“Should we talk about the elephant in the room?” He asks.
We are sitting in his bed in our underwear. I am absently tracing the geometric design of the green and gold tattoo on his chest.
“Sure.” I say, leaning in to kiss his pale, freckled shoulder.
The night before was our third date and all of the expectations that this relationship benchmark entails.
I was wearing a red t-shirt that said “Kiss me.”
He was wearing a brown t-shirt that said “Let’s Experiment.”
I thought we understood each other.
We eat at a vegetarian Thai place downtown. Even though I’m not strictly a vegetarian anymore, I pretend that I still am so that he’ll like me. I think he’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. Every time I look up, I get caught up in his bright, green eyes and lose my train of thought. I’m mostly able to ignore the pestering question that keeps bubbling up in my subconscious that wonders, but doesn’t want to wonder, what someone as beautiful as him is doing on a date with me.
After dinner we watch a movie. It is a quirky, independent romantic comedy. Our knees are touching and I am acutely aware of how close he is to me. I manage to resist the overwhelming urge to reach over and hold his hand in the dark of the movie theater, though more out of cowardice than self-control.
When the movie ends, we take the elevator down to the parking garage where he left his car. We are alone in the elevator, and I want to lean over to him and kiss him, but again, I’m too afraid to make the first move.
“Can I have my ticket stub?” He asks when we get to his car.
I reach in my pocket and hand him one of the gray, torn stubs.
“I want to keep this.” He says.
He drives us back to his apartment. We listen to his terrible music that I convince myself that I actually like, because when I have a crush on someone, I find it impossible to be myself, and instead spend every moment agonizing over how to be the person I think he wants. In the car he puts his hand on my knee. His touch makes my stomach churn with a giddy feeling I’ve learned to associate with being smitten.
Back at his apartment building, a light has gone out in the foyer. Because he is the apartment manager, he tells me that he’ll have to change the light bulb. He pours me a glass of water before he heads downstairs with a replacement light bulb and step-ladder.
While he’s out, I rummage through his bookshelf. His collection is comprised mostly of books on Eastern Religions, vegan cooking, fantasy novels with dragons on the cover and more than one book by Eckhart Tolle. His apartment is full of windows with long, climbing ivy plants and hardwood floors. There is a mountain bike in the hallway. I stifle my innate need to judge others based on the books they read, and content myself with the fact that he is sensitive and outdoorsy.
When he comes back from changing the light bulb, he says that he feels sweaty and decides to take a shower. I sit on his hand me down sofa and wait for him. He emerges clean and damp in a pair of boxers. We sit on his couch and kiss.
“You’re a great kisser.” He says.
I love the feel of the red hairs of his beard against my face.
We talk about our lives before Seattle. He shows me pictures of him when he was in the Navy. He looks so clean-shaven and young in his white and blue uniform. He shows me another picture of him back then with no shirt on, all rippling muscles and pale skin.
“One day I’m going to be buff again like you,” he says, squeezing my pecs with his long, thin fingers.
I flex my bicep while he wraps his hand around it. After years of forcing myself to go to the gym against my will, my body, for the first time in my life, is not a source of embarrassment for me.
Upstairs, one of his tenants starts to play loud electronic music. The bass reverberates through the walls of his apartment.
His demeanor suddenly changes. His face reddens and he slams his fist against the wall, cracking the plaster.
I pull away from him, alarmed by the anger emanating from him, the ferocity of his reaction.
“I’m going to go put a stop to that.” He says.
“It’s Friday night.” I tell him, trying to soothe him. He is as tight as a balled up fist, standing, ready to go yell at the tenants to turn off their music. “We probably can’t even hear it from your bedroom.”
He begins to relax, and smiles, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry.” He says. “I didn’t mean to get angry in front of you.”
“It’s okay.” I say. But I’m a little unnerved by how quickly his mood shifted.
In his bedroom the music is stifled. We both relax a little. He pulls off my shirt and slides down my pants, and we crawl into his bed and kiss some more. He turns out the light beside his bed, and we face one another touching in the dark. He has the smoothest skin that I have ever felt. It feels so good pressed against my own.
I feel his long eyelashes brush against my naked shoulder as he blinks, his head laying against me. I can feel how hard he is inside his boxers as he presses against me, but neither of us is bold enough to go any further than touches outside of our underwear, long kisses and caresses.
After a couple of hours of making out, he says, “I’m sleepy.”
So we go to sleep. Or he goes to sleep, and I lie beside him, hard, wanting him. We doze, wrapped in each others arms, until our body heat is too much, and we pry ourselves apart, sweaty and sticky, only to cool down and find ourselves pressed back together again.
When I finally fall asleep, I dream of elephants. Elephants with bodies like greyhounds. Long and sleek. Muscles tight and glistening in rain. Walking in line down a nighttime city street. I stand on a corner and count them as they pass. Slate gray rain the same color as the elephants. The smallest one comes only to my knee. Curls himself around my legs and goes to sleep.
We wake up when the pale sun comes through his white curtains. We touch some more, in the dim light before we’re fully awake. We touch one another through our underwear without speaking. His green eyes stare into my blue ones. I’ve never wanted another person as badly as I want him. But nothing happens.
We are sitting up in his bed in our underwear, and he says, “Should we talk about the elephant in the room?”
“Sure.” I say, kissing him gently on the shoulder.
“What do you think of my plant?” He asks.
Caught off guard by the question, I look around the room at the high, comfortable bed, the patchwork quilt, the black and white, framed photographs on the wall. In the corner, there is, indeed, a plant, spindly and leafy, but otherwise unobtrusive, and nothing at all like something that I might have an opinion about.
“Is there something special about your plant?” I ask.
“Yes.” He says.
I draw a blank.
“You know what kind of plant that is, right?” He asks.
“Bamboo?” I guess. I know nothing about plants, and because I wanted to look cuter, I am not wearing my glasses, so I’m more than a little nearsighted.
Then it dawns on me the type of plant that an outdoorsy, sensitive man with anger issues might have growing secretly in his bedroom.
“Oh.” I say. “Is that legal?”
“No.” He says. “It isn’t.”
He said that he’d planted a seed and hadn’t expected it to grow, but it did, and now he wanted to get rid of it, but didn’t know how.
“It’s harder than you’d think to get rid of an illegal substance.”
“It’s ridiculous that it’s even illegal,” I say, which is true enough. I never understood why marijuana was illegal in the first place, but alcohol wasn’t. I was never really invested in the topic enough to investigate. It’s legality or lack thereof hadn’t impacted my life one way or other.
We shared our respective drug histories. Mine was prudishly short. I’d smoked pot a grand total of once with my college roommates when I was nineteen. We’d passed a joint around in a little circle, and we’d giggled, but otherwise I hadn’t felt any discernable effect, nothing like the euphoria claimed by my roommate who assured me it made her “soft in the middle.”
His own history played like an afterschool special. He was in 6th grade when his uncle gave him his first joint. He smoked for a year, then stopped. In high school he started again and smoked regularly up until he joined the navy. He smoked once or twice while in the navy, and afterward he started up again, and now he smokes every day, more than once a day.
“If you enjoy it, and it’s not hurting you,” I say, “then I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
“It is hurting me, though.” He says. “It makes me lazy, and it’s totally wrecked my libido, as you’ve probably noticed.”
I had noticed. Part of me was relieved that there was some reason for our lack of sex other than the fear I’d been nursing that he just wasn’t attracted to me. But just because there was a reason for it that didn’t hurt my ego, didn’t make the fact that we hadn’t consummated our relationship much easier to bear.
“The conversation is about to get a little heavy.” He says.
He tells me about his abusive childhood. His mom kicked him in the chest so hard once that he passed out. His step dad beat him with a belt leaving welts and lesions all over his back and legs at the slightest provocation, or, more often than not, for no reason at all.
He goes on to tell me that he’d tried crystal meth back when he was seventeen. His older brother was nineteen and heavy into drugs, and his brother’s best friend and his brother got into a fight over a girl while high and the best friend stabbed his brother killing him. His testimony sent the friend to jail, and since he’s up for parole soon, he’s afraid that the guy will come for him, wanting revenge.
He is trembling, and quietly weeping as he tells me this.
“I’m sorry about you brother.” I say. “Were you close?”
“We’d gotten close,” he says. “Right before he died.”
He tells me that on Thursdays he goes to see a therapist. He is trying to overcome his sudden uncontrollable bursts of anger, his dependence on self medicating, and his toxic friendships.
“It’s okay if it makes you uncomfortable.” He says.
“No,” I assure him. “It’s cool.” I put my hand over his in a way that I hope seems reassuring. But to be honest, it does make me uncomfortable. A little. I feel out of my depth.
“Will I see you again?” He asks, as I’m getting dressed.
“If you want to.” I say.
“I want to.” He says.
I walk home in the same clothes I wore the night before. I’m sleep deprived and cotton headed. A blond guy in a blue hoodie smiles at me. I smile back, but don’t slow down. I walk down a residential street, the pale sun shining in disjointed beams through the green leaves of trees, casting leaf shaped light patterns on the sidewalk.
I think of elephants, marching one by one, never forgetting. The pain of childhood. The horrors of adolescence. The agony of adulthood. There is something in me that wants to help him overcome his past. There is an attraction I don’t care to analyze to a man even more fucked up than I am, who makes my own hang ups seem nearly normal by comparison. I think that he is no less sweet, or thoughtful, or fun to kiss, or nice to hold because bad things happened to him, because he is damaged.
If he is an elephant who never forgets, I’m the goldfish that never remembers that you cannot fix someone who is broken.