The Gym – Los Angeles, 2002

“So what is your fitness goal?” The salesman asks me.

I’m sitting across from him in an uncomfortable chair beneath the unforgiving glare of florescent lights, making good on at least one of my New Year’s resolutions with more than a small amount of trepidation. Everything about the gym intimidates me.

The salesman’s face is comprised entirely of pearly, white teeth and bronzer.

“My fitness goal?” I repeat back to him.

“What are you hoping to achieve by working out?” He asks.

I’m not a person who has a fitness goal, or, let’s face it, goals in general. The truth is, steadily approaching thirty with no career, no long-term relationship, and what can only be described as an unhealthy predilection for chocolate chip cookie and Nutella sandwiches, I came to the realization that I have no other choice than to join a gym. Genetics have cruelly doomed me to an unfortunate body shape that resembles a sack of potatoes kept alight by a couple of  elongated pipe cleaners. To be competitive in the dating scene, one is pressured to be rich, have a fantastic body, or an enormous penis, or ideally all of these things. Being 0 for 3 I figured that having a nice body was at least theoretically attainable.

I realize that my internal dialogue has been going on for an inappropriately long time, and the salesman is uncomfortably awaiting my response, so I say, “To tone up?”

This satisfies him, and he goes on to regale me with the numerous benefits of joining his gym, the classes, the personal training, the state of the art machines, the olympic sized pool, as my eyes glaze over. All I want is to get this bit out of the way so that I can get the actual working out bit out of the way, so that I can get some cheap, Chinese food and curl up in my bed watching zombie movies.

“You don’t have to sell me,” I say.  “I’m already sold. Can I just give you some money, and you let me start working out?”

His relief is palpable.

He gives me a tour of the facilities.

“So your name’s Lance,” he says. “You must be a Lance Armstrong fan.” (This was before that Lance’s well publicized fall from grace.)

I don’t see how one thing follows the other, so I say, “As guys with one testicle go, I like him more than Hitler.”

After this I am relieved from the unpleasantness of having to make further small talk. He points at various machines, explains their purpose, and carries on. I pretend to listen as I scope out my fellow gym members, the ponytail blondes with sports bras on the cardio machines, the ripped t-shirts squat thrusting with necks bulging and prominent veins. I never wanted to be one of these people, the tank topped men with fake tans, glow in the dark teeth, and bodies like chewed up pieces of bubble gum. I always prized brains over brawn, but so far my GRE scores and collection of French novels have impressed no one.

The tour takes me past the machines upstairs, the free weights downstairs, past the pool, the sauna, the hand ball courts, through the locker room where old men lounge unabashedly on benches like beached manatees, with white towels slung over their shoulders, and pendulous scrotal sacks swinging to and fro as they struggle slowly into clothes.

We end the tour once again upstairs where the salesman introduces me to Colt who is going to conduct my free, complimentary training session.

“Is Colt your actual name?”  I ask as we begin.

He nods confirmation, and I make the mistake of following this with, “It’s just I’ve never heard the name Colt outside of gay porn.”

Colt is not amused. He is in fact a Nazi, tall and blond with chiseled, Nordic features.  I feel like a humiliated, anorexic dwarf standing next to him. He weighs me, and has me lift up my shirt so that he can take a pair of what looks like alien salad tongs to measure my fat to muscle ratio. Despite the fact that I’m somehow grossly underweight, he deems my flesh to be entirely body fat. I’m disheartened to realize I’m made entirely of bones and gristle.

“Let’s start out with a warm up.” He says, instructing me to run for ten minutes on a treadmill in front of a flatscreen TV tuned to a women’s volleyball tournament. I smugly think to myself that ten minutes is nothing, and that this will likely be a piece of cake. A metaphorical piece of cake that will precede the well deserved literal piece of cake I intend to messily devour following my workout. I press the big green “Start” button and the treadmill begins to move. Colt pushes an arrow that causes the speed to increase until I’m struggling to keep up, and he’s satisfied that any lingering self esteem I may have had has been obliterated.

“I’ll be back in ten.” Colt says.

Ten minutes is not actually that short a length of time after all. On the treadmill ten minutes seems to span millennia. After two minutes I am panting and sweating profusely. As soon as Colt is out of visible contact with me, I press the down arrow, lowering the speed to a brisk walk. I knew I was out of shape, but until this moment, I had no idea how embarrassingly out of shape I actually am. Eight minutes later Colt returns and asks, “How was your warm up?”

Then it hits me that this is only the warm up, and I’ve got 45 more minutes of yet unimagined torture remaining. We proceed downstairs to the weight room. Down here the patrons are almost exclusively men. Sweat drenched, muscular men with perfect hair working out in pairs. Loud, obnoxious dance music blares from the speakers overhead. If the lighting was dimmed, and if the protein shakes were alcoholic, there would be very little separating the gym from a gay bar. In fact, there is an alarming amount of overlap.

Colt has me lie on a bench near three men who are so perfectly sculpted I name them the Adonis Triumvirate. I’m torn between the desire to lick the sweat off of the bench they’re working out on, and the humiliation of having them see that I’m only barely capable of bench pressing the bar. In fact, everywhere we go in the gym I feel like I’m being quietly judged, and any attraction I feel for the men working out near me is quickly diminished by shame, and an increasing desire to collapse into a puddle on the sweat stained floor.

The gym is full of other people who have no doubt made it their own New Year’s resolution to get in shape, and from time to time we pass one another and exchange tortured glances of solidarity from our respective training sessions.  Colt has me do something he calls “super-sets” of bicep curls followed up by tricep extensions.

“We’re going to get you huge guns!” He says, in order, it seems, to motivate me.  I’ve never expressed an interest in gun ownership, huge or otherwise, but I can tell he is trying to be encouraging, so I don’t point this out to him. He is an unrelenting task master, and before I know it he has me goose-stepping across the gym with a 30 pound weight slung across my shoulders.

“I think I need to rest a second.”  I tell him between gasps for breath when he has me doing lunges.

“You’re tough, you can keep going!”  He says.

I immediately throw up on the floor at his feet.

For a moment we regard one another. I waiver between horror at what my traitorous body has done, and a sick sense of satisfaction. To his credit, Colt lifts the weight from my shoulders and admits, “Looks like I worked you too hard, buddy. You okay now?”

I nod and turn to flee as the disgusted onlookers go back to their routines. On the stairway back up to the main floor, I pass a janitor with a mop and bucket going down.

“How was your first session?” The salesman asks as I emerge.

“A great start.” I lie, still panting and waiting for my heart to decelerate to it’s normal, sluggish rhythm.

“Good to hear.” He says. “I heard some guy just barfed down there,” He says.

“Yeah. How pathetic!” I hear myself say.

He smiles his toothy grin with a nod of agreement, and says, “See you next time.”

“Sure thing!” I lie again, seeing the open door in front of me, and already envisioning my escape, never to return. As I’m walking out, a pale, young man with glasses, shouldering a gym bag and holding a book is entering. His eyes meet mine, and a trace of smile passes across his pink lips. I smile back, and I’m outside in the fresh air, and with dismay, I realize that it wasn’t a lie after all. There will be a next time. My desire for beauty, for a connection, for even the barest hint of a connection outweighs my desire to compulsively eat ice cream on the couch alone. In the end I want to eat ice cream on the couch with someone else. So I will force myself to go to the gym again, although possibly in disguise.

Just Like Heaven – Seattle, 2007

“Look, we’re wearing the same underwear,” he says. His mouth is swollen and red like the splitting skin of a squashed plum.  He finishes pulling down my pants.  There is no denying the unembarrassed redness of our briefs.

“So we are.”  I agree.

His pale skin is a stark contrast against his flannel sheets.  I slide on a condom.  His hand is on my chest.  Red.  I close my eyes.  Red.  When we kiss, we are reduced to a pair of red, open mouths.

Earlier, I’d been sitting in a coffeehouse, pretending to read, silently willing him to ask me what I was reading, to ask my name, to say something, anything.  Outside the sun crept blood red across a purple sky like a fuzzy spider.  A ray of light set all the trees lining the boulevard on fire.  My reflection was superimposed over the empty, gray street below as I stared dully out the window, surprised by the intensity of my own longing.

Later I sit naked on the edge of his bed.

“Can I snoop through your bag?”  He asks.

“Sure.” I say.

I start to put my clothes on.

“Which is which?”  I ask, holding up identical pairs of red underwear.

“At this point does it really matter?”  He asks.

At this point, I have to concede, it probably doesn’t, and I shrug into one pair and hand him the other.  I put on my pants and sweater and look under his bed for my socks.

“Can I borrow this?”  He asks of the book I’d been pretending to read when we met.  An impressively long, French novel, that after five years I’d never finished reading.

“Sure.”  I respond.  I put my hand on his naked shoulder and kiss the top of his head, gently.  I cannot find my socks.

“Good.”  He grins.  “Now you’ll have to see me again.”

Outside it has gotten cold, and I walk with my hands tucked under my arms back to Hannah’s apartment.  I walk up Pine Street, toward Broadway, where the homeless people huddle in doorways, where empty syringes litter the sidewalk of an abandoned lot, where young men in leather jackets walk from one bar to the next, where the sky is red and black like an infected wound, and no one expects any kindness.  A homeless man asks if I have any change, but I shake my head “no” and keep on walking.  When I rub my nose I notice that my fingers smell like him, and I smile into the cold night.  My breath hovers in front of my face like a lonesome ghost.

When she feels sad, Hannah puts on high-heeled shoes and plays the piano.  I hear the music echo down the hallway before I get to her door.  Once there I pause and wonder if I should go back to the coffeehouse.  I slip in, anyway.  She sees me and smiles, and once she’s finished with her song asks, “How was the coffeehouse?”

“Good.” I respond, taking off my shoes.  I leave my wallet, watch, and keys in a neat pile.  I try to be as unobtrusive as I can.

“Like the ones back home?”  She asks, sitting on her piano bench, draping an old, fringed blanket over the keyboard.

“No.”  I say.  “But promising.”

“That’s good,” she says.

I ask about her day at work.  She is the bookkeeper of a retirement community.  She relates a story about Herman, an alcoholic, paraplegic war veteran who came down stairs in his wheelchair with no pants on, covered in feces when they were showing some new prospective tenants the facilities.  She saw him first and wheeled him back up to his apartment before anyone else had a chance to see him and had an aid give him a bath and dress him.

“I guess we’ve got something to look forward to!”  I say, but Hannah just snorts and shakes her head.
“No,” she says.  “We could never afford a place like Victorian Gardens.  We’ll end up in some state run place, smelling like pee and talking to the walls.”

“I’m glad we had this talk.”  I say.

She grins at me with her crooked smile and says, “Let me cut your hair.”  I acquiesce and she leads me to her bathroom.  I sit on the edge of her bathtub with no shirt on.  She stands behind me with a pair of scissors and a comb.  “You were out late,” she says.  I feel her cold fingers on my scalp, on the back of my neck.  “Sit still.” She says.

I watch the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap.

“I met a boy.”  I say.

“That’s good.  That’s just what you need.”  She says, “lift your head.”  Her hand is under my chin.  After a while she says, there.  “How does it look?” I stand holding her compact and look at the back of my head in her bathroom mirror.

“Great.”

Then she says, “Want to go grab some hot chocolate?”

Walking to the French café across the street from her apartment we see that they have lit the Christmas tree on top of the Space Needle.  In the café we eat croissants filled with nutella and carols play and we joke about how Christmas music is inescapable.  We watch people walk by from the shops downtown with their arms full of shopping bags, packages tied up in neat, red bows.

Then we see him, her imaginary boyfriend.  He’s tall and thin, with sideburns like lightning bolts wearing all black.  She slips out of her seat and runs out after him.  They went out twice, and then he stopped returning her calls.  Nevertheless, she is convinced that he is her soul-mate and has spent hours sitting on her couch with me, analyzing the possible reasons why he hasn’t returned her calls, and relating why they are perfect for one another.

I see them standing in the street below beneath a streetlamp, her red lips and red shoes, the coal black shock of her coiled hair, her pale face.  I see them shout at one another as shoppers pass by hurriedly, as a homeless man sits waiting for a bus.  I look at my spoon sitting in a pool of pale brown chocolate in my white saucer.  I look up again and the imaginary boyfriend is gone, and Hannah is standing in the street alone.

In her apartment I curl up with a blanket on her couch.  After hours of her crying, after she stands on her balcony setting fire to a dried rose he had given her, after she leaves two sobbing, incoherent messages on his cell phone, after rubbing her back, after consolations and good nights and see you in the mornings, sleep becomes impossible.  Sometimes at night I turn into a giant, red monster, and I stomp around, smashing things and crushing entire buildings beneath my red, monster feet.   I stomp through memories and smash them.  Smash the face of the young man from the coffeehouse.  Smash Hannah’s bathtub.  Smash the  weathered awnings of the French café.  Once the night has been ripped to pieces so that only blackness remains, then finally, fitful sleep.

The entire city is underwater, blue and bloated as a mermaid’s lips.

“Get used to it.”  My coworker warned me.  “You won’t see the sun again for months.  Winter makes everyone crazy.”

Puget Sound is the same slate gray as the sky, as the sidewalks and the buildings, and there is no horizon, just muted shades of the same headachy color.  I walk to work shivering, my jacket damp from the wet, misty air.  The warm, rumbling thunderstorms of Texas seem like an imagined landscape from another world.

I’d left Hannah’s the week before and moved into an apartment of my own.  I’d traded a small space cramped with wires, electronics and musical equipment for the emptiness of stark white walls and unpacked boxes.  I’m relieved to no longer be sleeping on someone else’s couch, to have a place of my own again.

 

“I can hear you smiling.”  He says, as we lie curled up on his bed, afterward.  I can tell that I like him, because of my willingness to spend the entire night squished into his single bed.

“Did I happen to leave a necklace here last time?”  I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s blue.”

“I’ll look for it.”  He says.

“Thanks.”

“Who’s Jeremy?” He asks in the quite dark.

A question can fold space, can Medusa your whole body.  Your skin, your sinew and your organs can all solidify.  Dreams can be awakened from and realities can implode.  I feel myself sinking into his bed, stiff as stone.  “Why do you ask?”  Words forced through petrified lips, and even they seem heavy and solid.

“His name is written on the inside cover of that book you loaned me.”  He says.

“Just someone I used to know,” I say. He turns over, satisfied.  I feel the flesh of his arm against the stone of my chest.

Morning.  He and I go to a Russian bakery and get piroshkies for breakfast.  We walk down to Pioneer Square and take the underground tour of the city.  We walk through narrow walkways, the concrete of the city sidewalks above us, sunlight filtering in through purple skylights.  He holds my hand.  Mice scurry in the stones and rubble near our feet.  Ghosts shuffle down the abandoned avenues propelled by the memory of warmth.

We stand on the corner and he asks if I want to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

“I’m helping Hannah put up fliers for her show next week.”  I say.

“When is her show, again?”  He asks.

I tell him that the show is on Saturday.  I tell him he should come.

“Is it 21 and up?”  He asks. He stands in front of me, his hands in the pockets of my jacket to keep them warm.

“I guess so.” I say. “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Well, if it is I can’t go.”  He says.

I don’t immediately understand. “Wait?” I ask.  “How old are you?”

“20.”  He answers.  “How old are you, 23?”

“Oh god.” I say.

“24?”  He ventures.

I look at him, horrified. “Oh god.”  I say again.

Hannah and I are walking up Pike with a stack of fliers, advertising her show.

“You’re dating a 20 year old?”  She asks, laughing, and I immediately regret having told her.

“We’re not dating.  It’s just sex.” I say. “Only now it isn’t anything.  I’m cutting it off.”

She asks me to hand her the tape.  The newspaper beside us has a picture of Mount St Helens puffing a curl of thick, gray smoke into the sky.  Hannah tells me that she thinks Twenty is a good distraction, exactly what I need.  She and her Imaginary Boyfriend have reconciled and he’s coming to her show.  Besides, none of it will matter if the volcano explodes.

I tell her that the volcano is too far away.  Probably.  We imagine the city turned to ash.  The people will all be frozen, mundane figurines trapped in their everyday tasks like the citizens of Pompeii, to be rediscovered by some future archeologists.

“They’d think I was an accountant and you worked in a cubicle.”  Hannah says.  “No one would ever be able to tell who we really are.”  This is her biggest fear, invisibility. I realize that every action of Hannah’s stems from her desire to be seen, from her need for an audience.

“Who are we?”  I ask, and the question hovers in the air between us, unanswered.

Back at my apartment building I run into my neighbor, a drag queen with beautiful, caramel colored skin and a fondness for old soul music.  She sasses by in a powder blue dress and blue, high heeled shoes, a feathered boa.  I struggle with my key.

“Girl, I know you’re going to come to my show on Saturday!”  She says.

“I’ll try.”  I say, and I open the door to my apartment and go inside.  The walls are all still bare and white and the boxes all unpacked.  On my phone there is a text from Twenty.  He found my necklace behind his bed.  I should go meet him for Vietnamese and he’ll return it to me.

I meet Twenty for Vietnamese.

“Is this yours?”  He asks, holding the blue, beaded necklace in his hands.

“Yes.”  I say, eyes glistening.   The familiar feel of the necklace in my hands again.  I run my fingertips over the bumpy ceramic tile of the tabletop.

“It must mean a lot to you.”  Twenty says.

I agree that it does.

We order Pho, and sit across from one another, the steaming bowls of broth in front of us.

“You don’t look that old.”  He says, squeezing a slice of lime over his soup.

“Thanks.”  I say, stirring bean sprouts and basil into my broth, waiting for it to cool.

“Age is just a number.”  He says.  Over dinner I am surprised that I forget that he is twenty.  We talk about movies that we both love, and how he wants to study linguistics, that one day he wants to have children of his own.  Seeing a couple walk by outside with a baby between them, we smile, and his hand crawls across the table and finds mine.  “I really like you,” he says.

Outside we’re walking down Broadway, debating whether or not to stop at the chocolate shop for tiramisu.  I’m fingering my necklace, walking away from a warm, remembered past into an uncertain future.  The universe expands and contracts, and in that moment it seems possible that there is space enough for both the past and the present all at once.

 

“Will you buy me a Guinness?”  He asks, as we sit in a dark corner of the Karma Café waiting for Hannah’s show to start, our knees touching.

“So now I’m supposed to supply alcohol to a minor?”  I ask with feigned indignation.  I squint at him and then go to the bar and order a Guinness and a gin and tonic and carry them back to the table where Twenty waits for me.

“You’re the handsomest man here,” he says when I sit down beside him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”  I tell him, and hand him his beer.  The taste of gin on my lips as Hannah comes onto the stage in a black, low-cut dress.  Her hair is done up in ringlets.  She sits at the piano in high heels and begins to play.

“She’s good.”  Twenty whispers to me.  His knee is pressed against my own. Our shoulders are rubbing against one another.  I taste the sweet alcohol on his breath,  the smell of his cologne.

Hannah plays piano with a desperate intensity.  She sings, her thin voice rises high above the candlelight above the assembled audience and echoes in the rafters.  I look at the pale, candlelit faces of the audience as they look at Hannah.  There is the sound of glasses and bottles clanking, of people talking at the back of the bar, of pool balls smashing against one another from the other room.  I look outside and see two men passing a joint back and forth in the blustery, anemic night.

When the show is over, the audience stands in lingering clumps, looking in purses for cigarettes or checking the time on their cell phones.  A man begins disconnecting the microphone and amps and is rolling up cords.  Twenty and I walk up to Hannah and Twenty says, “You were great!”

I nod my assent, and say, “Really, it was a great show.”

Hannah scans the audience, now disappearing, or milling about in small circles.  “He didn’t come.”  She says.  “He said he would.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”  I squeeze her hand.  “Do you want to go grab dinner somewhere?”

She shakes here head, “No. You two go,” she says.  “I’m going to talk to the owner about another gig.”

Walking with Twenty down the street, he says, “You and Hannah must be very close.”

“We are.”  I agree.   But since moving to Seattle, I feel almost like we are strangers who know too much about each other, that all we have in common now is history, that if we hadn’t spent our twenties together, we probably wouldn’t be friends at all.  The only language we have in common is disappearing, being replaced with new words and new memories.

“You’re getting a bald spot.”  He says, his finger tracing a smooth place starting to form at my crown.  “It’s cute.”  He kisses the top of my head.  I’m sitting cross legged in his apartment, looking through the music on his phone while he picks up some homework to work on at the coffeehouse.

“You have terrible taste.”  I tell him.  I’m suddenly so afraid that he’ll stop liking me that I have trouble catching my breath.  The heart is such a stupid organ, I think.  It just keeps on beating, even though, at this point, it must be made entirely of scar tissue.  I imagine myself in a giant bubble, like the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.  I imagine floating down to the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in inky blackness.

“Lets go.”  He says, wrapping his fingers around my hand like a giant squid and pulling me up again.

At the coffeehouse an Asian girl sits in a corner, setting the timer on her digital camera to take a picture of herself.  We watch her smile, watch the camera flash.  She looks at the picture, and, unsatisfied, sets the timer again.

A young man with unwashed hair walks by wearing a red, Che Guevara T-shirt.  “Do you want me to do that for you?” He offers.

She nods, says “Thanks.”

“Smile,” he says, and she smiles.  The camera flashes.  The two of them look at the picture together.  They smile at one another and the waitress smiles, and I smile.  A deaf couple signs to one another, and they are smiling.  Everyone in the coffeehouse is smiling.

Twenty is sitting at the table across from me, working on trigonometry.

“Who is this?”  He asks when “Just Like Heaven” begins to play on the speakers overhead.

“The Cure!” I exclaim, shocked.

“Never heard of them.”  He says, and goes back to studying.

My narrow bed requires spooning.  My arm is wrapped around his chest.  The aching awareness that all that is separating us is a remarkably thin pair of underwear.   Outside the steady traffic on the interstate has become an impostor ocean.  Concrete, sprawling and gray.  The occasional blaring of a horn, a police siren, the revving engine of a motorcycle.  City sounds.  A discordant lullaby that does nothing to soothe my insomnia.

The drag queen next door arrives home from the club.  She plays “Sunday Kind of Love,” and sings along in a rich, baritone voice.  When the song stops, she plays it once again.  Someone in the apartment below her bangs on their ceiling with a broomstick and she turns the music off.

“Tomorrow we’re listening to nothing but the Cure.”  I tell Twenty.

He rolls over and kisses me, and he kisses me again.

My mind races. “I can’t believe I bought alcohol for a minor!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who I then had sex with!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who has never even heard of the Cure, and then had sex with him.  Twice.  What am I doing?  I’m a 31 year old man and he is 20.  20.  He was not alive when The Challenger exploded.  He doesn’t recall a time when there was no internet.  He has never mailed someone a letter.”  And then, “He has never lost someone he loved.”

Sunday morning.  He convinces me to walk with him in the rain to Pike Market to The Seattle Cheese Festival.  I let him drag me through the crowd from booth to booth.  He hands me cubes of cheese on toothpicks from different countries.  After about the 10th Gouda, I stop eating them and put them in my pocket until I can discretely throw them away.

Walking home, it is still raining.  I round a corner and stop in my tracks.  Standing across from me is a wolf.  Or anyway, I tell myself, it’s just a dog that looks like a wolf, a white, hulking beast straight from Siberia.  Twenty has already left me to go study.  We kissed goodbye in front of all the cold, wet tourists at the market, so I am alone.  The street near my apartment is deserted, eerily barren of Sunday traffic.  The wolf and I regard one another.  His black eyes meet my blue ones.  I am standing close enough to see the moisture on his coal black snout.

An ambulance passes in the distance, and as the siren wails, the wolf closes his eyes and howls in unison.  When the ambulance has passed, I turn, warily, and the wolf turns, and the two of us pad away in opposite directions.

At her apartment Hannah and I order Chinese take-out.  We eat with wooden chopsticks in front of the white light of her television.

“A wolf?”  She asks.

“Not a wolf,” I say uncertainly.  “A dog that looked like a wolf.”

“No fortune cookies.”  She says, disappointed.

“Maybe that’s for the best.”  I say.  She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder.

“I really wanted him to want me.”  She says.

“I know.”

She cries.  I can feel the wet tears seeping through my shirt.  I lay my head against her head.  I smooth her hair.  For a moment, we are in our twenties.  Sitting in the bedroom of my old apartment,  listening to The Cure on my stereo.  I feel suddenly larger than myself.  Like I’m too big for my own body.

“I love you.”  I whisper into her hair.

Night.  Twenty is in my bed, asleep.  I stare at his pale, white back.  The light brown freckles that spill across his shoulders.  The curve of his thigh, white leg against white sheets.  I want to memorize him.  The knobs of his spine.  The uneven line of his dark hair across his neck.  Nothing on earth is as smooth and soft as the small of his back.  I kiss him between his shoulder blades.  He wakes up, slides out of bed to go to the bathroom.    He stops in front of the window.  The blind is rolled up so that we can see the outline of the city stretching out below us.  I see him bathed in the orange light of the security lamp outside.

“It’s snowing.”  He says.

I crawl out of bed and stand behind him.  Outside, the trees and cars and buildings are all blanketed in white.  Glistening.  His skin.  White.  The walls of my apartment.  White.  The sidewalks and the streets.  White.  I want to memorize this moment.  To record it.  To be able to replay it on some future night, when he is, or isn’t there.  When it is, or isn’t snowing.  Think, how delicate time is.

He turns to me and smiles.

I put my arm around his naked shoulders and together we watch it snow.

The Erotic Lives of Vegetables -Austin, 2001

littlecity-12:37 a.m.

The upstairs neighbors are having sex again.

I cannot sleep.  I navigate the familiar dark of my apartment from the bedroom to the bathroom, bare feet, white as lonely irises against the pale, blue tile of the bathroom floor.  Standing in front of the toilet with one hand on the lid and the other on my penis, taking careful aim, I hear the unmistakable sound of hot, sweaty monkey sex.

I stand perfectly still, suddenly very awake.  I hear the rhythmic squeak of bedsprings, the dull thud of a headboard slamming against a wall, a woman’s breathy squeals of approaching ecstasy, the deeper bass of a man’s low moans.  I find myself holding my breath, straining my ears.

The hum of the refrigerator.

The whir of the air conditioner.

The ticking of the hallway clock.

Keep going, I will them to continue.  But after a moment the sounds of sex subside.  I remain still another moment just in case the sounds resume, but when nothing more happens, I urinate, flush, and walk back toward my bedroom in the dark.

5:23 a.m. 

I wake up nearly an hour and 40 minutes before the alarm is set to go off.  If I fall back to sleep immediately, I can still get an hour and thirty-seven more minutes of sleep. My brain has made this calculation before I realize it. I try to grab on to the tail end of a vagrant dream, just behind my eyes and disappearing, try to remember it, but then remember that if I am to fall asleep immediately I must stop thinking.

5:24 a.m. 

I cannot stop thinking about not thinking.

6:38 a.m.  

Now there is too little time to go back to sleep.  I wonder if I should get up early, shave, make an effort to look nice for a change.  Maybe if I looked more professional I’d get some recognition, a promotion, a “shining star”, something.

6:57 a.m.  

I turn off the alarm three minutes early, thoughts of work looming large in my mind.  I squeeze my eyes shut tight.

7:00 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:05 a.m.  

I tell myself, “Just five more minutes.”

7:11 a.m.  

I force myself out of bed and into the shower. I stand beneath the steaming water with eyes still closed.  As long as they are closed I can pretend that work does not exist. I find myself thinking about the sounds of lovemaking I’d heard earlier. Suddenly I’m aroused, turgid in the shower. Despite the fact that I am late, I find myself masturbating onto the blue shower curtain.

7:28 a.m. 

I run out the door, late.  There was no time to shave.

7:29 a.m.  

I run out the door for the second time, having forgotten my glasses the first time.

7:45 a.m.  

Traffic.  My car crawls bug-like down a monochrome stretch of highway, inching beneath the thin, anemic, gray of morning car exhaust and fog.  I find myself looking into the windows of the cars beside me, wondering about the lives of the occupants inside.  I invent lives.

The woman beside me has just left her husband and three children to meet a lover in San Antonio.  A dark, Hispanic lover.  A dark, Hispanic, lesbian lover.  They’re going to fly down to Mexico, to Cabo San Lucas to walk hand in hand along sunlit beaches and drink exotic blue drinks from coconuts, to take pictures standing in front of Incan relics, to make love in the rain in an abandoned cabana by the beach.

8:02 a.m.  

Two minutes late for work, I leap into my ergonomic chair and start my computer.   I open a diet coke and drink my breakfast, squinting beneath the sickly florescent, carpeted walls of my cubicle.  I read somewhere that two thirds of America’s work force is in customer service.  The lucky ones who are working.  The knowledge does not reassure me.

On the windowless wall behind my cubicle there is a cardboard palm tree and blue construction paper waves, a cutout paper sunset, and words that say, “No one is an Island.”  Above that there is a sign that reads, “There’s no reason for it, it’s just Policy!”  I’ve never been able to determine whether this was meant as a joke.

I draw eight squares on my company provided note-pad. As each hour passes, I will dutifully cross out a square until the day is finally over.

I put on my headset.

8:04 a.m.  

The phone rings.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling with my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper, this is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lynn?”

“No.  Lance, like Lancelot.” I say.

“I have a problem.   I can’t get this damned toilet paper you people make off the roll.  It just tears to shreds!”

“Okay,” I say.  “Are you trying to tear at the perforations?”

“The what?”

“The little dotted lines that separate the squares of paper,” I explain.

“No.  Is that what I should be doing?”

“Yes,” I say, sighing deeply.  “That is what you should be doing.”

“Well.  Somebody ought to put constructions on the back of these rolls so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

“I’ll be sure to forward that along to my supervisor, sir.”  I say.  “Is there anything else I can do or answer for you?”

“No.”

“In that case, thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet…”

The familiar silence of dead air.

10:15 a.m.  

Time for my first fifteen minute break.

I receive a text from Hannah.  “Sorry about last night.  Didn’t feel like going out.  Drinks tonight?”

I reply, “Sounds lovely!”

10:32 a.m.  

I log back onto the phone two minutes late.

The phone immediately rings. I put another hash mark on my notepad, one for every call. Two and a half hours in and there are already 20 hash marks.

“Damn,” I say, fumbling for my headset.  “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s Toilet Paper.  This is Lance.  How may I help you?”

“Lane?”

“No, Lance, like the magician, Lance Burton.”

11:27 a.m.

I wonder how many more years I’ll be sitting in this cubicle, or some facsimile, being strangled by a tie. I wonder why there’s even a dress code since I only interact with people over the phone anyway. My co-worker Marc is wearing a blue, velour shirt with yellow rhinestones sewn onto it.  Everyone has a different conception of business casual.

11:28 a.m.

I have the sudden, disconcerting realization that if I retire at the age of 65 it means I’ll have to spend 36 more years working. My existential crisis threat-level teeters between orange and red.

12:07 p.m.

Cinnamon Brown does not believe in dinosaurs.

She is my co-worker, and I mentioned reading an article that suggests birds evolved due to a drastic change in dinosaur development, and she says, flat out, “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.”

I pause for a moment, unsure how to process this information before I finally say, “But what about fossils?”

Cinnamon thinks fossils are a hoax implemented by scientists so that people stop believing in God.

I have no response to this.

1:00 p.m.  

Because I’m broke, I have lunch in the office instead of going out. The employee break-room is subdued.  Someone has stolen my low fat frozen pasta so I steal someone else’s macaroni and cheese.   It’s a vicious cycle.  There are two microwaves at my disposal, however, both have “out of order” signs taped to them, so I put the macaroni and cheese back in the fridge and get a candy bar and a bag of chips from the vending machine.

A group of my fellow employees sit in front of a muted television watching a closed captioned, Spanish soap opera.  All of them are on their cell phones, sexting, looking through the online want ads, posting pictures of cats on social media sites.  A girl in a band is folding up flyers for their next gig.  “Bitter Semen and the Fallopian Tubes!  Live at Flaming Moe’s, Friday10:30!”

“You should come!” She says.

“I’ll try to.” I say, having learned that when it comes to co-worker relationships it’s always best to be non-commital.

I ask two of my co-workers who are openly perusing the want ads, “How’s it going?  Anything interesting?”

“We’re being downsized.”  Janice, the 300 pound secretary wheezes.  “Rumor has it they’re outsourcing all our jobs to India.”

“They’ve been saying that for years.” I say, but I secretly hope the rumor is true.

I imagine some unfortunate Indian man in a shirt and tie in some Indian call center saying, “Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes” with his Indian accent, and I half smile, empathizing.

“The only thing worse than having a job is not having one.” Janice says.

1:48 p.m.  

I go to the bathroom.   Someone has taped a sign above the urinal that reads, “Employee Satisfaction Survey, Question 27:  While at work I often long for death.  a. completely agree, b. usually agree, c. agree, d. somewhat agree, e. liar.”  The rubber, splash-guard in the urinal is black with white writing that says, “Don’t do drugs.”

1:58 p.m.  

The temperature is always 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the perfect temperature to encourage productivity without putting everyone to sleep.  No Musak plays on the speakers.  Instead white noise muffles the sounds of coughs, squeaking chairs, computers and air conditioners, making one gray sound the same color as the cubicles, the carpet, and the sky through the cracks of blinds over tinted windows.

I sit at my desk, breaking then re-sharpening the lead of my pencil until it’s a tiny nub. I darken in another square on my notepad, denoting another hour passed.

2:17 p.m.

I ask my co-worker in the opposite cubicle how her acting classes are coming along, and get no response.  I say, “Melissa?”

I hear a deep voice answer, “Who’s Melissa?”

“The person who normally sits in your cube.” I say.

“I’ve been here two months.”

2:30 p.m.

On my second fifteen minute break I receive another text from Hannah.  “Not feeling 2 great.  Some other time?”

I reply, “Sure.”

Over the wall of my cubicle, I can hear one of my co-workers quietly sobbing.

2:46 p.m.  

I log back in to my computer.

“Thank you for calling Stars and Wipes, America’s toilet paper, this is Lance, how may I help you?”

“Claire?”

“Yeah.” I say.  “This is Claire.  How may I help you?”

4:00 p.m.  

“Lance, do you have a moment to go over your Quarterly Performance Summary?”  My manager is the physical manifestation of my greatest fears in life, bald, arrogant (despite the lack of any accomplishment to warrant it), pudgy, and stuck in a middle management rut in a call center for a third rate toilet paper manufacturer.

I say, “Sure,” dismayed by what will inevitably be a painful experience, but glad to get off the phone for a while.

In the dimly lit “Breakout” room we sit across from one another in plush, purple chairs.

“Well Lance,” he begins, “as always you sound very courteous and professional on the phone.  Your quality is excellent, but I am concerned by the number of absences on your chart the past three months.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, fidgeting.  “I’ve been a bit under the weather these past couple months, but I’m feeling much better now.”

“And your productivity recently is slightly below the group average,” he continues.  “If you look at these charts you can clearly see your log on and log off times…”

My manager’s voice becomes a dull, monotonous bit of static. I imagine how different my life could be if only I had some other job.  On a TV show I watched once, there was a Candy Expert whose job was to taste and judge candy and lend his or her candy expertise.  How does one get that kind of job?

I was valedictorian of my graduating high school class.  I have a college degree.  How is it possible that I’m barely making above minimum wage working in a call center for a toilet paper company?  What decisions have I made in my life that have led me to this place?

Every instinct tells me to quit, but I’ve learned to ignore my instincts.

“Where do you expect to be in five years?”  My manager asks.

“I’m sorry?”  I say, caught off guard.

“You’ve been here for over three years now.  You’re a good worker, for the most part, but you don’t show any initiative.  What is your plan?”

“Well,” I say, “This is really just my day job.  I’m really a writer.”

“Yeah.”  My manager laughs, sarcastically.  “So am I.”

4:57 p.m.  

The phone rings.  I hang up without answering and log off early with a sigh. I rip off the top page of my notepad covered in hash marks and darkened squares and throw it in the blue, recycle bin, leaving a fresh white page for tomorrow. I think of the meeting with my manager and frown.  I imagine a newspaper headline that reads, “Manager Dies in Karma Related Accident, Local Office Rejoices.”  I smile.

5:03 p.m.  

Traffic on the interstate on the way home is bumper to bumper.  I find myself holding my breath from the car exhaust. I stare out of the window at the car beside me.  A young man with spiky hair and rock-star bumper stickers and sunglasses despite the gloom is rocking out to some unheard music.  I imagine that he is a musician, a drummer in a punk band.  To relax, he listens to Jazz.  He goes home to his loft in the city with hardwood floors. He cooks intricate gourmet meals and eats them on his starlit balcony with a glass of wine.  I press my forehead against the dusty film of the car window, willing the young man to look at me.  But he doesn’t.

I drive down the same stretch of road every day, I think.  Every day down the same stretch of road, at the same time every day, and all of these people also drive everyday at the same time as me.  Why is it that I never recognize a single person in these cars from one day to the next?

5:47 p.m.  

Home is a dubious apartment in an even more dubious neighborhood. My answering machine says, “You have no new messages.” I only even still have a landline at my mother’s insistence.

5:55 p.m. 

I look in the refrigerator which is sterile and white, empty except for a few moldy, unrecognizable vegetables in the crisper, some peanut butter (no bread), some pickles, a Tupperware container filled with peas, some dry and crusty mustard, a package of tofu and a carton of orange juice.  I take out a frozen dinner from the freezer that claims to be a healthy alternative to all those other frozen dinners.  A close inspection of the nutrition facts shows that the only thing that differentiates it from its fellows is that there is less of it.  I put it in the microwave anyway.

5:57 p.m. 

I look through the mail.  There is a sale for a discount clothing store, but no attractive guys.  I throw it away.  Then there are three solicitations for new credit card accounts.  I rip them all in half and throw them away.  There are two credit card bills.  I put these in a pile of unpaid bills that I will pay when I get paid again, (days after all of them are due).  Last up is a Christian singles club addressed to me (or occupant).

I call the number on the bottom and politely ask to be removed from their mailing list.  When they ask me why, tell them, “Because I’m a Gay, Atheist Vegetarian.”  I hang up the phone with a feeling of satisfaction.

5:59 p.m.

I remove the frozen dinner from the microwave.  The edges are burnt, but the middle is still frozen.  I attempt to eat it anyway.

6:02 p.m.  

My phone rings.  “May I speak to Lance Brister, please?”

I eye the phone suspiciously.  “He’s not here right now.” I say.

“Then may I speak to the lady of the house?”  The voice asks.

“This is the lady of the house!”  I say in the butchest voice I can muster.  “So what did you want?”

Silence.  The other person disconnects.

6:47 p.m.  

The phone rings.  “Hi, this is Mandy with the Statesman.  Is this Lance Brister?”

I say, “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak English.”

“Mr. Brister, I’m not trying to sell you anything or make you take some survey.  I’d just like to let you know about an incredible offer that our newspaper is making to its readers.”

I say, “I do not exist.”

“Mr. Brister, is there a better time for us to contact you about this?”

I say, “Yes,” and hang up the phone.  I recognize that Mandy is only doing her job, a job she no doubt hates as much as I hate mine, but I can offer no solidarity. I’m quietly amazed that newspapers still exist, along with landlines and paper mail.

7:27 p.m.  

“Large, soy, no whip hot chocolate?”  The tattooed barista asks when I go to the counter.  I don’t know his name, but he, like all of the baristas at the Small World Café, knows my order without me having to ask.

I imagine saying, “No, tonight I’ll have an Italian soda for a change,” but I think better of it. I like hot chocolate.

8:14 p.m.  

Looking through the glass doors outside, I see a pair of men in leather jackets talking on their cellular phones.  I wonder if they’re talking to one another and smile.  A student sits at the table across from me in an unseasonable white tank top.  His brow is furrowed as he pours over a chemistry book.  Another two young men with early tans sit beside my table talking about how many carbohydrates should be in their diets and what exercise regimen they should begin.  I glance back and forth at faces, standing at the counter, behind the counter, at full lips, dark eyes, young, smooth skin, intense brows.  The faces I see lean into one another when they speak.  The faces either do not see me, or see me and dismiss me.

In my notebook I draw the sign of Cancer.  I write one line, “I sit across from you in coffee houses, too afraid to speak to you.”

I think to myself that I should leave, that there is no reason to stay, but I remain sitting with pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to come.

“I’ll just stay until 8:30,” I think as dark begins to slip into the clouds outside and everywhere, descending.

8:30 p.m. 

“I will stay until 9:00,” I amend as 8:30 slips by and I remain unspoken to.  Outside a sudden burst of rain pelts onto the concrete sidewalk.

Bored, I walk up to the counter to order another hot chocolate.

The barista says, “Another rip roaring Wednesday night, huh?”

8:37 p.m.  

There is a young man with dark hair so beautiful that when he leaves he takes all of the air out of the room with him.  I sit and silently resent the young man for being young, for not having even said goodbye, without stopping to wonder why it should make me sad that a stranger didn’t say goodbye to me.

9:03 p.m.  

“I will wait until it stops raining,” I say to myself, looking at the sky of blackened clouds above the dull, orange street lamps.

“Lance?”  A voice beside me asks.

Startled into looking up, I see an attractive man in his late twenties, who seems somehow familiar, though I can’t place the face just yet.

“Yes?”

“Hey, it’s Steve.” The young man says, shaking my hand.  “We used to work together at that shit-hole, Stars and Wipes.”

“Oh yeah.”  I say, remembering now.  We’d been hired the same time.  We’d trained together and complained about the ridiculousness of the company and the training propaganda.  We’d made fun of the boring trainer’s lisp. We’d reassured ourselves that we were only there temporarily until we got a break in the writing world. The only difference between us was that his stint was temporary.

“So what’s up, guy?” Steve asks.

I say, “Oh, you know.” I find myself folding up pieces of poetry and dropping them into my half-full coffee cup. “How about you? I ask.

“I just sold my third screenplay.” Steve says, grinning broadly with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.

“Oh.”  I say, dismayed.  “That’s really…” I am unable to think of the appropriate adjective.

“Yeah.”  Steve agrees.  “So, buddy, what’re you up to these days?  How is post shit-hole life treating you?”

I pause before answering.  “I’m actually still working at said shit-hole.”

“Oh.”  He says, suddenly visibly uncomfortable.  He looks at his cell phone, though it hasn’t made any noise.  “You hated that place more than I did.”  He looks for a way out.  “Still, you must be like a supervisor or something by now, huh?”

“No.”  I say, ashamed, but enjoying Steve’s now obvious discomfort.  “I’m still doing the same job.  I’m even in the same cubicle as when we started.”

“Oh.”  He says, having already checked out of the conversation. “Well, it was really good seeing you, Dave.  I’ve got to take off though.  I’m meeting some people.”

“Okay.” I say. “Congrats.”

“Take care.” He says. “Good luck with…everything.” He makes his hasty retreat.

9:30 p.m.  

I leave the coffeehouse, packing up my books and laptop without looking at anyone.

9:47 p.m.  

Back at home the first thing that I do is check my messages.

There are none.

I turn on my computer.

10:00 p.m.  

I have two options.  I can try to finish a short story and submit it to a writing contest, or I can work on my supposed novel.

10:01 p.m.  

Net porn.

10:17 p.m.

I have two options.  I can watch a black and white French film with subtitles, or I can watch the impassioned South American documentary with subtitles.

10:18 p.m.  

I watch some horrible reality TV show where people attempt to cook while being angrily berated by a doughy-faced soccer player, while simultaneously surfing the net on my laptop.

10:34 p.m. 

I should probably get ready for bed.

12:07 a.m.  

I really should get ready for bed.

1:02 a.m.  

How have I spent two hours watching video clips of baby sloths?

1:04 a.m.  

I attempt to convince myself to go to sleep, but begin to dread the upcoming workday and find it impossible to do so. Eventually the Earth will be absorbed by the sun, and none of this will matter.  Of course that’s billions of years down the road, and I’ll have long been dust, an infinitely small particle in an ever expanding universe that is unmoved by my existence or lack of existence.

1:05 a.m. 

I lie in bed, fully clothed with all the lights on, staring at the ceiling.  Upstairs, the neighbors are having sex, again.  “Who’s your Crazy Monkey ?”  The man shouts.

“You’re my Crazy Monkey!”  A woman shouts back in reply.  Then, “Oh yeah! You’re my crazy monkey! You’re my crazy monkey!”

It is raining again.

I am no one’s crazy monkey.

1:15 a.m.

I get ready for bed.  Brushing my teeth, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.  A thin, pale body.  The dark brown hairs of my chest.  The wrinkles beginning to form around my eyes and mouth.  The thinning hair above my forehead.  In places I can see my scalp.  I squint until my image blurs, smoothes out, disappears, and Cheshire Cat’s itself into a fading smile.  Then I rinse my mouth, turn out the bathroom light, and go to bed.

1:18 a.m. 

I lie on a bed of dinosaur bones, on my back, trying to position myself around a spring, but no matter how I insinuate myself, it grinds into my kidneys.  I try first my left side, then my right to no avail.  One leg outside the blankets.  Both legs.  Neither leg.  It is too hot beneath the blanket, too cold outside it.  I cannot sleep.

Some people count sheep.  Fat little, stumpy Q-tips leaping over wooden fences.  I count the different ways that the world could end. This is my discordant lullaby, my nighttime ritual.

One.  An asteroid crashes into some large, metropolitan area sending a plume of ash that blocks out the sun, causing mass extinction.

Two.  Uncontrollable greenhouse gases raise the temperature of Earth enough to melt the polar ice caps. Coastal cities flood. The temperatures continues to rise until the Earth is a bubbling, unbearable liquid planet.

Three.  Some crazed dictator sets off a nuclear holocaust, starting a chain reaction of exploding bombs, leaving the world radioactive. The survivors are all mutants, scouring the barren wasteland for any usable item from the pre-war days.

Four.  Alien invasion completely obliterates humanity, those of us who aren’t enslaved are cloned as an endless chain of people burgers for some intergalactic gourmet restaurant.

Five.  A virulent pandemic wipes out 90 percent of the population, sending the remaining populace back into the middle ages, struggling to survive.

Six.  The robots become self aware, and destroy us before we find a way to destroy the universe.

Seven.  Zombie apocalypse.

Eight.  I find my mind drifting off toward the edge of sleep. I need to do this every night. Destroy the world so that I can bear to wake up and face another day.

2:37 am

My cell phone rings, waking me from a fitful sleep.  I fumble around the bedside table for the phone in the familiar dark of my apartment.  I hesitate when I pick it up, not recognizing the number, thinking that a phone call this late can only mean something bad.

The phone rings again, startling me, and I answer, “Hello?”

“Is Eddie there?”

I hear loud music in the background, the sound of laughter.  Thinking I might have misheard, I say, “Huh?”

The voice on the phone says, “Tell that asshole we’re leaving without him.”

The phone disconnects.

I stare into the dark at the phone before rolling back over to try to sleep again.

Just four hours and twenty-three minutes until I have to be awake to go to work again.  Which means nine hours and twenty-three minutes until lunch.  About fifteen hours and twenty-three minutes until I’m home again, and 20 hours until I’ll be back in bed longing for sleep to wash over me. I try to stop thinking about the minutes, the hours, and days that make up my life.  The fragments make one day interchangeable with any other.  I need to get some sleep, to momentarily forget the carbon-heavy belly of my still-born days, to lose even the faintest flicker of myself, to lie on my body’s reflection in the middle of a rain swept street.  To lose myself in dreams.