The Bath -Texas, 1997

76bMatt has already gone to bed.

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

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

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

“In a minute.”  I say.

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

“Sure.”  I say.

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

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

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

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

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

“That I was on the luge team.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I test the temperature with my big toe.

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

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

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

He says, “Now into the tub.”

I obey.

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

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

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

“Nothing.”  I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiles, splashes me.

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

“I’ve never seen the ocean.”  I say.

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.” I say.

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

“That’s not important.” I say.

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

“I love you too.” I say.

Matt holds my shoulders in his thick, stubby hands.

“Was it about your Grandfather?”  He asks.

I nod, still holding the phone in my hand.

“So?”  He asks.

“His condition has stabilized.” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when?”

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

Stupid fish.

I make a mental note to feed it.

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

The fish opens and closes its mouth.

A bottle of red wine.

A corkscrew.

Two clear blue plates.

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

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

The microwave beats.

The oven light turns on.

The dishwasher pounds.

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

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

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

“Yes.”  I lie.

Matt’s arms around me crush me.

“Oh sweetie,” he consoles. “I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

Funeral.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile as if nothing is wrong.

Strobe light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To let the ocean lull me to sleep.

To be carried away by dark and silent waves.

To drift off to a place where dreamers meet.

To meet my lover there beneath the waves.

And kiss him in the dark of endless sleep.

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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.

 

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.

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.