could actually marry, of course, not in these Fascist States of America—they showed up in their wedding finery and a picnic basket slung over Mrs. Van Arsdale’s arm, looking for all the world like the Tin Man and Dorothy. And, sure enough, out of the basket’s checkered-cloth lining popped not Toto but a darling, tiny black pug.

Charles was always a film buff, and I suppose that’s where he found the inspiration for our cutie-pie’s name, although as a puppy he did resemble a chunk of very dark chocolate. Whenever Charles left the house in those days—when he didn’t take the dog with him, that is—he crooned, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and his laughter, his big bellowing, flamboyant laughter, echoed in the Gallery (that horrible lobby of our horrible retro building, where the nasty over-large and indecipherable paintings affront us every time we open our door) and floated after him into the street. We were newlyweds, in a new home, such as it was, and our baby was a constant wonder. It was a delicious time.

Unlike Mr. Chips, Sascha was a rescue situation, and being the product of a dysfunctional home might explain his more distant and suspicious personality, as if he had learned early on in life one of the lessons I’m afraid we all have to face eventually: people can’t be trusted. The animal shelter didn’t know the poor thing’s name, not that it mattered, but when we saw the two pugs together for the first time, checking each other out like a pair of queens in a leather bar, his name just leapt from my mouth, the perfect companion for Chips: “Salsa.” Except that Charles, once a student of Russian, heard “Sascha,” and that’s the name that stuck.

* * *

When Charles and I met more than a decade ago through a mutual friend who claimed a talent for matchmaking, I’d recently been dumped by Ned, the love of my life, a pretty, bisexual cellist with the Fairfax Symphony who had decided to focus on the other hemisphere of his appetites and marry the girlfriend I didn’t know he had; and Charles, considerably older and already tired of the decorating game, was in mourning for Larry, a watercolorist with whom he’d lived for ages. By the time Chips went missing, we’d been together on and off for ten years, committed for the last three, after we both, independently, arrived at the conclusion that we could do no better.

If Charles was a bored interior designer, I was a decidedly minor poet, so minor that I eked out a living teaching English in a high school where, it cannot be disputed, few of the students could actually read the language, much less wade through verse. If you’ve come across the saddle-bound literary magazine produced by a certain mid-Atlantic state university with more of a penchant for basketball than poetry, you may have seen my work. But probably not. And, anyway, those were predictable love poems about a certain cruel musician with passionate hands, and they deserve to be ignored.

Although we did have a honeymoon period after the “wedding,” it wasn’t always champagne and truffles for Charles and me. I suppose I’m as flawed as anyone, but Charles was prone to moody peaks and valleys and, being older, wasn’t always responsive when I felt amorous, which left us both frustrated. We’d argue. We’d shout. We’d say things we didn’t mean. Charles, on one occasion, even threw an ashtray, a leaded-glass monstrosity that left a crater in the wall that we later hid with a gilt-framed mirror. I didn’t think he was aiming at me.

We never cheated on each other, though, even during the rockiest times. That was the whole point of the ceremony, after all, to give ourselves over to the strictures of monogamy, whether sanctioned by church and state or not. I for one was tempted, I admit, or, more precisely, aroused, especially by some of the youngsters in my class, those boy-men with their broad shoulders and simian arms, their youthful, exuberant scent and ever-ready libidos. But, no, that’s a path I would not take, could not take. And then there was Ned, my dark, soulful cellist, who came to me in my dreams from time to time. But I knew there was no going back. The clock doesn’t turn that way, then or now. Regret is a fool’s errand. As for Charles, meaning this with all the love and affection in the world, but recognizing that time and loss have taken their toll, who else except me would have him?

Especially in those days. Although never truly attractive—I’d seen old photographs and it’s a product, in my estimation, of the equine nose and the receding chin, features that did not work well together, particularly on a tall man—Charles, when he was in the decorating business, at least wore sharp, designer suits, stylishly loud ties, and shoes that could blind a careless admirer. With no clients to impress once he put the business behind him, his days spent online trying to outwit the stock market, Charles banished the slick wardrobe to the back of the closet. He smoked and drank more, occasionally forgot, or at least neglected, to bathe, and some days didn’t bother to dress at all. But after Chips went missing, his slide accelerated. He let his stock portfolio, once a carefully tended garden, go to seed and weed, failing to even touch the computer for days at a stretch and, more often than I wish to admit, not leaving the bed except when nature commanded.

Nagging only made his sullenness more pronounced.

“Talk to me,” I’d say.

He’d look at me from the bed, eyes sad as an Emily Dickinson poem, and dismiss me with a feeble wave.

It wasn’t what you might think. We were both tested regularly. We both knew plenty who’d gone in the plague—I thought of it more as a tsunami wiping out whole villages of our people—and that was unspeakably tragic, God knew. And of course there was Larry, Charles’s partner whom I never met and about whom Charles spoke seldom. But if that were the curse upon him then, I would have known. No, it was something else. As I say, though, it got worse when those beasts snatched poor Mr. Chips, and Charles, my old darling, simply reeked—of life, of cigarettes (the unfiltered sort he insisted upon), of gin—and Sascha, the little snip, was offended.

While our loss dropped Charles into a tailspin, it unleashed in me a creative urge I hadn’t felt in years. The day Chips disappeared, in fact, as Charles slept off the gin anesthetic, I put pen to paper and actually wrote coherent lines of poetry: The portrait shouts to mem’ry’s whisper, the album grasps what wisdom cannot hold … Derivative stuff, I knew, Auden would have been appalled, but the point is the verse flowed. And there was more. I borrowed Whitman’s lilacs, a personal favorite, and summoned memories long forgotten. I had so much to say, and for the first time there was nothing to silence me, not my parents, not grief over Ned’s perfidy, not Charles’s well-intentioned criticism. Nothing. In a matter of days I had a dozen or so poems, my best work, words I thought the world needed to hear, and although my hand trembled as I affixed the stamps to the envelope, I sent them off to that same obscure magazine in whose pages my lyrics had once appeared. They understood me then; surely they would understand me now.

* * *

Another incident bears mention, one that Charles didn’t even know about. Although he made it out to be something more, I suspected his mugging while walking Chips and Sascha was just that: a mugging, no more, no less. The brutes were after money and maybe they took Chips on a lark, thought he was worth a few dollars on the black doggie market. But not long ago I was walking home from the Metro—as I do each weekday, strolling the few blocks along M Street between the station and our building—and instead of being alert to my surroundings, one of the first rules of urban survival, I was engrossed by the sight of workmen on scaffolding engaged in the much-needed renovation of the Victorian duplex on the corner. I was thus preoccupied when two men stepped out of the shadows into my path.

“May I help you?” I asked, knowing that help was not what these two were after, but possessing a sadly limited arsenal of greetings for threatening strangers. My entire body pulsed with fear.

The men laughed.

It wasn’t as if this was a new experience. Gay men get it all the time simply because they’re different, even in relatively tolerant Washington. Even in their own families. It’s another cliché, only because it’s so true, but in my family I was an outcast. My father, a man whose life consisted of drinking too much bourbon and selling automotive fan belts, who reeked of the burned-flesh smell of industrial rubber and whose hands bore permanent black streaks from handling the stuff, must have known, even before I did, that he and I were not much alike. As a boy I assumed we were. He played golf, but no other sports that I was aware of, and I certainly made no pretense of athleticism. He maintained the yard at home and I puttered in my mother’s garden—that’s where my fondness for flowers was born—thinking that the work was something we shared. In truth, we shared nothing. When, in high school, I began to realize that I was attracted to men, that I stood apart from everyone of my acquaintance, I also came to understand why my father had all those years kept his distance: he was repulsed by what he saw in me. I scarcely needed to say anything to him about my self-discovery, knowing that he already knew, but when I finally did—more because I had questions about my place in the world than anything else, and there was no one else to ask—he said he didn’t want to hear about it, that it wasn’t something he would discuss. And we never did discuss it, that or anything else. My mother, a woman from whom I inherited my love of literature and my disdain for confrontation, followed my father’s lead, as she did in all things. Then there was my older brother, who brought home names to call me, collected them like younger kids might hoard marbles or baseball cards, and regularly trotted them out to hurl in my direction.

But these two men accosting me on the street in my own neighborhood were strangers, and the words they used, the names they called me there in public as I tried to pass by them wounded me in a way my own family could not. These men didn’t know me. They didn’t have my memories of loving Ned, of being crushed by him. They didn’t know how comforted I was to find Charles. They didn’t know anything about me. How could they say these things?

So I was no stranger to what Charles had been through: the loss of Chips, the thuggery on the street. But it didn’t derail me as it did Charles. I was writing again. I saw poetry in everything, images that stirred my soul. I’d rediscovered flowers. I’d placed vases throughout the condo and filled them with whatever was available at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, or even the tawdry kiosk in the grocery store. I’d never spent much time in the alley behind our building—it’s a trash-filled eyesore—but there was an overgrown lilac bush in a neglected corner, and I was already looking forward to appropriating a few of its blooms. I knew it wouldn’t be long.

* * *

The ugly pug’s absence, then, affected us differently, but we both missed Chips like you’d long for a missing child. And that made it all the more disconcerting on the day that Sascha was nowhere to be found.

After some weeks of enduring his decline, I came down one morning with some idea of what to expect since Charles had made it to bed the night before, and a pattern had emerged. I’d given up trying to extract some explanation from him. Sure enough, there he was, asleep on the sofa, an ashtray on the floor, filled, overflowing, smoke still fogging the air. An empty booze bottle lay cradled in his arms. Hackneyed, but no surprise.

What was a surprise, though, was the open front door. And no sign of Sascha.

I shook Charles. “Sascha’s gone,” I said. “I’m going to look for him.” I ran out without knowing if my words had registered, and spun around in the empty, ghastly hallway, gazing at twelve identical closed doors, as in some surreal nightmare. He wasn’t in the Gallery, plainly, and where else could he be?

I headed outside and started east, but then backtracked, turned south, each direction as improbable and futile as the last. It was a big world, with new scents and sights that would entice the most satisfied of animals. And poor Sascha, with Chips gone and moody Charles not to be trusted, maybe he was ready for a change. It hit me as I came back to Nanking Mansion that we’d never see our boy again. On top of that, I’d rushed off without my keys. I knew I’d have to face Charles, that he’d be devastated and unrelentingly morose, but I couldn’t just then, not yet, and I sank to the curb and wept.

* * *

I’d had it rough, but Charles’s life hadn’t been a bed of lilacs, either, to torture another trite expression. Among other things, he hadn’t known his father long enough to be shunned by him. Charles eventually told me, after we’d been together for years, that his father blew his brains out with a shotgun when Charles was six. I’ve seen the brittle, yellowed clippings. His mother had concocted a fiction about a fatal automobile accident, and it wasn’t until Charles was away in college—by which time the pattern of their two-way lies had become customary—that he learned the truth. When, at Christmas, or Easter, or some other dismal family gathering, Mrs. Simpson pulled a locked jewelry box from the closet, opened it, and handed the faded newsprint to her son, it came as no real surprise to him that everything he’d always been told, every aspect of the picture his mother had painted of his father, turned out to be false. And he retaliated by telling her the truth about himself.

Charles’s mother didn’t so much shut him out after that as construct a fantasy world, one in which her husband would be home momentarily—from work, the dry cleaners, a business trip—and her son, the architect, doctor, lawyer, was due for a visit, with his beauty-queen, college-professor wife and adorable children. Charles couldn’t take it anymore, rarely saw her and never spoke of her. It didn’t seem possible that she was the reason for his funk, no matter what news he’d had of her. If not family, then what?

But Sascha. Where could he be? I finally steeled myself to face Charles and rang our buzzer.

“Did you find him?” he asked when he let me in. “Where is he?”

I couldn’t look into Charles’s eyes. I shook my head.

“Maybe he’s in one of the other units?” If our apartment door had been open, then, too, might someone else’s, and Sascha might, unbeknownst to the occupants, have wandered in, hunting for treats or, possibly, Mr. Chips, and so might have been trapped inside when the door closed. “Maybe?”

We knocked on doors.

In Mr. Zhang’s apartment, the two little boys, Simon and Wesley, helped us search. They looked everywhere, even insisting that we come into their toy-strewn bedroom just to prove that Sascha wasn’t hiding, or being hidden, there. On the way back downstairs I inhaled the smoke of sandalwood incense burning on a table-top shrine, decorated with a pyramid of tangerines and a photograph of Mrs. Zhang. I believed in nothing, but said a little prayer for Sascha. Before we left, Charles spent a few minutes checking the kitchen, suspecting, I suspected, that Mr. Zhang or his old father might have an unquenched taste for dog.

Next we knocked on the door of our newest neighbor, Aloysius, a mysterious young lawyer we rarely saw. To our surprise he was home and opened his apartment to our search; we followed him into the unit, a space even larger than our own.

“Sascha,” Charles called melodiously, stopping only momentarily to observe, I think, that there wasn’t a stick of furniture in the place, far beyond modern minimalism. Its unfettered wood floors glimmered, and dust motes danced in sunbeams pouring through un-curtained windows. Our footsteps echoed in the emptiness. Upstairs, a pigeon, having entered, according to our neighbor, through the ragged hole in the brick wall, the provenance of which he didn’t explain, wandered haltingly across the expanse. But no Sascha.

We knocked on every door in turn and managed to search just two more apartments, without success.

Back in our own apartment, Charles fixed a drink and, despite the early hour, I joined him. With Chips, I felt, we’d allowed ourselves too long to hope he would be returned to us, and that made the loss when we finally accepted it that much more difficult to absorb. Now I had a different outlook. Loss can be prepared for and managed; loss can motivate, stimulate.

“We have to face the possibility,” I said, ever pragmatic, “that our little one is gone for good.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Charles said, but his eyelids drooped, the flesh sagged in his cheeks.

When my family rejected me, I knew instinctively where to find comfort. The garden filled me, and there was solace in Auden, wisdom in Whitman. It seemed unlikely that their images could revive Charles, who’d never been enthralled by poetry, but I wasn’t thinking only of him when I went to the bookshelf. These men understood longing and loss. They understood me.

“‘Ever-returning Spring, trinity sure to me you bring, Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, And thought of him I love.’”

Charles covered his face with his hands and sank to the couch as I read the Whitman poem.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Charles fought for control, opened his mouth to speak, but stopped. He took a deep breath. “Larry,” he said.

Charles almost never spoke of Larry. He once told me that he’d loved Larry deeply but that he refused to live in the past. He couldn’t love a dead man. He rocked forward and back on the sofa.

“It’s been ten years,” he said. “I miss him.”

“Of course you do.” I said. I dropped my hands on his shoulders to slow the rocking. His body still swayed. “That’s what’s been bothering you, then.”

Now he stopped. Another deep breath. “No.”

There was a time when we talked. He used to tell me all the indignities he suffered, each perceived slight. He even told me when he nicked himself shaving, as if I couldn’t see the blood on his cheek.

“I’m going to see my mother,” he said. “I phoned. It had been so long. She didn’t know me.”

The apartment was silent. I slipped the Whitman back on the shelf, his words lingering in my head like a scent. Why now? After all this time. I sat next to Charles, wrapped an arm around his trembling shoulders.

“For how long?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Awhile.”

The lilac bush in the alley was a mystery. It sprawled over a high privacy fence and drooped to the ground heavy with the season’s last burst. I didn’t ask why this treasure was there, in that forsaken place. I didn’t ask whether I deserved this gift. With my shears I snipped an armful of blooms, and let the sweet air envelop me as I carried them inside.

While Charles packed, his decision made, I arranged the lilacs in a vase. I thought of my own mother, her flowers. Charles had made a choice, and I suspected he didn’t mean to come back. No matter what it was that troubled him, how could he so casually discard the union we’d worked so hard to build?

I fixed another drink. I sliced a lime that filled the kitchen with its bite. I tasted the cold gin on my tongue, crushing the ice, like daggers against my teeth. He wouldn’t come back. He would take care of his mother and she would linger and he would stay. I finished my drink and made another.

The mail came. I opened an envelope I recognized, addressed to me in my own hand. “Dear Writer, we regret that your manuscript does not suit our present needs.” I read it twice, tried to recall what I’d written, the portrait shouts to mem’ry’s whisper, and crumpled the letter in my hand.

There was a knock on the door, barely audible. I shoved the letter into my pocket, and the knock came again, louder. As downtrodden as I have ever felt in my life, I pulled the door open.

Sascha! There he was, squirming in the arms of our Chinese neighbor, his boys at his sides. Behind them stood a dark, slender man, eyebrows arched, a nervous grin. Ned.

It seemed impossible that Ned should appear, just when the memory of him had been haunting me. The last time I’d seen him, and the time before that and several before that, it had been from afar. His orchestra had grown in fame and he had grown with it. I sat where I hoped he would not see me and watched his flowing hair dance as he played, watched him inhabit the music as he’d once inhabited our life together.

“We search,” said Mr. Zhang. “Up and down street.”

My eyes were on Ned.

“He found a friend,” said the older boy. “Another dog. A big dog.”

Sascha practically leapt into my arms, licking and wriggling, while I couldn’t look away from Ned, certain that if I did he would vanish, and then Charles was there reaching for Sascha, cooing and clucking between heaving sobs. He, too, stared at Ned. Why was Ned here?

“Thank you,” I said to Mr. Zhang, shaking his hand and then the hands of the boys. “Thank you.” I reached for my wallet, but Mr. Zhang shook his head. “Thank you,” I said again.

Then they were gone, and Ned stood alone in the doorway. Over the years, he’d changed little. He still let a black curl dangle over his forehead, still wore crisp, black slacks and a white shirt, as if he could grab his cello and appear in a concert at a moment’s notice.

“You didn’t return my calls,” he said.

I backed away from the door, wondering if I’d heard him correctly. Ned had called? Charles moved deeper into the living room and set Sascha on the floor, then sank into the couch. Sascha jumped to his side and danced on the cushion, his old aloofness vanished. Then he was off again, sniffing, exploring. Looking for Chips. Charles sat with his back to me, gazed toward the wall.

“I left messages,” Ned said. “I spoke with Charles.”

Mem’ry’s whisper, I thought. He called and he’d spoken with Charles. My eyes went to the phone—a wireless contraption we kept on a sideboard near the bottom of the stairs along with a vase, now filled with the lilacs I’d cut—as if I might see there the messages Ned had left, some explanation for what had happened to them. But none was needed.

I looked from Charles to Ned and back. I tried to swallow, but my throat was constricted and dry. The scent of lilacs came to me.

“I shouldn’t have come,” Ned said. And as suddenly as he had appeared he was gone, like a passing cloud. I didn’t run after him. I realized when I heard the door close that I hadn’t said a word.

* * *

I woke in the dark, hours before dawn, alone in our bed, aware that this was how it would be from now on. I heard something, unfamiliar, but familiar, and of course I knew it was Charles, not yet departed. I stroked the sheet, felt his cool absence. I listened. The sky rumbled, a window rattled. It had never been so dark, not ever, and I fumbled for my slippers at bedside. I inched my way to the stairs and down, stopping midway. A whimper floated up, meeting distant thunder. Down the rest of the way, blind. I turned at the bottom of the stairs and collided with the vase I’d put there, the flowers, the lilacs I could smell but not see. I flailed, my fingers grazing blooms as the arrangement fell, the glass shattering noisily, water rushing at my feet.

“Charles?” I took a step, felt glass beneath my slipper. I took another step and inhaled the fragrance of crushed lilac. “Charles?”

“I think he wanted to go.”

My eyes began to adjust. I could make out the dim silhouette of Charles on the sofa, head in his hands. A bottle on the table, a cigarette burning. The door was open.

“Who, Charles?”

“I know he did. He begged. What else could I do?”

Two suitcases stood by the door.

“You don’t have to go right now, do you?” I took another step, more glass, and this time I felt it pierce the slipper and my sole. I couldn’t move.

“I kept his number. It’s there. By the phone.” Charles finally looked at me and in the spreading light I could see his pleading eyes, the memory of a lifetime.

I pictured poor Sascha, still mourning Chips, scratching at the door. Desperate to search, to reclaim what he’d lost. Hungry for belonging, a desperate need to connect. And there was Charles, the solution, the key to the wide world.

“Last Lilacs” is part of a novel in stories set in a D.C. condominium building, and while the manuscript as a whole focuses on the Zhang family—specifically, the search by the Zhang boys for their mother—individual stories spotlight other residents of the building, such as this story’s narrator and his partner, who also appear in a number of the other stories. More specifically, I’d been reading Whitman when I began this story and was influenced by the poem that haunts the narrator.

And then there are the two pugs in the story. I borrowed them—but not their names—from my sister, who has pugs. Because the whole book is about loss in some respects, and because I know that the loss of a beloved pet can be excruciating, I wanted to explore the theme in a different way.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 30 | Fall 2010