Elephants – Seattle, 2009

invertedchest

“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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

lanceandcarlos

 

 

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.

Wolves – Texas, 1995/NYC, 2013

lancewolvesIn New York City the wind howls down the stairwells leading to the subway. Scarecrows in designer shoes pull their black coats tightly as they descend. They travel in packs, in their gray suits fresh from Wall Street. There is a hunger that drives them to early meetings, to bars and back to apartments in Chelsea, Midtown, and the Upper West Side. I see it etched in their gaunt faces, shining blackly in their dark, feral eyes. We stand, starched and freshly pressed in subway cars as young people break dance between stops and walk through collecting change. We stand so close together that we can feel the heat of one another’s breath, and smell the barest hint of aftershave that lingers after a day spent in cubicles and conference rooms. All lonely hunters, searching for the same thing. All driven by the same, dull ache. Everywhere I go, there are wolves.

I come from a family of hunters. In the fall when I was growing up, my father would come home from a hunting trip with a  deer strung up on a tree, skinned, it’s blood draining into a stained, white bucket to be cut up into venison. My grandfather trapped mountain lions to kill them for their pelts. Once he’d even trapped a wolf, a skinny, gray she wolf. After killing her, he’d heard a rustling in the nearby leaves, a tiny whimper, and discovered that she had a little pup. My grandfather coaxed the little pup out of the brush and took it home to raise it like a dog.

But Wolf was not a dog. Though he’d started out looking like any other puppy with his oversized head and clumsy paws, as he grew up and became leaner, hulkier, there was a wildness that came out at inconvenient times. He was protective and snarled and growled at strangers like the mail man and the gas meter reader. No matter how well fed he was, he behaved as if he was starving, nipping at my grandmother when she came home with bags of groceries. My cousins and I were wild too, rowing across ponds in old, rusty wash tubs,  building forts in the same brush where wild hogs rooted, and bob cats padded along with shining eyes, climbing trees and jumping into piles of leaves.

My grandfather’s property was bordered by train tracks that ran along the northern edge, and one night my grandfather said that he found Wolf’s body lying beside the tracks. He’d been hit by a train during a lonesome, late night walk. I always wondered if that had really happened or if my grandfather had shot him because he knew that the adult wolf was going to be too dangerous to live among people, and too unused to fending for himself to survive on his own. I never asked. As children we were told so many stories to protect us from the harsh realities of life.

I was learning to lie, myself.

I was collecting Jasons and desperately trying to lose my virginity. I was 18, and the prospect of turning 19 and still being a virgin was too humiliating a fate to subject myself to. Jason II and I had been dating for a few weeks. Because I was living with my parents during my first year of college, I had a curfew of 1:00 am, and there was a 45 minute drive from Jason II’s dorm room back to my parent’s house. Every time things were just getting good, I’d have to stop and leave. We were both frustrated with pent up desire.

His M.O. was always the same. We’d go to a movie, then have dinner, then sit on his couch and make out in front of the TV, his hand slowly creeping up from my knee toward my inner thigh. The first two times we’d nearly gotten to the moment where we’d begin to shed our clothes when I’d have to leave to drive the thirty five miles back to my parent’s house. The night it finally happened we’d watched a movie like we always did, our knees touching in the theater, our hands accidentally brushing one another as we both reached for popcorn at the same time.

When the movie ended this time, he asked, “Are you hungry?”

I said. “No. Not really.”

I was starving, but I’d had enough dilly dallying and was ready to get it over with. Not because I was intensely attracted to Jason II, because I wasn’t, or that I was in love with him, because I didn’t even like him, really. He didn’t read, or listen to cool music, or talk about philosophy. He listened to hip hop, and had a blanket with a southwestern print draped across his couch. But he was there, and willing, and had a room of his own.

We went back to his place as usual. Even though he was a senior and I was a freshman, looking back, it’s clear that he wasn’t much more experienced than I was. Sitting on his couch, we listened to terrible, mid ninety’s club music in front of a muted nature show. He was kissing my neck while I watched a lion ripping the throat out of a wildebeest. We went through the motions of our standard mating ritual. I talked non stop nonsense as his hand crept up my thigh until it rested between my legs and I froze.

“Why’d you stop talking?” He asked, smiling.

He was khaki, a fraternity, a polo shirt. But I let him kiss me anyway.

When he took off his pants, his underwear were so soaked with precum that I thought he’d already ejaculated. His penis was short and sort of pyramid shaped, with a thick shaft and tiny head. I wasn’t sure if I should touch it or not, but he seemed to expect me to, so I did. It was warm and sticky. He pulled my own pants down and took my penis in his hand and I gasped again. It was the first time someone else had touched me and it was scary and thrilling at the same time.

“Let’s go back to the bedroom.” He said.

After three weeks of shedding our skins I was ready to finally slither into one another’s systems. I watched him sliding on a condom and covering it in lube with a certain detached curiosity. I looked back over my shoulder on my hands and knees in front of him, clueless as to what I was supposed to do. When he slid into me with no preamble, it hurt. I inched up further and further on the bed until I reached the headboard and could go no further. I stared at the red numbers on his digital clock until they were burned into my brain so that I could see the after image of them when I closed my eyes.

The Prêt-à-Porter soundtrack was playing as he rammed himself into me. To me that was the worst part, not the pain, not the lack of feelings, but the fact that I lost my virginity to “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze.

Driving home afterward the sky was seven shades of gray whether my eyes were closed or open. Traffic lights stretched across rain swept streets, blood red like a baby’s scream. I had to remind myself to breathe, to drive when the light turned green, thinking over and over, “What was that?”

It felt like the bones of butterflies were turning to dust in my stomach. My insides ached and I felt like I was full of some gray and burning sediment. All I wanted to do was crawl into my own familiar bed and cry. I never wanted to do it again. The idea that this was what sex was, what adulthood was, was devastating to me.

“Never again.” I repeated to myself over and over on the long drive back to my parent’s house like some pathetic mantra.

When I got home they were in the living room waiting for me.

“Who were you with tonight?” My mother asked, her eyes were already puffy and red, and her voice was stretched taut like a fishing line, accusatory.

“Sara,” I’d answered, cautiously. I knew something was up, guessed what it was, and knew it wasn’t something I was ready for.

“That’s not true.” My mother said. “Sara called looking for you.”

I cursed my dumb luck. Sara had always been my alibi on the nights I’d spent cramped on Jason II’s couch, and usually I’d let her know what I was up to, but on that particular night she was out of town and I hadn’t expected her to call. I was uncertain what to say, trying to think up some convincing lie to explain where I’d been.

“Who is Jason?” My mother asked.

“No one.” I said. I was in full panic mode, and there was nowhere I could go, no place to run, nothing I could do but stand there.

It all came out then. A girl I’d gone to high school with had seen me go into the gay club one night and had told my cousin, who told my aunt, who told my mom. My mother had gone into my room and found Jason’s name and number written on the back of a cocktail napkin inside the drawer of my nightstand.

“How can you let a man touch you?” My father asked in disgust.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Do you have somewhere you can go?” My mother asked.

“Are you kicking me out?” I asked, terrified. I knew they wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t think even my parents could kick me out for being gay.

My father intervened. “No one is kicking you out.” He said.

Instead, they took away my phone. They forbid me to leave the house except to go to school. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sara, or to anyone. I was grounded. For the first night in my life, my mother didn’t tell me that she loved me before she went to bed.

At school the next day I had a calculus test. I bubbled in circles on my Scantron without looking at the questions in a room that was vomit green. In the parking lot, a black sports car hit my car, and because I didn’t see any damage, I told the driver not to worry about it. Only when I tried to drive again did I realize the axle was bent and I had to turn the wheel sideways to go straight. This didn’t stop me from driving 80 miles per hour home and getting a speeding ticket. I sat in my car on the side of the road with the red and blue lights reflected in the rearview mirror. Everything in the world was wrong.

For weeks, we sat across from one another at the dinner table in silence. My mother wouldn’t speak to me at all unless it was absolutely necessary. We went to the grocery store in silence, and to my grandmother’s house in silence. My father went away on a hunting trip, and it was just the two of us in a house, her wrapped in a depression quilt on a couch in the living room, and me in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening to The Cure, R.E.M., Tori Amos, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, finding escape where I could.

One day Jason II called and my mother answered the phone.

“Never call this house again.” She said.

I never heard from him again.

“From now on you’ll act normal.” My mother said, still wrapped in a quilt on the couch, red eyed and sniffling. “From now on you’ll be normal.”

But I wasn’t normal. I was a hurt, feral thing, rejected by the people who were supposed to love me unconditionally. I stumbled from relationship to relationship, interspersed with one night stands, all looking for the love that I didn’t get from the people who had mattered. I graduated from college and found myself adrift, going from job to job, city to city. From Austin to Los Angeles to Seattle to Portland to Chicago to New York City. I was always on the move, searching night scenes for love leaning against a bar room wall, on an internet chatline, on an app on my phone, in coffee houses, and used bookstores. Nothing else mattered except filling this overwhelming desire to be desired. My life became full of gray, cubicle days, and black, strobe lit nights. The cities changed, but the scenery was always the same.

New York City was as far as I could get from my childhood home in rural Texas. But designer clothes and subway cars could never dilute the country blood that pulses through my veins. Despite years spent carefully removing any trace of an accent, despite my travels, the foreign films and novels, the exotic restaurants I visited to try to exorcise my country upbringing, the skinny boy from Texas is always there, wide eyed and trembling. All I have to do is close my eyes when I’m on the subway and the city melts away, is replaced by a childhood of mobile homes, windmills, rusty cars on concrete cinders in the overgrown lawns of the neighbors’ houses.

I howl. Am howling, silently at the gym, in my apartment, in my cubicle at work. Padding along on my furry feet. Solitary. Hungry.

Back in Jason II’s apartment, twenty years ago, the night I’d lost my virginity and my parents had found out I was gay, throbbing and sore, carpet burned and cathartic, I spilled a glass of wine on his nightstand. He said not to worry. He’d clean it up. It wouldn’t stain. And I knew that it was true. There was no mark of it’s passing. Just a shirt on the floor that smelled like him, an empty glass, and one less claim to innocence.

Astral Projections – Austin, 1999

Things that seem like a good idea when you’re horny rarely continue to do so when the feeling passes. Despite having already learned this life lesson, I choose to ignore it, because I’m horny. This explains why I’m driving downtown on a Sunday night to meet a man I’d chatted up on some sleazy hook-up site instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour like a more responsible citizen.

I see him first and am relieved. He looks just like his picture, indy funk in his early thirties, darkly balding with serious lips and laser tag eyes. He is sitting on the stoop of Spider  House holding an oversized cup of coffee, finishing a cigarette. He is a thrift store sweater in a vintage jacket and clunky shoes, worn and comfortably corduroy, in a warm, fuzzy way that implies snuggling and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

“Hey.” I say, as I James Dean up to him with my hands in my pockets. I am a t-shirt and rolled up blue jeans, suddenly self conscious, suddenly too pale and too skinny, suddenly afraid he’s going to see me and bolt, or pretend he doesn’t speak English, or that his name is Edgar and I must be looking for someone else. There are precedents.

“Hey.” He says, standing up. “Lance?” I agree that I am. He smells like stale cologne and smoke as he presses against me with an introductory hug. But I smell love on a molecular level, in coffee cups, in his pockets, in the tiny creases beside his eyes. There is an exchange of protons and electrons, and in my stomach an internal mushroom cloud of fumbling desire quietly implodes.

We both know it’s too late on a Sunday night for the coffee to be casual, but I’m still pretending innocence. “Sometimes coffee is just coffee,” I tell myself. “Eleven o’clock coffee on a Sunday night just means we’re alternative, not desperate.” But let’s face it, I’m wearing my just-in-case underwear. My body, at least, takes the situation for what it is, a hook-up, and responds accordingly.

He leaves one arm around my waist and says, “Where do you want to sit?”

“Anywhere is fine,” I tell him. I become so aware of his hand on the small of my back that it feels almost uncomfortable. The absent minded familiarity of it is burning through my t-shirt. It is impossible to think of anything else except how long it’s been since I’ve been touched by another person.

“Do you want some coffee?” He asks.

“I don’t like coffee.” I say, and immediately regret saying it, because I don’t want to seem negative or weird, so I try to recover by adding, “I mean I like it, but only if it has so much sugar and cream that it no longer actually resembles coffee.  So what’s the point?”

“Oh, you’re one of those.” He says.

“I like the way it smells?” I have a habit of ending statements with question marks like I’m not really certain of anything, because I’m not.

“You’re cute.” He says as he leads me to some benches in a corner beneath a tree criss-crossed with strings of year-round colored Christmas lights.

“No I’m not,” I blush. The smallest compliment and I turn into a stuttering, human lobster. “Anyway, I’m glad you think so.” I smile and say, “You too.”  I’m encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t invented an early meeting yet, an imaginary boyfriend, or some terrible, wasting disease before disappearing into the blind-date ether.

“Thanks,” he grins. “I was here earlier tonight with my roommate.  We had a couple beers and chilled.”

“Cool.” I say, even though I think beer is as repulsive as fermented dishwater.  I look around at the benches, the coffeehouse girls with their poetry notebooks, the heroin armed waitresses, square jawed bus-boys, the armless, outside statues, anything but his face that only looks at me.

“I used to come here all the time.” I say.

“Why’d you stop?” He asks, interested.

I tell him I don’t remember and excuse myself to buy a hot chocolate and re-group.

I’d stopped going to Spider House the summer after Jeremy moved to Minneapolis, taking down his Hopper prints, his Beatles CDs, his Monty Python DVDs, leaving one half of the closet empty. That summer and that place are superimposed over one another. Reckless nights with tall, blond impostors. The French films. The Russian novels. My heartbreak had an international flair.

I sat outside, slapping mosquitoes, smiling too eagerly at any guy wearing Converse sneakers, picking the blood smeared legs of squashed insects off my pale, white arms. It was a summer of carnage, insect and otherwise. My little, red heart was only the latest in a string of casualties. Everyone I knew had been dumped as soon as the semester ended and the objects of our respective affections flew to Minske, or New York, or Minneapolis.

I sat outside with the students who either couldn’t afford to leave, or who had summer classes. I sat with my same backpack, my Cherry Italian Soda, my Russian novel, even though I’d graduated a semester before, because the life of a student was the only one I knew. Already I was becoming obsolete, replaced by newer models, hipsters in skinny jeans and matching haircuts who listened to bands I’d never heard of.

I’d stopped going to Spider House because I couldn’t escape my burgeoning mediocrity, the unavoidable, universal truth that I’d become a twenty-something failure. My defeat was worn into the seams of the threadbare couches, scuffed on the unswept hardwood floors and buried beneath flea market rugs, invisible to strangers, maybe, but inescapable. Writing in journals and pretending to read, sipping overpriced beverages and looking for love in the bottom of every coffee cup had become my routine. I’d stopped going once the barista knew my order without me having to tell him because I was too ashamed that my life consisted of nothing else.

“If it was clear,” he says, when I sit down again, “We could see the Leonids.”

“The what?” I sip my hot chocolate gingerly, wishing I’d ordered tepid chocolate instead in order to avoid burning my tongue in case the evening leads to kissing of the French variety, as I suspect it might.

“The meteor shower,” he says. “It’s supposed to be phenomenal tonight.”  The two of us are looking into the clear, night sky.  The stars above us are dimmed and invisible from the light pollution of the city.

His insight into things celestial pleases the romantic in me. “Are you one of those guys who knows the names of constellations?” I ask.

“No.” He says.

I have an infinite capacity for disappointment.

“Do you go to Cons?” He asks, sitting perpendicular to me, his arm draped casually around my shoulder. Every move he makes seems so natural and fluid, and my own movements seem all the more spastic by comparison. I’m completely incapable of acting naturally.

“Is that a club?” I ask. I can be pretty oblivious.

“No. You know. Conventions?” He’s smiling quizzically at me like he’s discovered some new species of marine life but hasn’t decided how important his find is.

All I can imagine is a bunch of old men in red fezzes with name tags, and a cheap tablecloth punch bowl in a room full of folding chairs.

“You mean, like Shriners?” I ask.

“No.” He says. “Like, just a bunch of sci-fi fans and hardcore nerds. They can get pretty wild.”

I am quietly horrified, pegging him as a Magic: The Gathering player, one of those Society for Creative Anachronism geeks, sitting at a Renaissance fair in a Lyrca Star Trek uniform brandishing an oversized turkey leg. The thought repels me. Nothing good can come of this.

“You want to go back to my place and watch a movie or something?” He asks.

“Yes.” I answer without hesitation. What can I say? The things that repulse me can also attract me.

I follow him back to his apartment, me in my brick colored Laotian, economy car and he in his beige Volvo, driving faster than I’m entirely comfortable as we make our way along the one way streets downtown, afraid of losing him at intersections. I realize that one of two things is about to happen: 1). Either we are going to go back to his apartment where we will meander through some pointless small talk before having awkward sex on his small, springy bed, or 2). We will actually watch a movie. I wish I had a breath mint.

At this point we are barely more than wires crossing, than messages sent through phone lines, through the skeletal branches of winter trees, buried beneath the cold stone of vagrant city sidewalks, whispered along the peeling whitewash of suburban sprawl, a flickering image on my computer screen transferred electronically to his. But by the time I reach his apartment, I’ve gay married us and have us rooming in a loft downtown living scenes of wet nosed puppy Christmases and candlelit saxophone dinners with wine glasses, an adopted Guatemalan baby, his and his matching bath towels. My kinkiest fantasy is always a rough approximation of domesticity.

Inside his apartment I make an immediate b-line to his bookshelf only to be dismayed by its contents. His collection consists entirely of vegan cook books, biographies of the Dalai Lama, and pulp science fiction novels. My ability to imagine us adopting a Guatemalan baby is becoming more and more difficult with every new disclosure, but I still somehow manage to convince myself that there is a future laid out for us, a silver anniversary and a two-car garage. The truth is, I find it nearly impossible to have sex with someone if I can’t at least pretend that it might lead to some conventional life like the one my parents wanted for me.

We sit on his hand me down sofa with his yappy, little dog between us, the kind a wealthy, blond heiress might keep in her designer purse, nervous and deranged, all eyes and fangs. I get the impression that the dog hates me, and the feeling is mutual.

“I’ve got Jem and the Holograms and Masters of the Universe on DVD, and some old, horror movies, if you want to watch something.” He says.

“I’m fine with anything.” I say, inwardly horrified that we’re actually going to watch a movie.

“I’m going to grab a drink,” he says, standing. “Can I get you something?”

“Whatever you’re having is great.” I peruse his movies while he gets the drinks. Saturday morning cartoons from his childhood. B-horror movies. Documentaries on organic farming and spirituality.  I think, “My soul-mate would never watch The Secret.”

He brings me back a beer. I resign myself to it. I’m a lightweight who hardly ever imbibes so, half a beer later, I’m giggling at everything he says. I’m the kind of drunk who laughs constantly and tells people he loves them whether he does or not.

We watch Jem and the Holograms and agree that the Mysfits’ songs really were better. His hand is inching closer and closer to my knee.  He’s cute enough that I’m willing to overlook his poor taste and hippie underpinnings.  I imagine light-hearted arguments over our Guatemalan baby’s diet and religious upbringing.

When he tries to kiss me, his dog leaps to fill the space between us, nipping at my jugular, demanding his attention, licking his chin. She looks at me with one eye, letting me know where I stand, which is mauled and limping and preferably outside somewhere if she had any say in the matter.

“Do you have a dog?” He asks.

“I’m more a cat person.” I say.

“Do you have a cat?” He asks.

“No.”  I answer, smiling too broadly.

“Want to go back to my room?” He asks.

“Yes.”

He leaves the dog outside. I smirk at her as he closes the door. Small victories. He takes his clothes off and I admire his hardwood floors. His body is thin and pale, dark hair in sparse patches on his chest and belly like transplants steadfastly refusing to take root. He pulls me close and kisses me, his eyes closed, mine open, looking for a place to set my beer. Finding none I hold it awkwardly until he takes it from my hand and sets it on the bedside table.

Things proceed in the usual fashion ending in us both naked on his small, springy bed when he asks, “Do you want to fuck me?”

“If you’ve got the condoms and lube, then I’ve got the time.” I say. I have no idea who I am sometimes.

“I’ve got lube, but no condoms.” He says. “Is that a problem?”

My body becomes completely immobile.  Reading the horror on my face and my rapidly waning erection, he tries to reassure me with, “It’s okay, I tested negative a couple months ago.”

I am not reassured.

“I don’t do it without a condom,” I say, when really I just want to flee and not look back. He’s suddenly radioactive, and my built in Geiger counter does everything in its power to warn me away.

Disappointed, he says, “It’s cool. I can just suck you off.”

This happens. I float out of my body, drift into the cold night beneath stars, beneath street lamps, past all night diners, closed book stores, the late night coffee houses, through phone lines, radio waves, through all the dead ends and misconnections, thinking, “There’s someone out there for me.”

Somewhere.

Not here.

“Will I see you again?” He asks as I’m leaving, his face full of sideways eyes and crooked smiles. I appreciate his misplaced optimism. The two of us are on either side of his half-open doorway, him silhouetted in orange light from inside, me pale beneath the dim light of early morning sky.

“Maybe.” I say, my breath hanging soft and gray in the air between us like a question mark.

“Maybe later this week?” He presses, squinty in a pair of boxer shorts. Saggy elastic.  Any lingering romance disappears in the harsh light of morning.   He becomes another notch on my internal bedpost that, at this point, must be splintered and devoid of paint.

I slide out of his fingers, catlike through the crack of the open door, and out into the city to the street below.

“Maybe.” I call back to him. But we both know that I don’t mean it.