The Bath -Texas, 1997

76bMatt has already gone to bed.

I am curled up on the couch, pale and blue-veined as a fetus, waiting for a talk-show epiphany to cure my insomniac dreams.  But tonight’s offerings are stale and unsatisfying.   30 minute advertisements for useless exercise equipment, teeth whiteners, and hair restorers promise self improvement broadcast through radio waves, all for the low, low monthly installment of $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

Heavy hoofed, I hear the sound of Matt goose-stepping down the hallway and see his face around the corner, cheeks as red and breathless as an Aryan peasant.

“Are you coming to bed soon?”  He asks, yawning, all freckles and lips.  “I can’t sleep without you.”  He scratches his shirtless stomach and squints beneath the flickering blue rectangle of the television.

“In a minute.”  I say.

“Would you like a bubble bath before bed?”  He asks. “It might help you sleep.”

“Sure.”  I say.

For weeks it seems I’ve been on edge, like there’s lightning pulsing just beneath my fingertips, always on the verge of exploding.  I sit in classrooms and coffeehouses vibrating. The air around me hums, and I feel like even a pin prick could send me spiraling into space. The prospect of a warm, soothing bath sounds enticing.

He marches me into the bathroom, suffocating me with sulfurous kisses.  As Matt runs a bubble bath, I stare at my reflection in the foggy mirror.  All I can see is myself at odd angles, an ugly boy with a face full of flaws.  I touch my cheek and wonder what Matt sees as he stands behind me kissing my shoulder with rose-petaled tumors, the lips I’d once thought to be his best feature. I feel like there must be two of me, separated twins masquerading as a single person, the sweet, shy boy that Matt is allegedly in love with, and the real me who observes all of this from a distance with the cold detachment of an imbedded journalist.

Matt sits on the side of the bathtub and looks at me,  my blond curls, too thin frame, my hands clasped behind my back. I trace the squares of faded blue tile with my toes, self conscious beneath his unwavering gaze.

“At school today a girl saw my necklace and asked me if I was in the Olympics,” I say, fingering my freedom rings.

“What did you tell her?”  Matt asks, grinning.

“That I was on the luge team.”

“Do you even know what that is?”  Matt asks, laughing.

“No.”  I say.  “But I guess she didn’t either, because she believed me.”

We laugh and whatever strange tension was lingering in the air between us is dissolved, disappears into the shadows, creeps behind doors, and settles into corners of the apartment, teasing our periphery with a presence I know can make itself manifest at any moment. For months it’s been like this. We talk about everything that’s not important and go through the motions of a relationship and behave the way that men in love are supposed to behave. Robotic dinners in Italian restaurants are followed by mechanical sex and nights devoid of sleep, just half closed eyes and the grinding of gears.

“Who couldn’t believe you?”  Matt asks.  “You look like a cherub.”

“But I’m not.”  I say, smiling up coyly through long lashes.

“Believe me,” Matt laughs. “I know.” He dips his hand into the water and says, “How’s this?”

I test the temperature with my big toe.

“Fine.”  I say. “Did I tell you I hurt my ankle today getting off the bus today?”

Matt seems non-plussed.  “I once broke my foot in three places on a skiing trip,” he says.

I frown.  Matt pushes up my chin to kiss my pouty lips.

He says, “Now into the tub.”

I obey.

He bathes me as if I  am a newborn, holding my head, the navy washcloth gliding hot, and wet, and gentle against my skin.  Every motion is Freudian blue, familiar.  Lost in the shallow wrinkles around Matt’s eyes, I remember the way the two of us were two years ago when things were new.  The midnight walks, roses, first touches, kisses, the excitement of exploration have all become routinized.  I long for the warm, unknown touch of a stranger’s fingers against my skin.  Even roses when expected as an everyday occurrence take on the role of a lesser symbol of Matt’s laminated love.

Two years ago, the furtive late night drives to Matt’s apartment, through swirls of fog and hints of chrome, I felt alive.  Wearing only my high-school letter jacket and nothing else, racing barefoot up Matt’s stairs and hoping no one saw me, I rang the bell, breath white puffs of steam in the chilly air.  When Matt opened the door  I dropped the jacket and stood naked in his doorway, bathed in florescent light, an unexpected invitation, a live wire of sexual impulses, all hormones and heat.  The thrill of being alive, and young, and sexual was still new and I thought that it would last forever.

“What are you thinking?”  Matt asks, rinsing the soap off of my forehead with hands full of warm water.

“Nothing.”  I say.

“Nothing?” Matt asks, looking pointedly at my burgeoning erection.

His hand closes over my penis, slowly moving up and down.

He washes the soap off of my neck, sending unexpected chills through my stomach.

“Lets drive to the beach,” I say, sitting up in the tub.  “Lets drive to the beach and watch the sun come up over the ocean.”

Matt lets his thick wrist fall into the soapy water.  “The beach?”  He says, surprised.  “That’s five hours away!”

Caught up in the idea, I go on, “We could take a blanket,” I say.  “We could have a picnic.”

Imagined, the wriggling of toes through wet, salty sand, seagulls and concession stands.

Matt shakes his head.  “It’s late,” he says.  “I have to work tomorrow and you have school.  We can’t just take off like that!”

The back of his hand brushes my cheek.  I watch a thick drop of candle wax drip down the side of a candle in the windowsill in a mean, red blob.

“Oh.”  I say, looking at my legs clouded and barely visible in the milky water.

“Maybe we can plan a trip sometime later when we’re not so busy,” Matt says.  “It was a nice thought, though.”

He smiles, splashes me.

I smile too, having learned to mimic the motions, if not the feeling.

“I’ve never seen the ocean.”  I say.

Outside rain slips against the window in a slow, thin drizzle, and the roar of the wind through gutters sounds like an imagined ocean.

Later, in bed, wrapped in Matt’s red, flannel sheets, I stare at his shoulders, the smell of him, masculine and strange, his good night kisses a stale film on my lips.  I stare unblinking at his freckled shoulders and listen to his even breathing. I cannot sleep.

The phone rings, violently, startling us both. I stumble over Matt’s sleeping body in a tangle of cotton sheets, trying to find the phone on the nightstand by feel and knocking over picture frames, candles, a pair of handcuffs.

The phone rings again, vibrating beneath my pale, thin fingers, startling me again, though I know exactly who it is, and exactly what has happened before I pick it up.  I let it ring one more time before I answer.

On the other end of the phone is my mother’s voice, a voice that recalls scoldings, kitchen smells and bed-time stories.  “Its me.”  She says, “Paw Paw’s passed away.” A long pause.  “The funeral is Tuesday,” I hear her say.  “We’ll have to buy you some decent clothes.”

“Okay.” I say.

“We’ll go tomorrow morning before your classes,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss any school.”

“That’s not important.” I say.

“Yes it is!” She sounds angry. There is another long pause before she says, “Anyway, I’ll call you in the morning.  Mama and Daddy love you.”

“I love you too.” I say.

Matt holds my shoulders in his thick, stubby hands.

“Was it about your Grandfather?”  He asks.

I nod, still holding the phone in my hand.

“So?”  He asks.

“His condition has stabilized.” I say.

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”  Matt asks.

I smile sadly in the dark as Matt drifts back to sleep.

When I come home from school the next day, Matt has dinner waiting for me.  Roses, a ransom of guilt and supplication are slowly dying in a vase of water on the dining room table.  Insistent, suffocating love proclaimed in petals beaded with water that seem to say, “I love you. Don’t leave me. Love me.” Cobalt blue, a pair of wine-glasses full of expectations and ulterior motives sits in wait.

“Its filet minion.”  He says when I walk into the kitchen.  “Like we had at the French restaurant that time after the opera, remember?”

Last night when it was my turn to make dinner, I’d brought home Chinese.

“You always have to out do me.”  I say, looking back and forth from Matt’s red face, the butterfly magnets on the yellow refrigerator, the fake marble countertop, the microwave.

“What?”  Matt’s lips are a tragedy.  “Don’t you like it?”

The dishwasher begins the rinse cycle.  “I’m a vegetarian.”  I say.

“Since when?”

The fish on the windowsill swims around and around above its black rocks in depressing circles, its fins like red and blue flame.

Stupid fish.

I make a mental note to feed it.

“Since always!”  I say, hearing my voice go high and shrill.

The fish opens and closes its mouth.

A bottle of red wine.

A corkscrew.

Two clear blue plates.

“I’ve known you for two years, and you’ve never been a vegetarian!”  Matt  says, a wooden spoon in his thick hand.

“Well, I always meant to be!”  I say, slamming my keys on the counter.

The microwave beats.

The oven light turns on.

The dishwasher pounds.

My head throbs and the fish swims around in depressing circles.

“You don’t know everything about me!”  I say.

“Well, I want to.”  Matt says softly.   “What’s this about?  Is it your Grandfather?”  He touches my face.  I force myself to stand perfectly still, when every cell in me instinctively recoils from his touch.

“Yes.”  I lie.

Matt’s arms around me crush me.

“Oh sweetie,” he consoles. “I know.”

Perspiration drips down the cold wine bottle in perfect little drops.

“You didn’t notice my haircut.”  I say.

“Yes I did.”  He rubs his thick fingers through my hair. “It looks good.” He says.

“My mom made me cut it for the funeral tomorrow.”  I say.  “She wants me to look normal.  She doesn’t want me to embarrass her.”

My mouth opens and closes.  I swim around in depressing circles.

Funeral.

My cousins, lanky and awkward in borrowed ties, don’t know what to say when they see me.

“How’s college treating you?”  They ask.

“Fine.”  I mumble and we all stand around on the patchy grass of the cemetery looking at our feet.  I notice with dismay that almost all of them are going bald, only a few years older than myself.  Standing pale beneath a sky that’s seven shades of gray, beneath a bucolic spattering of rain that doesn’t quite settle the dust.  As a child I was sheltered from this.  Death.  Premature baldness.  But I am no longer a child.  I have obligations, responsibilities.  I must behave.  I don’t want my mother to be ashamed of me.

Later, strangers who know my name and my familial ties shake my hand, ask about school, and all I see are grinning skulls, cracked lips, and the baring of teeth.

“What are you going to do when you get out of school?”  An old man asks, his wax lipped smile and firm handshake gripping my hand like a claw.

“I’m going to be a Time Traveler.”  I tell him.

My mother is several yards away, her arm around his grandmother’s bony shoulders, handing her a white carnation of long forgotten birthdays, casseroles, and Christmas eves. My grandmother is an old, gray turtle out of it’s shell. She looks so fragile with white hair spiderwebbed around her head.

“I dye my pubic hair blue.”  I say, and the man’s eyes widen and he thinks he must have misheard.

I smile as if nothing is wrong.

Strobe light.

The low throb of techno music.  Bone jarring, brain numbing music.  I dance.  I close my eyes and let my body fall into the bass, twisting and shaking in spasm after spasm of insistent, drug tinged desperation.  My black t-shirt clings to me with sweat.  Artificial smoke oozes down from the ceiling.  Hard bodies, wet and shirtless brush against me, throbbing, moving, spinning.  My eyes dart from body to body, from face to face.

Across the crowd, I see a familiar face in a dizzy, writhing sea of faces.  A face brown and Egyptian and far too serious.  The face belongs to a girl I know from class, from coffeehouses, raves, and late night, after hour parties. The face sees me and smiles in recognition and we move through the crowd toward one another.

“Hey, Anisha.”  I say as she presses against me with a kiss of greeting.  Her black vinyl dress squeaks against my black, vinyl pants.

“Did you hear about Andy?”  She asks, leaning close to my ear.  Her hair is like Cleopatra’s.  Her eye makeup is turned up at the corners in black and purple and silver lines.  Her breath is alcohol, cigarettes, and afterthought breath mints.

“What?”  I ask, the music pounding in my ears.  The dizzy glare of the strobe casts disjointed, jerky shadows.  People are grinding against me.

“Andy committed suicide last week.”  She says.  She is drunk.  She hangs onto me for support.  Her eye makeup is smeared, running down her face in black globs.  Andy was her best friend, a toothpaste smile, a GAP commercial.

“He shot himself in my bathtub.”  She says.

I don’t know what to say.  Andy was a year younger than me, cute, and always smiling.  I remember him playing board games at a party, remember talking once about a book I saw him reading, remember a lingering hug one drunken night as we were leaving, of Matt driving home, the two of us not speaking.

Anisha is still clinging to me, too tightly, grabbing my shirt, burying her face in my chest.  I go rigid as she slumps against me, until her friends pull her off and carry her away sobbing.  The dancers keep on dancing, oblivious.

All I want to do is get away.  I push myself through the crowd of bodies, of white faced zombies, mumbled apologies, and stumble out of the club, ears ringing.  At the door a girl grabs my arm and says, “I like your pants!”  I finally break away into the night, gasping for breath. On the drive home I pull over to the side of the road beneath the dim, yellow glare of a suburban streetlights.  Leaning over in the front seat with my knees pressed against my chest, I cry for the first time in years, but there is no sense of release. I’m still tight as a balled up fist and faded as a star that’s already been wished on and spent.

Months pass.  Another semester ends.  Holidays come and go. I move out of Matt’s apartment into an apartment of my own. For the first time since I was a teenager, I am single.  I don’t know how to fill the time. Time passes in a  string of nights, of feverish aching nights, one night stands with tall impostors, reckless and pressed against walls and bedsprings.  Promises are whispered into the folds of sheets and then forgotten. Loneliness is a phone that never rings.

Visits to my parents’ with baskets of laundry and grocery lists. We visit my grandfather’s grave, and later sit in different rooms watching different television shows, and I wish that I could tell them about Matt, or Andy, or about anything important, about the dull gray shade of loss that follows me like a stillborn twin. But there are things they don’t want to know, truths that they refuse to hear,  and comforts they can’t offer.

Anisha dropped out of school completely, and later, when I ran into her picking up some Indian food at a hole in the wall across from campus she told me about Andy. She told me that his parents, upon learning that he was gay, had disowned him, had cut him off so that he couldn’t afford school, or food, or his apartment. He’d been staying with Anisha for a couple of weeks, feeling like a burden, even though she’d assured him he was no trouble. And then one day she’d come home from class to find him in her bathtub, a gunshot wound to the head. She told me how she’d scrubbed and scrubbed with bottles of bleach, but still couldn’t completely remove the stain he’d left behind. There was really nothing left to say, just a final hug goodbye and wishing each other all the best.

Outside, lightning flashes, searing the summer air with clean, white heat.  It is night. The low bass of the neighbor’s car stereo rattles the naked glass of the bathroom window.  Steam from the full bath rises up, gray and snaking and hot in thick tendrils, fogging the window, the mirror, clinging to my skin.  The air smells like rain, wet leaves and bleach.

Next door the neighbors scream at each other in Spanish.  Thunder cracks through the summer night like a chemical explosion, rattling the windowpanes, shaking the stained white walls that smell like Play Doh, like crumbling chalk, like peeling paint.

Next door a baby cries, shrill and insistent into the night like a screaming cat.

In front of the mirror I take off my shirt.  My skin gleams gold and pale in the gentle light of one red candle.  The tiny hairs on my arms and chest glisten gold and blond in the shadows as I move.  I stare at my face, looking for wrinkles, a receding hairline, some mark of my inevitable decline.  I lean forward toward my reflection and whisper, “I love you.”  Close my eyes.  My lips meet the cool, steamy glass of the mirror.  If I keep saying it, I think, maybe one day I’ll believe it.

I step out of my jeans and underwear, and then, not satisfied, I step out of my skin, and leave my flesh, and muscles, and bones in a pile on the bathroom floor. I listen to the neighbors speak rapidly in Spanish.  My body spreads out like a stain across the tile. A baby cries. Tejano music plays next door. I sink into the bath up to my chin.  I imagine getting in my car and driving to the ocean before the sun comes up. Of shedding my clothes and walking naked across the beach into water until it covers me.

To let the ocean lull me to sleep.

To be carried away by dark and silent waves.

To drift off to a place where dreamers meet.

To meet my lover there beneath the waves.

And kiss him in the dark of endless sleep.

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California -Austin, 2002

venicesurfersHannah left on Thursday.

I was the only one to help her move because I didn’t have a job, and because neither of us had any other friends.  She was wearing a bubble gum raincoat, just in case. Her dark, curly hair was pulled back out of her face. Her lips were red. She always made a conscious effort to dress as if she was already famous, an undercover celebrity hiding behind a pair of oversized sunglasses, out of place in the dismal gray cubicles we found ourselves working in.

We struggled downstairs with her hand-me-down furniture.  We laughed when the bottom fell out of her box of dishes.  We laughed when we got stuck, half in and half out, one of us on either side of her bulky couch.  We laughed when I tripped and fell and bounced on the springy mattress of her bed.

There was no room in the moving van for her chest of drawers so she left it on the sidewalk.

“Someone will take it,” she said and shrugged.

We went back inside for one last look around.  Empty, her apartment was as stark and embarrassed as an unmade bed.  She held my hand and gripped it tightly. I didn’t have to ask what she was thinking, we were too close for that. She expected me to follow her out there, to lay my beach towel down beside hers and soak up the bright, California sun. We’d talked about it, and I’d agreed to think about it, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine a place for myself in Los Angeles among the mannequins driving down Rodeo Drive.

“I should go before it rains,” she said.

“Yeah.”  I agreed. There was no point in telling her not to go, or that I’d miss her. I knew that her mind was made up, and that I’d miss her was understood.

“I hate this,” she said, squeezing into the front of the moving van.

“I’ll see you soon,” I told her, holding her tattered, blue backpack until she was settled.

“When?”

“Soon.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I said it. She didn’t believe me, but she hugged me anyway and kissed my cheek.

She drove away slowly honking her horn, blowing a starlet kiss to the rearview mirror.  I stood watching her drive away, and I stood for a while after she was gone, waiting, for what I couldn’t say. A sign. Something to point me in the direction of my next bold move.

The sky turned from gray to darker gray.

The security lights all came on at the same time, orange and dull.

I didn’t leave until one of Hannah’s neighbors asked me in Spanish if she could have the chest of drawers.

I told her in English that she could.

A drop of rain hit the back of my neck and startled me.  The second hit my arm.  I squinted at the clouds as more and more drops fell.  The wind turned cold, so I turned to leave.

Driving away, I saw the woman dragging the chest back to her apartment.  The rain made her white dress cling to her brown arms.  I thought I should stop to help her, but I didn’t.  I just kept driving away.

Friday afternoon I fumbled through the week’s worth of dirty dishes, crumpled newspaper, and soiled clothes for a pair of not too dirty underwear.  Opening my mouth was like peeling up linoleum.  I wanted to go back to bed, but thought I should look for a job.

I went across the street to the little market owned by Ali and his son Nazim.

“Hey Chief,” Ali said, when he saw me. “No vegetarian left.”

Every day I came in for a breakfast taco and a cup of coffee. Today I’d gotten a late start and missed my chance for the taco. But the coffee was hot and black. Ali stood up with effort.  He smelled like incense and cheap aftershave. The top few buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing a thicket of gray and black hair tangled in gold chains. His foot was in a fracture boot.

“Anything else?” He asked.

“Just this,” I said, handing him a copy of the New York Times.

“Want these?”  He asked, holding a box of condoms.  “Someone take just one,” he said.  He showed me the tampered box with two remaining condoms.  “Or these?”  He added, holding a box of similarly tampered cigarettes.

“That’s okay,” I said, smiling and embarrassed.  He was always trying to give me half-empty egg cartons or cases of wine coolers with one bottle missing,  juice about to go bad, overripe fruit, milk a day after its expiration date.

“Want a bag?”  He asked me.

I always answered, “No, thank you,” but he always gave me a bag anyway, no matter what I purchased, even if it was a newspaper.

I paid for my paper and cup of coffee, and when I got back home I noticed that he’d slipped the condoms and cigarettes into my bag somehow without me noticing.  I threw the cigarettes away, but kept the condoms, just in case.

I sat at my table and turned on my laptop. There was something comforting about the familiar tone as it turned on. I sat, waiting for my coffee to cool, and looked out the window into the courtyard of my apartment complex. The view was limited to a small patch of bright green grass, and a smaller patch of sky blue swimming pool that it was still too cold to swim in.

Every day, I’d sit at the table with my coffee, with or without a vegetarian breakfast taco, and peruse the online job boards for something, anything. But with a degree in Sociology, and little experience or marketable skills, there were few prospects. Since college I’d been in and out of one cubicle or another, the only thing differentiating them was the shade of gray carpeting the walls.

Hannah and I had met while working at one such call center, the billing department for a third rate credit card company. Since I was working largely to pay off my massive credit card debt, I was ostensibly an indentured servant. Our cubicles were adjacent and we became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of The Cure and black and white French films about death, and our disdain for the public at large.

We worked there for nearly a year as our friendship blossomed. We started going to movies together, Hannah acting out the most dramatic scenes as we drove home and having me critique her technique in her parent’s hand-me-down SUV. Then we’d go dancing, sometimes to clubs where she could meet guys, and sometimes to clubs where I could. When we weren’t together we were on the phone, spending hours analyzing our relationships or the lack of them, our childhood, our dreams.

We became so close that I couldn’t imagine a time when I hadn’t known her. She became superimposed over my own history, so that the two of us were sitting together in the high-school cafeteria, the homecoming game,  the senior prom. The thing that Hannah most wanted was to be a famous singer, but despite a smattering of gigs in Austin, she hadn’t been able to build any momentum with her music. She thought that in Los Angeles her style would be better appreciated, and she’d have more opportunities.  My own dreams were less defined. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Nothing glitzy, just a modest living in a small, cozy place surrounded by books. But while Hannah had discipline to spare, constantly working on new songs and practicing her instruments, I’d barely written anything since college and wondered if my dream was misplaced, a thing to get over so that I could finally grow up and find some proper, grown up career.

Then two months ago Hannah had been fired for repeatedly shouting an obscenity in earshot of a client who’d complained, and I’d been fired shortly thereafter for writing a scathing comment on an employee discussion forum about the disparity between our salaries and that of the CEO. Hannah took this as a sign from the universe that it was time for us to move on. I was mostly panic stricken about what was sure to be my inevitable eviction and starvation.

The job boards were not forthcoming. No one was hiring. I couldn’t even get the temp agencies to call me back. My initial relief at being free from the job I hated quickly turned to anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to find another job to hate. In the first weeks of my unemployment I spent hours sending my resume to any employer advertising a job I was even remotely qualified for. But as the weeks became months, my motivation became apathy, and the intensity of my search waned and became half-hearted searches punctuated by frequently miserable bouts of wallowing in self-pity.

After spending a few minutes looking for jobs, I turned instead to the entertainment news, the funny memes of the day, and porn. Part of me felt like I should take advantage of the time off to finally write that novel I’d been thinking of for years, but I couldn’t seem to get started. Instead of writing I bought a canvas, thinking I could get out my creativity in this other medium. But the easel and canvas remained untouched. I told myself that I was just too anxious about being unemployed to focus on my art.

The truth is the blank page and the bare canvas are too too full of promise. Nothing I can create can be as perfect as their blankness.  In my mind images pulse and writhe, bodily.  My fingers twitch to grab the brush to just paint for the sake of painting, write for the sake of writing.  But my mind refuses.  As long as the canvas remains empty there is the idea of beauty, of something substantial, a body that bleeds and sweats.  But the second paint from my brush touches it the potential is diminished.  A canvas is too small and ordinary to carry the beauty of my dreams.

If I don’t paint, then I can’t fail to realize my mind’s landscapes.

I can remain full of promise, like California, a dream.

Plus I realized that I seemed just as cool by merely keeping an easel in my living room, a glass jar full of paintbrushes on the windowsill, and telling people at parties that I’m an artist.

Hannah wanted me to move with her to Los Angeles. She tried to sell me on the beauty of it. In her eager, angelic voice she described the two of us in a red convertible, driving down Highway 1, with cliffs on one side, and the blue expanse of the Pacific ocean on the other, the trees and flowers that line the boulevards and avenues of the residential areas, the skyscrapers that sprout in a jagged toothed jungle downtown, the iron skeletons and lidless eyes of glass faceted windows designed to tower over the twisting palm trees, to outshine the dim and hazy stars.

“We can live together in L.A.,” Hannah told me one night when I was sitting in her bathtub as she cut my hair.

“You can write” she went on, “and I’ll land some gigs.  We can share a studio until we’re both working and can afford something better.  You can write anywhere really.  Lift your head a little.”

She held my chin.  I saw the tiny blond hairs falling into my lap.

“California is the last place where you can really live the American dream.” She said.

“Only because the American dream is getting your own reality show.” I said, joking, but only halfway.

“I’m serious.” She said. “What do you think?”

“It sounds great,” I’d told her.

“Really?” She asked, rubbing wax into my thinning hair and styling it.

“Yeah.” I said.

She had it all planned out, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly commit. California was her dream, not mine.

Hannah.

My Russian ballerina.

My bubblegum raincoat.

The unheard siren, singing to a captivated audience of one.

I didn’t expect to miss her so much. But her presence was everywhere, coiled in bedsprings, floating like motes of dust in patches of sunlight, pressed between the pages of the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself alone without someone to join me for cheap, Chinese, or to go on a 4 am donut run. Without her there was nothing for me to focus on but myself, and introspection was always a recipe for an inevitable downward spiral. I was disappointed when it rained, and I was disappointed when it didn’t.

That night I had a blind date with a man I’d met on the internet.  We met outside an all night diner that Hannah and I had haunted. He looked older than he had in his picture.  His face and stomach had gone slack.  I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize him at all, that we’d somehow miss one another amongst all the other late night strangers. But he smiled and walked right up to me.  There was an awkward moment when I wasn’t sure if he was going to shake my hand or hug me, so I extended my hand, and we half hugged.

“Should we go in?”  He asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m starving.”

I could see right away that everything I said was going to be wrong.  I knew that I’d be uncharacteristically honest, that my confessions would baffle him. I led the way into the diner.  His hand was on my shoulder, an intimacy I felt he hadn’t earned and I disliked him immediately.

“So what do you do again?”  He asked while we were waiting for the waitress to bring our drinks.

“I’m an artist,” I said, fidgeting nervously in my seat amidst the young couples with strollers, the lonely coffee drinkers with cigarette-stained fingers, the old fashioned amber colored hanging lamps.

“Are you showing your work anywhere around town?”  He asked.

I said, “I’m very protective of it,” hoping that this would sound more mysterious than pathetic.  I was grateful when the waitress brought our drinks.

He was a personal trainer, though he’d taken some time off after a back injury.  “All healed now,” he assured me with a wink.

I repeatedly stacked and then toppled tubs of late night butter while blathering about a horror movie I’d seen recently.  I described in unnecessary detail the plot, which consisted of a group of teenagers being stalked by a maniac in a remote forest.

“Are you nervous?”  He asked.

“Why?” I asked. “Should I be?”  The butter toppled.

He reached across the table and put his hand over my own, his thick, tan fingers weighing down my thin, pale ones.  I pulled my hand away.

“I can’t read you.”  He said.

Spittle wet the creases around his lips.  His face was ruddy, and blotched.  His shirt, taught over his once impressive chest, his slack stomach.  I was repulsed by him.

The check came.  We split it, to my dismay.

Outside I walked to my car.  He followed me.

“So.  What now?”  He asked, leaning into me, his smile a leer.

I pulled back, was silent.

“My place?”  He suggested.

“Sure.”  I heard myself saying.  “Why not?”

Afterward, I couldn’t stop shaking.  I was sore. I saw myself reflected in the mirror.  My thin, sweaty hair.  My neck bruised from too many hard kisses.   My mouth, swollen and red. I tasted like someone else.  Like milk about to sour, like fruit that was too ripe.  My eyes were dry and stinging.  My shirt smelled like strange cologne and sweat.  I peeled it off.  And, unsatisfied, I peeled off everything.  I wanted to be a blank canvas, white and full of promise.  But it was impossible to undo the days, the years of strange apartments, the collected dust and detritus of dive bars and dance clubs, to buff out the oily grooves of so many fingerprints.

I crawled into my bed and lie there, sleepless, staring at my ceiling until the sun came up, pale and orange as a ball of thread through the sliding doors that led out to my balcony. Eventually I dozed off for a while and woke up, hot and sweaty, and couldn’t fall asleep again. I wanted to just keep lying there, forever, but I’d made plans so I forced myself to get up.

“Which do you like better, Indian girls or Pakistani?”  The one without glasses asked. Sometimes Ali’s daughters were behind the register. I never learned their names and just differentiated them by thinking of them as the one with glasses and the one without.

“Which are you?” I asked.

“Pakistani.”  She said.

“Then Pakistani.”  I looked at the shy one with glasses and winked.  They both giggled as I left with my coffee.

I squinted, unaccustomed to the pale sun that shined before noon on a Saturday. I had plans to meet my friend Scott who lived across town, and who didn’t have a car of his own. When I got to his apartment, Scott was sitting at his coffee table on the living room floor, rolling a joint. I was meeting up with him to go to a protest, of the war, or the disparity between the rich and the poor, or Gay rights. I was unsure of the particular cause. Scott was an equal opportunity attender when it came to defending the underdog.

“Hey.”  He said.

“Hey.”  I let myself in, scanning his apartment, dimly lit, the avuncular pad of a longtime bachelor.  The patchwork sofa, celestial rug, the Coca Cola magnets on the refrigerator of second hand beer and frozen pizza.  Sunlight stained glassed across the fake marble counter top in patches of orange and red and purple on the beige hemp mat in front of the sink, giving the impression, as you stepped inside, that you were entering a place of worship.

I sat across from him at his computer desk.  He lit up and offered me a drag.  I shook my head and thumbed through his CDs.

“Why do you keep all these?” I asked, since all of the music was on his computer, and the physical CDs seemed unnecessary.

“I just like the act of playing a CD,” he said. “I like the ritual of it.”

I didn’t get it, but I’ve never really understood him. Most of the times we’d hung out with one another, I’d felt as if the two of us were speaking different languages. I didn’t understand him, but I liked the idea of him, the intense, bearded young man who cared about social causes and justice, who wanted world peace. If you listened to the music I like, read the books I enjoyed reading, and watched my favorite movies, you’d probably know everything about me. There was nothing else beneath the surface. I was just an empty vessel, a reflection. But Scott cared about things, and was involved, and even if I wasn’t sure why, I liked this about him. I imagined him turning that same passionate intensity toward me, of him seeing something in me that I wasn’t even aware of myself.  We’d made out once, drunk at a club, but nothing else had happened, and as time passed, I worried that the window of opportunity was closing.

“What is it today?” I asked, as he got in the rumbling, green car I’d inherited from my mother.

“The war.” He answered. I didn’t ask him which one.

Arriving at the protest provided no clarity. Crowds of determined progressives, college students mostly, white guys with dreadlocks, and girls in sandals, but also some holdovers from the sixties with their long, gray beards, and awful, tie-dye t-shirts were already lining the street by the lake. The signs were a hodge-podge of familiar slogans, “No blood for oil,” “End this War,” “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” “We Are the 99%,” “Legalize Gay Cupcakes.”

We joined the growing throng by Town Lake and then made a slow walk down Congress Avenue to the capital. My eyes darted through the crowd of  protestors, the vaguely curious onlookers lining the avenue, the annoyed drivers sitting in their cars at blocked off intersections, unaware of the day’s scheduled march. We walked down Congress, Scott joining in chants, and me tagging along in silence, stealing glances at any attractive, pseudo-hippies in the general vicinity.

We assembled on the steps of the state capital and listened to the speakers give their speeches, local politicians and community organizers. I zoned out shortly after the first of the seemingly endless parade of windbags got started. Politics have always bored me. Scott’s handsome, bearded face was intent, his brow creased. Everyone was similarly focused, and I wondered what I was doing there. It was becoming increasingly obvious that I wouldn’t meet anyone, that Scott’s interest in me was due entirely to the fact that I had a car and he did not, that the protest would offer neither romance, nor inspiration. I started formulating plans for the evening which involved overpriced cocktails at on overpriced club with music too loud for conversation, and a dance floor too full to accommodate dancing.

A row of police in riot gear stood behind the makeshift podium just in case things got out of hand. I stood, imagining them advancing on the docile crowd like I’d seen on television. I imagined the peaceful crowd erupting into chaos of tear gas, and people getting trampled and beaten with batons. A big part of me longed for this to happen, just to feel like I was part of something. Just for some kind of real human contact, just to feel something aside from my usual existential angst. But nothing happened. The speakers spoke. The crowd chanted and cheered. The police stood, and then all of us quietly dispersed to middle class cars to drive back to the suburbs.

I asked Scott if he wanted to do anything else, but he just shrugged, so we walked back to my car.

“It was a good turn out.” I said, and he agreed, and even though we had nothing to say to one another, I still thought we might end up making out.

But when we got back to his place, he just unfastened his seatbelt and said, “Thanks for the ride.”

Not knowing what to do, myself, I drove back to my own apartment. I thought I’d stop at Ali’s for a soda, but there were police cars outside. For a moment I panicked irrationally that the police had somehow come for me, even though I’d done nothing wrong, but I realized that they weren’t there for my sake. Someone had broken the windows of the store and spray painted the word “Terrorist” in big red letters across the side of the building.

Inside my apartment, I found myself upset, without really understanding why. I wanted to somehow exorcise the feeling, but it was too primal to write down. I wanted to paint. Not with brushes, but with my bare hands. I wanted to feel the paint on my fingers, to run my fingertips across the bare canvas, and to pour this image that existed in my mind out onto the white expanse before me.

At first I didn’t know how to start it. I just stood in front of the easel, wondering where to begin. Red was my key to getting into it. Once I started with red, the rest followed. Images that bled and sweat, corpulent masses of color. Hannah’s hair, her bright red lips, the swirling lights of dance clubs, the bedrooms of strange men, the loneliness of crowds, the helplessness, the brutality of vandalism. My fingertips smeared color across the canvass. The colors of regret, the unbearable devastation of rejection. First red, yellow, green, gold, and from the side, black and blue, a cloud, a bruise, a threat. I painted, my fingers stained, a blue, satisfying smear on my cheek.

I stopped when Hannah called to tell me she’d made it safely to Los Angeles.

“Are you writing?”  She asked.

“Painting.”  I said, wiping my hands on a towel, my body smeared with blue, and brown, and gold.

“That’s great,” she said.  “I don’t want to disturb you.  I just wanted to let you know I’m here.”

“I’m nearly done, I think.”  I said.  “I’m glad you made it okay.  Was the trip hard?”

“No.” She said.  “The longest part was just getting out of Texas. But now I’m here, too exhausted to unpack anything, but too keyed up to go to sleep.”

“I get that.” I said.

“When are you coming out here?”  She pressed.

“Soon,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my date, or the protest, or Scott, or any of it. There was really nothing worth talking about.

I painted for a while after we’d stopped talking, and when I felt like it was done, I stood back and regarded my first creation in years, feeling this bubbling thrill of accomplishment at having actually created something, of following a project from start to finish, of taking something that existed in my mind and making it exist in the real world.

When I stepped back to get a good look, my heart sank. The painting I’d poured all of my energy and emotion into was nothing like the image I’d had in my head. The lines were unsteady. The confidence of my college years was gone from lack of practice. The painting was amateurish at best. I was disappointed, but more than that I was afraid. If I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t write, what was I going to do? Who was I if I wasn’t an artist, except a twenty something failure with no job, and no prospects?

While it was still wet, I took the painting with me to the bathroom.  I stood beneath the florescent lights with all of my faults exposed. The sudden shock of first cold, then hot water covered me.  I watched my pale skin turn red.  The colors of the canvas ran together, colored the water at my feet in purples, reds, browns and blue.  I rubbed the canvas with my hands smearing the colors together, obliterating my disaster, the watercolor running together in blobs, coloring the bathtub, but, once paint smeared, the canvas could never be made white again.

I stood in the shower long after the hot water had disappeared and wondered, how much water and how much time it would take to cleanse us both?  I wondered if enough time and enough distance could take my illusions, my lies, my deceits and make them true. That maybe instead of just calling myself an artist, I could actually be one, if I just had the right inspiration, the right location. Maybe not here, but in a sunny state.  A dream.  California.

Clean – Austin 1999

046Jeremy likes it clean.

On Valentine’s day I decorate our whole apartment with pink and red construction paper hearts. On each heart I write down a reason why I love him. I make a romantic dinner from scratch, light candles, and run a bubble bath. I sit on his third degree sofa and wait for him to come home.

And wait.

And wait.

When he finally arrives, long after dinner has gotten cold, the candles have all burned out and the bubble bath is just a tub of tepid, soapy water, he takes one look at the hearts, the trail of rose petals leading to the bed, the balloons with streamers hanging from the ceiling and says, “You can clean up the mess tomorrow.”

He likes it clean.

The next day, when I come home, he hands me a heart shaped box of chocolates.

“They were half off.” He says.

The box is already mostly empty, crumpled foil wrappers.

We’d met online only a few months before our graduation from separate colleges. I’d driven to Houston and he’d snuck me into his parents house after they had gone to sleep.  We crept up his stairs and whispered quietly in his childhood bedroom, and had awkward sex, crouched on his bathroom floor, careful not to make a sound.

He played piano, studied French and wrote poetry, so of course I fell in love with him.

When I got a job in Austin after graduation, he drove down to look at apartments with me. When I realized that he wasn’t just there helping me find an apartment for myself, he was looking for a place for the two of us, I knew that it was probably a mistake. But I made it anyway, because my heart is a stupid pump.

We go to concerts and he disappears without saying anything. I spend hours looking for him before finding him back at the car, or sitting on a corner bench a few blocks away. I try to acclimate to his quirks and his moods, but I feel that we never speak the same language. We sit in some chain restaurant (he is too intimidated to go to restaurants he isn’t familiar with) and the powder blue waitress acts as our interpreter.

We sleep in twin beds like a 50s sitcom couple. Every night I lie awake, hard, when all I want is his touch. I fantasize about him ripping my clothes off, of plowing into me because he is so consumed with passion. When he puts in his retainer, I know it is all over. Nothing will happen. He’ll fall asleep and I’ll listen to him snoring from across the room. I touch myself and pretend that it is him.

The first time we broke up we were in Paris.

I spent the entire trip pretending that everything was okay. I smiled for photographs. I trailed after him through museums, through catacombs and cathedrals, beneath the Arc d Triumph and up the Eiffel Tower, and on the last night, as a dubbed American cop drama was playing on the hotel TV, I told him I didn’t want to be together anymore.

We furiously packed our clothes, and I frantically ran after him as he hailed a cab, afraid that he’d abandon me in a foreign city.

But by the time we made our connecting flight in Newark, NJ, we had reconciled.

For a couple of months things were okay.

He began to stay up all night and to sleep all day. I see him briefly in the morning as I leave to go to to work and briefly when I get home. Our schedules barely overlap. He’s made no attempt to find a job after college and is relying on a dwindling trust fund to sustain him. Any time we have any kind of conflict he locks himself inside his car or in the bathroom.

Once when I was walking through the living room eating a sandwich, Jeremy was behind me with the vacuum, following my every step, sucking up the crumbs.

“Now, how am I going to find my way back to the kitchen?” I ask, but he doesn’t laugh.

When he is done working out is when I want him most, sweaty and hard. But Jeremy has to shower first. He’ll wash his hair seven times, boil the heat from his skin and anything that smells like him, until his skin is red and tight.  He likes it clean.

One day I came home from work and he had rearranged the living room.  He asked me how I liked it.  I said that I couldn’t tell what was different.  Jeremy says that I must be the least observant person that he’s ever met.

I am transfixed by the tiny hairs on his arms that move with the rhythm of the ceiling fan, up past his chest stretched t-shirt, the hole in the collar, the marble white throat, blanket of three day stubble, chin cleft, pouty lip blushed and heavy as a cloud full of rain, the arched nose, invisible bump that Jeremy thinks makes him less beautiful, nostrils flaring, the thin, high cheekbones, deep set, black eyes, the bushy eyebrows, sweeping forehead, inky black disheveled hair.

“Yes,” I said. “I never notice anything.”

When we make love it’s with as little contact as possible, me on my knees, and Jeremy behind me, arched away from me.  I come to him pasteurized and sterilized.  He comes to me with latex gloves and I’m just thankful for his touch.  He likes it clean.  So he sprays me down with disinfectant, turns me round the washing machine and leaves me spinning.

The second time we broke up it was his idea. He was moving to another city without me. I wondered, but didn’t want to wonder if he’d met some other boy online. Someone younger, more interesting, more attractive than me.

For a month after we broke up we still lived together.

On Sundays, I ease out of bed, creeping to the living room.  I sit in front of a muted television while in the other room, the Sleeper sleeps.  I’m too afraid to eat or rattle around the kitchen for fear of waking Jeremy up.  So I wait patiently for the day to pass, passing the time in fingernails and unlaced shoes.

The air conditioner rattles discontent.

The ticking clock, the television, the sunlit blinds, the dishwasher begins the rinse cycle, the kettle in the kitchen, the pot is ready to boil.

The microwave beeps.

The Sleeper sleeps, and I am awake.

I drive from coffee shop to coffee shop.

“Let me guess, chocolate coffee cheesecake and a cherry Italian Soda?” The tall barista with the crinkly, blond hair asks.

They were out of cherry syrup, so I order a hot chocolate instead. The barista turns the froth into a heart. I sit at a table alone, and when The Smith’s “How Soon is Now” comes on I mouth the words. I read a couple chapters of Catch 22, waiting for it to be late enough to go dancing.

Atomic Cafe plays 80s music on Sunday nights.

At the club I dance to Depeche Mode and Joy Division, and when I stand by the bar, a boy in a black t-shirt stands beside me, but he doesn’t say anything and I don’t say anything. A chubby woman with a blonde ponytail invites me to spend the night with she and her husband, and I politely decline, and when the boy in the black t-shirt leaves, I leave.

When I get home Jeremy is watching a movie. He doesn’t say a word to me as I walk in. When we pass one another in the hallway, we flatten ourselves against opposite walls as if even breathing the same air is painful.

I imagine floating out of my clothes, out of my skin, leaving myself in a corpulent mass of twitching this and bloodstained that.  To be nothing, ephemeral, to lose myself in the atmosphere, to break apart and become nothing.

We have sex one last time. After we use the very last condom it sinks in that it is really over. We sit on opposite sides of the room, carpet burned and cathartic. He sits on the side of the bed clipping his toenails and I stupidly still love him.

When I come home from work the next day to find Jeremy’s posters off the wall, his side of the closet empty, a yellow post it on the refrigerator telling me goodbye, I don’t cry or scream.  I just turn off the television, close the door and falls against it, winded.  Because when Jeremy left, even the break was clean.

 

Hot Chocolate – Chicago 2015

hot chocolate

The morning of our anniversary, I wake up before he does, shivering. During the night he’d managed to wrap himself up in the blankets, leaving me uncovered and cold. Six years ago I’d have just quietly suffered rather than wake him, but at this point in our relationship I feel comfortable enough to yank the blankets back over to my side of the bed.

He rolls over toward me and I feel his beard on the back of my neck, his arm around me.

When my alarm goes off, I roll over toward him and kiss his bushy face.

“Happy anniversary.” I say.

He stays in bed while I get dressed in the dark. In the dim light I can’t tell if my socks match, and stare at them for a long, sleepy moment before deciding that it doesn’t actually matter whether they match or not. As I shrug into a blue, wool sweater and spray on some cologne, he sits up in bed and says, “I got us reservations tonight.”

“Where?” I ask.

“It’s a surprise.” He says. He’ll tell me no more, other than to instruct me to catch the blue line after work and take it to Wicker Park.

The train to work is packed. I stand, crushed between an Indian man in loafers with a mothball jacket and two talkative, older women who spend the entire trek speaking animatedly in Spanish. A homeless man is splayed across five seats with a newspaper over his face. In NYC someone would have yelled at him to sit up so that other people could sit down, but in the midwest no one acknowledges his existence. I don’t acknowledge his existence other than to quietly resent him for smelling like moldy garbage and taking up so much space.

As I leave the subway, the stairwell smells like vomit. I hold my breath and rush upstairs, relieved when I feel the cold, bracing wind against my face.

I walk from the train to my job up Michigan Avenue. In the courtyard some representatives of Quaker Oats are aggressively trying to give passersby free packets of instant oatmeal. I just keep walking past them, past the fountains that have been covered now that the weather is growing cold, past the newly leafless trees lining the walkway to the tower where I work.

The days are getting shorter. The sun is just coming up, pale and yellow between two gray skyscrapers. I sit in my cubicle and eat a banana and a granola bar for breakfast as I start my computer. I can’t stop yawning. I spend the entire morning working on a project only to discover that the account manager has sent me the wrong spreadsheet, so I spend the entire afternoon correcting the mistakes I made in the morning. My job is pointless, but I try not to dwell on it, lest I spiral into yet another bout of existential angst.

At four thirty I shut off my computer and push through the throngs of downtown shoppers to the Blue Line to catch the train to Wicker Park.

The evening train is even more crowded than the morning one. After two trains go by that are too full to board, I finally manage to catch one and squeeze in beside a woman going to the airport with an oversized suitcase. She spends the entire train ride on the phone talking about the clubs she wants to go to and the friends she does and doesn’t want to spend time with once she arrives in Atlanta.

C meets me at the Damen stop.

“Wicker Park reminds me of everything I hated about SoHo.” He says.

We walk past crowds of hipsters in scarves and ironic t-shirts going in and out of trendy bars.

“Chicago is so quiet.” He says. Compared to the constant noise pollution of NYC, Chicago does seem duller, more subdued.

“Only because you can’t hear cholesterol.” I say.

We walk past upscale perfume shops, boutiques and restaurants.

“Here we are.” He says when we’ve arrived at our destination.

We walk into a quaint looking, dimly lit place called Hot Chocolate. The wall is plastered with James Beard award nominations for pastry chef. Because we are early we sit by the door as the servers stand at the bar, getting prepped for the night’s service.

The two of us had gotten hot chocolate on our first date, six years ago back in Seattle. I’d taken a long lunch, and the two of us sat at a table at Peet’s sipping on hot chocolate and talking about our previous lives, both having lived in Southern California, and both eager to leave the gray, Pacific Northwest.

At the time I’d already had two phenomenally failed romances that year, and was skittish to get involved with someone else. But he was cute and funny, and what I thought was going to be a fling stretched out into a full fledged relationship with a joint bank account, and multiple cross country moves.

The waitress gives us a table by the window. We sit across from one another, looking out at the yuppies walking by with double strollers. A little girl wearing a fur coat and her overbearing mother sit at a table behind us. C orders the fish, and I get the pork chop with a sweet potato puree. The waitress dissuades me from getting hot chocolate until after dinner because it’s so rich.

We talk about work, and where we want to move after Chicago. The east coast seems to beckon once again. We finish our entrees and have the most amazing hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. I concede that the waitress was right in counseling me against having it with dinner. The chocolate is so rich I can’t even finish it.

After dinner, we take the bus back to our apartment to snuggle on the couch with a scary movie. Six years ago, watching a movie was a flimsy pretext to start snogging, but at this point in our relationship, we actually watch the movie. It’s nice, being curled up beneath a blanket, his legs across my lap holding his hand while we watch a horde of zombies messily devour a group of annoying teenagers.

In bed, we fall asleep talking, making jokes. No one in the world can make me laugh the way that he does. We both drift off to sleep beside each other, for the moment both covered in a warm, maroon blanket. Our future spreads out before us across the sky as we mark another of an undetermined but growing number of years together.

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