“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.
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?”
“I’ll look for it.” He says.
“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.
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.