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