In my dream I am suspended high above reality, all alone on a wrought-iron bridge. The water below me bubbles and froths and rages as if at any moment it may reach up and drag me away from my perch on top of the world. I'm not sure how I got here; I'm not sure where I'm going. Behind me the lights shine bright and vibrant, beckoning. To me, however, the boiling river below is of equal draw and I'm unware of which way is right. If I chose to turn back, I know exactly what I have to face: the same droll existence that I was trying to escape. To lean forward and drop promises me nothing except pain and uncertain death. I worry the two choices for what seems like an eternity until I realize the only logical solution is a compromise. I split myself in two and one half of me drops, my sane self watching wordlessly as the other part grows smaller and smaller and lands in the water ten stories below.
This is something I won't ever understand. Not so much what drove him to do it but rather how. How he could do it. How he could have the courage to take such a threatening thing- cold and frightening as death itself- and bring this down upon every single one of us. I can see him as if he were here right now, as if he changed his mind midway. He takes the tiny razor, broken from the blade he used to shave every morning and drags it slowly across his bubbling wrist and the red begins to stain the white kitchen floor. For my part, I do nothing, I sit and stare as what pours out of him bleeds from marroon to crimson to the same black as the inky night. The lights are off but I can see him thrashing, trying desperately to grasp something as if he were trying one last time to get a grip on his life. Blood pools around my feet and my socks are heavy with it. If I listen carefully I think I can hear him gasping for help- he is my guilt, he is my telltale heart. This is something that will always haunt me: my days, my nights, my everything will be invaded by this lifeless image. This is something that will always torture me. It's happened so many times before, so why won't this go away?
It's funny the things that make us remember. Today I caught the slightest hint of his shampoo on the air- bitter to the taste but sweet to the scent. I remembered stroking his curls and the way my palm would come back to me smelling of soap and sweat from a hard day of work. He would lean back against me and we'd melt into one; my hands always found their way to his stomach and his fingers never failed to feel through mine. During the day he was dangerous; it was he against the world. Every night was a different story. Even now I know he isn't quite the person he should be. He's selfish and condescending; he likes to poke fun. He does things he shouldn't do- things we both know are wrong... but he needs me. We share a common blood. We'd sneak off beyond prying eyes and lie beneath the blazing sky- up north you can see all the stars and the opalescent bands of the milky way stretch across miles of air. I would take his hand (so much smaller than my own) and point upwards; he would fall back on me as I whispered constellations in his ear. Every so often he would turn and we would kiss, though never without meaning. Only once did we ever sleep outside. I find this funny... not the fact we never ever slept, nor the fact that I remember these things in the first place. I find this all funny, I believe, because it all came from a bottle of cheap shampoo.
The paisley braid of his cuff scratches stiffly at his wrist, his discomfort apparent in the way he shifts frequently and so noticeably in his chair. The wingback serves its purpose well and holds him fast where he sits. I had not conned him into coming here, I thought selfishly- this was his conscious decision. Who am I to convince anyone of anything? I toy briefly with the idea of reaching out to touch him. I think I will touch his hair, the brown feather cut light and fluid under my fingers. I will merely push it out of his eyes and expose his face, a shock of blue eyes… but we would both be embarrassed. I would be ashamed at the hand I had laid on him and I think he’s too fragile to show face. Even as I reprimand myself for thinking such things it begins to play over like a loop in my mind. Eventually I will have to let it run its course; I might as well start now. The more he seizes and tries not to meet my eyes, the more I worry he may betake to another room- more specifically one I am not in. In his movement it takes little time to recognize that his holiness is unbearable. The tiny cross that stains his chest is blinding, flickering light- it is as perfect as the love it represents. The air is thick with the remnants of our last words and all that fills the silence now is heavy breathing. His left hand shakes. All of a sudden, my thoughts are consumed by the presence he radiates and I look at him once, twice. He smiles. I take this as my cue and I stand quickly, awkwardly, and sidle over onto his lap and begin what I came here to do.
He opens the front door of his 85th street apartment to face the world and pulls a fresh cigarette from his pocket to keep himself warm. His heavy jacket and scarf do little if not nothing to protect from the biting cold; already his boots are bogged down with water and slush and mud from the side of the curb. Every building is a mountain and he walks a valley- the wind howls and mats his curls down close to his head. The flaps of his coat fly in the oncoming gale and his lighter won’t light. This is typical winter weather for a typical winter day.
Back inside his room, he has a down blanket to ward off the cold. He misses the folds and rubs his hands together, longingly looking up the side of the building and pretending he is still asleep. At least, he thinks thankfully, he didn’t wear his suede boots- they’d be ruined in the muck. There’s a bright side to every day. He stomps along the curb and into the street, kicking blocks of ice and not knowing where to walk.
As he progresses, the familiar gates of Central Park beckon; there is snow on the ground and ice on the street and the weather is dangerous. The park, to him, offers safety from things. He walks cautious of the frozen sidewalks and sees a woman sitting on a bench with her dog. It is massive, about the size of him, he thinks, and it looks as if it might be dead. As he passes the animal lifts a weary head and looks at him calmly and he scolds himself for such a morbid thought.
In the park itself the sidewalks are a little less slick (salted by maintenance crew and other men of the like) and he is grateful. The last thing he needs is gravel on his new jeans or for his leather gloves to tear from the fall. There are people on blankets cuddled in the snow- people having picnics despite the cold. The boy scoffs loudly and extracts another cigarette from his coat pocket, lights, and inhales deeply. Inside his head he reasons that the smoke will keep his lungs warm enough to function proper. Another, different tiny voice begs him to stop.
Even in the biting cold the park is crowded. Children in mittens and synthetic coats climb atop the Alice in Wonderland statue; their parents watch closely. Couples sit huddled on the benches that dot the walks and the boy tries to imagine this from above- like thumbtacks littering a map. He walks slowly, absorbing all he sees with an artists’ eye and looks for perhaps a familiar face, anyone to pass the time.
An hour passes, then another. He walks up and down what seems to be a countless amount of stairs. He traverses bridges and cross
es under tunnels, past the lake and past the statue of the Polish general whose name he doesn’t know. He decides upon a break to rest his feet and walks south towards Bethesda. It is his favorite part of the park.
Coming out of the narrow walk and onto the Terrace, he notices the statue looks much different than it ever had before. He hasn’t been since fall and when the fountain was still running: then the angel had looked full of life but now its gray stone looks painfully stark against the steely sky. He sits across the large stone circle from the statue and just looks for a while, noticing things he had never noticed before. He had thought Bethesda to be warm and loving with open arms for all who need. Today she looks stoic- cold as the winter air and flighty as his icy breath. Every time he visited the statue, he came with the feeling that she had been waiting. She smiled at his arrival and welcomed him with gracious embrace. In his room he had countless portraits of Bethesda: her crooked head and fragile fingers all drawn with utmost precision and genius detail. He loved the angel. This new side of her bothers him, frightens him almost and he isn’t sure what to do. He decides at a lack of plans that what he’ll do is sit and think- he thinks about his life and what went wrong, he thinks about why Bethesda looks so different. He thinks about his mother and his father and the way they scream; he remembers his last love lost. He thinks about all of these things as he cries to the statue, missing above all his Angel of the Waters.
You catch me shaking
In a bright white room.
You point a finger,
Pierce my chest
For the things I did wrong
But I try to explain
It's a two sided thing
And you know
You know what I mean.
I won't be the bandit
I won't be the beast
With the little good things left.
And I don't want your broken toys
Or shattered dolls
Or records spinning endless circles.
There are things I can't repair.
There are things I cannot stop.
Try as I may,
try as I might
I can't send fire back to flame.
You know this, too.
I know you do.
And you're standing,
At the door of a bright white room.
In the corner on the bed.
And your finger's on my chest
And I'm crying like the mess
I am a mess.
And I cry and I spit,
And I know that you're right.
Hard as I try,
I know that you're right.
And you're laughing like you know it, too.
There isn't a thing I can say,
Not a thing I can do
To change this fate.
And I know
That you've won another war.
So gather your troops
And march on home.
Take your guns and your knives
And your sticks and stones.
Let me be in my corner-
And don't bother showing mercy,
Or pointless post-war courtsesy.
I don't need your help.
I'll clean the blood off the walls myself.
I knew a boy named Ace. I always like to remind people of that; I knew a boy named Ace. Every time I say it I feel cool by association. Vicariously cool. Like a parasite feeding off the life of my willing host. Because it’s easy, because it works.
It would be too much trouble for me to make a life of my own. Building worlds takes practice and patience, neither of which I have the time for. Ace was my construction worker. He was my dreamer of dreams, seer of sights. He knew how to make things happen that I could only ever imagine.
Ace was as dangerous as one might expect a boy named Ace to be, though he was careful never to put either of us directly in harm’s way. I couldn’t ever figure out if he was consciously careful in that manner or if Ace was full of some sort of magic that protected us from the life we led. I like to think it was the latter, that he was some immortal spirit floating just over the surface of the soil, that if he came in too much contact with earthly life he would vaporize and be swept away by the passing wind. This forced me to keep my distance.
But I like to think the supernatural protected me, too.
The first time I saw Ace, I formed an inexcusable bias against him. From the way he looked I was uneasy, my sense of optimism lost. No way for to me friend this boy, not someone who looked like that. Short stature, greasy brown hair. Baggy eyes, muddy and gritty and clouded with remembrance of the things he’d seen. But he had the nicest teeth, I remember that. Straight and white and brilliant. I used to think that I could see myself in the shine if I tried hard enough.
It was somewhere high in New York City, somewhere past the borders of Harlem, somewhere I had never been. Four AM. Starkly bright with fluorescent sunlight of open windows, a low moan of thunder like the sorrow of a man in chains. It was the type of night that makes you fear your shadows and your shape. You can’t be sure of anything.
Ace began as an extension of my silhouette. The shadow of my body stretched forever beyond me and with my head down, I never saw my crown kiss the toes of his shoes. The second I noticed I stopped walking, afraid that he might become even more a part of me if I allowed my shadow to engulf him any further. He spit a thick brown daisy onto the sidewalk.
“It’s late,” he said. “You shouldn’t be out.”
I was emboldened just then, defensive, but still nervous. I’m sure he heard it in my voice.
“N-neither should you.”
He laughed a short breath of air, a puff of humor from his nostrils. Mockery.
“I probably know a hell of a lot more about keeping myself safe than you do.”
I, of course, couldn’t tell him this was true, but I knew it was. He knew it was. I had a fight with my father, jumped on the subway and gotten off when I felt like it. I can’t imagine how I looked: skinny, blonde, childish, in an old pair of jeans and a carpenter’s shirt. I didn’t plan on going home.
Though I don’t remember, I think I started crying around then. There was some onslaught of emotion, there must have been, for Ace’s expression softened and the corners of his mouth went slack. He looked like he felt bad and spoke like he didn’t.
“Hey, toughen up. Pull yourself together, man.”
I was offended. I drew myself and choked back tears and tried to spit out my words; I tried to be nasty.
And that was it. That was all I said to say. I must have sounded like such a pansy that Ace just smiled and introduced himself and I still don’t understand way. Maybe it’s just because I’m pathetic but still mighty cute.
He asked, “You got anywhere to go?”
He motioned with his head for me to follow. I couldn’t help but hesitate for a minute, maintaining my place as the Little Boy Lost. I noticed he wasn’t nearly as grungy as I had originally thought. He was almost beautiful, in a way only a boy could be. Bravado. Ace was full of wisdom beyond himself and that gave him a sense of attractiveness some of us can never gain. His confidence amplified his appeal.
He was a good way away when he saw me standing motionless, glued to the cement of the sidewalk like a statuette.
“Are you coming or are you not?”
I nodded feverishly, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. It was something I couldn’t control. It was an immediate idolization. Ace was a boy to be admired and I always knew that.
I caught up quickly, almost running into him before I slowed down. He charged ahead.
“Well, w-where are we going?”
Ace looked at me for a second and a wave of malcontent swept over his face.
“Does it matter? You’ve got no other choice.”
I admonished myself for being nosy but that’s the way I was known to be. Ahead of me, Ace pulled a small packet from his pocket and I heard him inhale sharply.
“Here, take some.”
No, no, no. Prideful in my cleanliness, I wasn’t about to let some strange boy put an alien object up my nose. I shook my heard fiercely, definitively. Ace wasn’t listening. He grabbed my face; his right hand strained against my left cheek. I remember being so shocked that he had touched me so roughly, I didn’t say a word. Ace hissed.
But the hand on my cheek stopped holding me so tightly, changing in form and tension so that it was merely grazing my baby skin. Ace breathed deeply.
“Look, I’m taking you home. You can trust me, I don’t like to be high alone.”
It was a simple statement and a simple request. Something about him made a part of me crave whatever it was he had. I didn’t bother to ask. A little voice in my head, my better angel, pleaded me to think about what was going on.
I have been forced out of my house. I don’t know what street I’m on, but I know it isn’t anywhere I would choose to be. A stranger is holding my face in his hand. This stranger is bringing me home. He has drugs that he wants me to take. I don’t know what they are. The stranger has very nice teeth and eyes that look like wisdom.
The situation seemed fine to me.
I didn’t speak but rather nodded instead.
Smiling, Ace removed the packet from his pocket and tipped a mountain of fine white powder onto the tip of his thumb. He put his palm back on my cheek so that it rested in such a way his thumb laid on my upper lip, directly under my nostril. I began to breathe through my mouth, careful not to disturb the substance on his hand.
“Do it,” he said.
Directly before it happened, a very distinct feeling of nausea made my blood run cold. I was watching from another body, not my own- Ace standing there, short but still taller than me, his hand pressed softly against my skin. I looked nervous and shaken, like I still wasn’t sure of what I was going to do. We both looked so young.
And then all of a sudden, I regained control of my motions. I closed my eyes and plugged the opposite side of my nose like I had seen junkies in the movie do, then snorted hard enough to make it hurt between my eyes. I missed most of what was on his thumb.
“Aw, man, be more careful!”
I could feel my cheeks flush with blood.
“I-I’m sorry, I’m new at this,” I said.
Ace shot me an apologetic look, sorry for snapping at me. He handed me a dollar bill and poured a fine, long line of powder onto the palm of his hand. I give myself credit for being smart enough to know what to do with the money. I rolled it tightly over itself so that the hole within the folds was small enough to hold a pencil snugly. I placed one end of the bill in my nose.
It was a very distinct feeling. The moment I pulled the line from his palm, I could feel the drug burning through my sinuses and leaving behind a cool, distantly numb sensation. All of the lights omitting from the buildings along the street became very, very sharp, as if my eyes were too large to ward off brightness. Laced saliva dripped down my throat. The taste was somewhat metallic and tropical- bitter and discretely Latin in nature.
Ace tipped another mound of dust onto the flat of his hand but separated it into two lines this time, one very small and the other comprised of three times the amount I had just taken.
“Go for the baby,” he said.
So I took more. Up my other nostril, this time, to balance the numbness that was slowly creeping across the entire right side of my face. My front teeth began to hurt, like my gums were loose. Like if I chewed I might lose all my molars. I handed Ace the bill and watched him go, hauntingly professional in the way he executed the process. He blinked roughly and shook his head.
I didn’t blink, though I wanted to. I sniffled and felt the awful drip again. Still, I smiled.
Ace laughed wholeheartedly.
“Si, hombre, cocaína. That’s what it does.”
He grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me along, dazed but ready to take whatever he could throw me.
Heard about your wife and kids where we slept.
Felt their mouths with stitches at that were slowly lit.
Capture uniform this time because I couldn't quit.
Haven't felt the ground so cold without getting sick.
And I'm still your fag,
I'm still your fag.
It's a possibility to live without lips.
Kleenex love to fill right up with all the broken kids.
I swore I drank your piss that night to see if I could live
But my wrists couldn't stand the light that we missed.
And I'm still your fag,
I'm still your fag.
You're only coming out because you came back in.
You're only coming out cause you came back in.
I'm still your fag,
I'm still your fag.
The first time I saw Michael, he was sitting by himself on a curb in the company parking lot. His right hand lay idle over the sharp curve of his knee and he sucked deeply on a cigarette, hardly exhaling but allowing his smoke to curl languidly into the sky. I’d never seen him around the firm before but by the way he wasn’t afraid to leave the building, I assumed he wasn’t new. Above him, grey skies boiled and frothed, hinting Wyoming winter. The copygirl broke my focus with a stack of promotions to avert my eyes.
At around four thirty that afternoon, a heavy snow began to fall and quickly accumulated to more than I’d ever want drive through. I worked fast and efficiently, desperately trying to finish my work and return home. By six thirty the snow had piled high enough to meet the hood of my car and I knew I’d be forced to spend the night. Resigning the prospect of returning to my own bed, my pace slowed dramatically and I trudged through my proposal, eventually falling asleep on my desk.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awoken by a click-click-clicking coming from one of the cubicles directly outside of my office. I grumbled to no one, rose and stretched. I wished desperately for it to be someone I knew; I wanted anyone who would pass the time with me. I blinked hard, making my contacts adjust themselves and tried to find the source of the sound. I must have gasped when I found Michael diligently working on something or other because he turned around and made a sort of squeak himself. I hesitated a moment, considering the odd coincidence of his presence, thinking back to his cigarette break that afternoon. Michael, however, merely looked up and smiled a crooked smile that seemed oddly genuine even though he’d never met me. He was short and stocky and looked young- I thought maybe he was an intern or just out of college- but I later learned he was about my age. (I had two years on him, he was 27 and I was 29. I constantly reminded him that I was older and therefore cooler than he.) I returned his smile and we began to talk, though even now I can’t be sure of his motives for doing so.
We tore through the office, wreaking havoc on everything. I sometimes attribute our copious energy to the fact we were both under thirty, though I think that maybe we both wanted to out-youth each other. Michael printed a series of pornographic photos and taped them to the cubicles of the stuffy workers we didn’t like. I took it upon myself to disperse the president’s personal photos and files across the firm. We both sat on the copying machine and ran off a number of copies of our asses- then we used said pictures to jam the same machine. I felt like such a little brat. I loved it.
Perhaps the best-organized scam of the night (besides putting fish food in the water cooler) was my very own idea. Michael and I decided to sneak into the company kitchen and steal a large sack of flour, separate it into four small plastic bags, and leave them around the office on random desks. (Four people from our firm, coincidentally, continue to undergo rehabilitation therapy.) Michael returned to his cubicle while I stole the custodian’s key to the strangely juvenile vending machine on the first floor; I brought the food upstairs and we gorged ourselves on chocolate, chips, and cheap watery coffee. For a few hours, Michael and I returned to petty, child-like mischief and a distinctly euphoric feeling of angel youth.
After that, it seemed only logical that Michael and I would grow closer. We blew breeze about the weather and other nonsense things, but now I realize I never thought to ask him much about his personal life. It didn’t take me long to discover he wasn’t the type to want to discuss such things anyway. He could be a quiet man. Our conversations within the confines of the office were often short winded and to the point, sometimes consisting of notes left on desks and post-its stuck to each other’s walls. In every way, from the very beginning, our friendship was quite the clandestine affair.
When I was a teenager and all of my friends were having sex every night, I would always joke that I thought I was more the “asexual type,” which was mostly a farce to make the boys laugh coupled with the fact I could never find anyone to call my own. Michael was the first person I had ever found myself genuinely attracted to, save maybe Sally Smallman in the eight grade… though I think I was only after her because she’d let me feel her tits. In retrospect, I imagine it was his boyish charm rather than his prominent chest or anything of that nature that rendered me thinking about him the way that I often did.
Sometimes late at night, I’d lie in bed with my arms above my head and I’d think about Michael like he was there with me. I would say things to him that I knew I’d never say in person, embarrassing things, caring and protective and loving things- though after a while with Michael on my mind, I often came across a distracting obstacle. If I was feeling adventurous, I’d reach down and pull gently until I finished. At first I willed myself to fantasize about women, though the images of a female body with Michael’s head inevitably appearing attached to it frightened me more than it did arouse me. I allowed myself to think about him instead.
About ten days from Christmas, I found a note left on my desk.
Chris, meet me outside at 6 sharp, ever been to Screwdriver?
Michael and I had rarely spoken to each other outside of work up until then (granted that our relationship spanned no longer than a few weeks) and I was almost surprised at his courageousness. It took me a moment to remember he knew nothing of the things I thought and had no reason to be afraid, though it was still hard to forget that men like me were frowned upon in Wyoming.
At six that day Michael was standing outside like he promised, leaning back against the wall. He didn’t look up as I pushed through the heavy door, so I took his cigarette and dragged, blowing a cloud of solid-looking smoke in his face. He inhaled sharply.
“Hey boy.” It was what I had taken to calling him, given the two-year age difference. He was my subordinate, or so I liked to tease. He didn’t say anything but ripped the cigarette out of my fingers and stomped on it, grinding his toe into the ground dramatically.
“I feel like a cowboy whenever I do that.” He smiled his crooked smile, green eyes flashing. Something in my head ticked and I thought about him riding a horse that looked a lot like me.
“You kind of look like one, too.” I tousled his hair. “Where are we going?”
“Oh,” he said. “There’s this new place in town, just opened the other week. D’ya trust me enough to not take you to some gross underground pit?”
I pretended to think for a moment.
“No, but let’s go.”
The atmosphere in the bar was dark and a little dingy, considering its recent opening. I couldn’t see a single patron without a cigarette, and everyone must have had at least two drinks in them already. I saw two men kissing in a corner and I tensed until I spotted what looked to be a formidable prostitute being spoken to by a sleazy unbuttoned-silk-shirt type. It was a mixed crowd,
I followed Michael cautiously; he seemed to know his way around. I was introduced to one or two of his friends and lead to the bar feeling jealous that both of Michael’s companions looked young like him. When the bartender asked what I was up for, I merely shook my head and looked away, worried about what would happen if I had more than a single beer in my blood. Michael, I was glad to see, was not inhibited by my lack of consumption. He downed a shot so neon blue it gave off its own source of light.
I can’t say that I had ever been much into the club scene, but this was a refreshing change of pace from the typical Midwestern bar. A converted barn, Screwdriver had an expansive dance floor and a loft for lounging. The entire building smelled of moonshine and hay. It burned my sinuses and made me cough, though it took little time for me to welcome the fiery tang. It loosened me up.
Michael hopped off his stool to wander and left me sitting by myself, feeling very unaware of my surroundings. A was a little woozy, almost like alcohol had entered my body through the air.
Ten feet away a blonde eyed me hungrily, and I swallowed harder than I meant to, trying desperately to avoid her gaze. I could feel her lips on my ear.
“Fifty for a quickie in the bathroom.”
This was not the sort of situation I liked to find myself thrown into, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t move, as if I was perfectly still she would think I was dead and stalk away.
“Hun’dred to take me home.”
No such luck.
I could feel my breathing quicken and my palms begin to sweat, I wasn’t socially smart enough to figure my way out of this one. The blonde reached over and played with my loosened tie in a way that was only acceptable for a Southern woman to do.
“Don’t a working man need a break now and then?” I could hear the smile in her words.
“Uh, n-no. No, I’m fine.” I stammered. I tried to look at her hand untying the knot on my chest. Her nails were bright red; they made me dizzy.
“I’ll even make ya pay less, cuz you’re cute.” This probably meant she had some STD. I felt like I was going to cry, and at that I felt pathetic. No self-respecting man would let himself cry as a blonde woman threw herself on top of him. Many would jump at the opportunity. I had almost given in when Michael saddled up beside me.
“’Scuse me miss, there a problem?” He put on his cowboy drawl. I knew this voice. She looked at him all young and goofy and scoffed.
“No, no problem. You hurry along, boy.”
He only smiled his crooked smile.
“Ya see miss, this here man-a-mine ain’t lookin’ for someone like you.” He put his arm around my shoulder and my heart raced. “Go on now.”
The blonde spat the word “faggot” in my face and walked away, high heels clicking. Michael removed his arm from my shoulder and ordered another drink. I stared longer than necessary. He waved his hand nonchalantly,
“Thank me later.”
As the night grew deeper and deeper I found Michael becoming less and less coherent, though I enjoyed his company anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any one man drink so damn much; I lost track between his third shot of vodka and his fourth shot of rum. By midnight, he couldn’t stand without holding onto my shoulder. I minded less than if it were someone else.
Michael was in no condition to be driving. For a while I thought I would just take his keys and drive him home but I was worried that he might have been too drunk for me to do so safely. I wasn’t sure if he would think I was trying to help or just steal his car. I decided to call a cab.
Even though all he had was the jean jacket he had worn outside of the office, Michael didn’t seem cold while we waited for the cab. I chalked this up to all the alcohol coursing through his veins. It was bitter and I hadn’t worn my scarf and I condemned myself for not having a drink or two back inside.
As the cab drove away from the bar, we were plunged into complete darkness. There were no lights on the rural road and I could only see a few feet in front of the hood of the car. I locked the door for safety and leaned against the window; Michael lay slumped against me. He smelled strongly of alcohol. The driver asked, “Where to?” and I was faced with the decision of bringing Michael home or leaving him to his own devices. By the way he kept hiccoughing I thought it better to stay with him.
I owned a thoroughly modern house about 40 miles from the heart Cheyenne. It was far enough outside of the city for me to have some peace and quiet but close enough for a moderately easy commute. The price of land was cheap in Wyoming and I decided to add a few of the surrounding acres to my name. I enjoyed my space. The house itself was small; I only needed room for the dog and myself and I had taken to meticulously decorating each and every room the way I wanted. I guess some would call it city-chic, full of dark colors and track lighting. The kitchen counters were all granite and my bedroom floors were glossy enough for me to see myself in. I made sure few things ever strayed from where they belonged. I never ate anywhere but the kitchen; I never worked anywhere but my office. The bedroom was a place of sleep, not a place for lounging- the den was for that. Nothing ever fell out of place. I liked things that way.
The taxidriver pulled into my driveway and demanded his money. As I started for the door, Michael shifted in my lap, asleep. I shook him gently. He stirred for a moment but he would not wake and I lay my hand on his shoulder calmly, shook again.
“Mike, Mike. Heyboy.”
Michael opened his eyes and shut them quickly from the automatic light shining in from above my garage. I knew any attempts to get him walking would be useless, so I opened the door to the cab and stepped out as slowly as I could as not to bother him. I ignored the death-rays from the drive. I took Michael from under the arms and pulled him out cautiously, careful not to drop him. He was just conscious enough to make it to the door.
Inside, I put Michael on my bed and unsnapped his faux pearl-button shirt, each click resounding much too loudly in my head. I took a moment to look. What struck me most was that the thin medallion of hair on his chest looked much like spun gold, unlike the midnight hair on his arms, legs and head. Fat and muscle vied for his stomach and I dared not to touch, though it looked somewhat soft and firm at the same time. A thin, dark line of hair ran down underneath his waistband and I shivered.
Michael was snoring lightly and I lay down on the bed next to him, my eyes never leaving his face. I looked at it from the angle I was at with my head on the pillow next to his; I propped myself on my elbow and looked again. The alcohol had mostly faded from his breath and he smelled slightly sweet and a little sharp, like cologne and something resembling the scent of ozone. Shaking just a little, I put my hand on his chest and left it there for a moment. I wasn’t sure of his sense of touch- I didn’t know what would wake him. I held my breath.
Michael didn’t move and I let my hand wander just a bit, rewarding my efforts of taking him home and keeping him safe. I lifted it slightly so I couldn’t feel his skin, only the light fluff trimmed close above it. I shifted and rested my hand on his stomach. It was firmer than it appeared and the touch sent a jolt through my entire body. I wanted very much to wake him and had to bite my lip to the point of bleeding to keep from saying his name. I I couldn’t trust myself to be in a bed with Michael.
I slept on the sofa instead.
At first it surprised me that none of this came up in conversation at the office the next day. I wasn’t sure if I was reading too far into things or if he simply couldn’t remember exactly what went on, drunk as he was. Not being the type to ever have been in the situation before, I don’t know if what I did was right. Was I not supposed to undress him and fold his clothes neatly? Was it expected of me to bring him home? I didn’t ask him, I continued to mull in my worrisome unawareness.
As Christmas itself grew closer, everyone became busier and busier. People ran frantic around the office, copying and scanning and retyping and becoming very involved with getting everything done before the New Year. The only thing worse than the prospect of another year gone by (and therefore another year older) is having work from the old year waiting to be finished. Michael and I were both caught up in the trend and didn’t speak for a few days. I was just as glad to take a few days to mull and think.
By “caught in the trend,” I mean that most of my work remained untouched on my desk. I spent the majority of my day reading or writing things unrelated to my actual job. At night I would attempt to complete some of tasks at hand but most of the things I had to do had no deadline, or at least weren’t due before the first of the year. Fortunately, many of my coworkers were very busy with their families. Lateness was almost expected of all proposals and marketing advances. No one was in any rush and I slipped quietly under the radar.
I bought myself a small Christmas tree. This was one of the first years I would be spending the Holidays alone and I felt the need to inject the house with just a touch of holiday cheer. My mother and father had decided to escape the warmth in the Caribbean and therefore my brother and sister saw no reason to haul to Wisconsin. After all, they had their own children to be with and I’m sure they were happy enough to stay home. I hated them, just a little, for their matching family sweaters and hot cocoa by the fire.
Christmas fell on a Thursday that year. Due to Wyoming’s overwhelming Christian population the office had off Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I felt like a schoolboy on vacation. It was a welcome break.
I didn’t know what to do about Michael. At first I was glad to have a day or two that I was unable to speak to him but I quickly became antsy. The absence of his presence meant a very large void in my life and I wasn’t sure how to structure my day without him around.
I thought about calling him for dinner one night before Christmas but every time I reached for the phone I was unable to dial his number. I’ve always hated being such a coward.
After what must have been at least a hundred times trying, I made it to the point of making Michael’s phone ring. A woman picked up.
I have to admit, I was a little startled and immediately downtrodden.
“Uh, m-may I speak to Michael, please? It’s Christopher, from work.”
“Of course.” Fortunately, she was pleasant.
Michael reached the phone sounding out of breath and very much like I had interrupted. I suddenly felt very bad for calling so close to Christmas.
“Heyboy.” The lack of volume in my voice surprised me.
“D-do. Do you want to comeoverfordinnerTuesdaynightmaybe?”
Michael remained silent for a minute or two, presumably contemplating the question I had posed.
“Well, yeah! Of course!” Michael couldn’t ever disappoint.
I told him to come at six and hung up feeling much, much better than before.
On the evening of the 23rd, I did everything in my power to make my home a place that anyone would want to be. I lit a fire and left the sconces off; I allowed the dancing flame to light the living room by itself. The walls were bathed a warm orange and the room filled with a light smoke that smelled distinctively of winter. I never knew myself to be so romantic.
He was a little late. This, of course, only added to my mounting anticipation. Michael inside my house was a foreign idea. The only ever time he had ever set foot inside the door was when he was too drunk to function properly. This time, I was prepared. We were in my territory.
Michael brought a bottle of wine for dinner. It was a sweet gesture, though I assured him it was unnecessary. I told him I wouldn’t let another drop of alcohol pass his lips in my presence.
Dinner was pleasant, slow paced. We talked about work and what we had to do and what we had already done and everything we possibly could. We laughed when the dog ate all the food on my first plate. We drank cider and we drank some wine despite what I had said about letting Michael drink. The occasion seemed to call for it.
After the actual meal, Michael asked for a tour of my house. I found this a little strange but very Michael- a little sarcastic but a little bit not. I let him poke around and find things for himself. He looked at all the porcelain figurines on the coffee table in the living room and asked about the pictures on the mantel. He said he liked the color of the carpet in the den.
When we stepped out of the back door and he stopped to look up.
“I’ve never seen so many stars.”
I had forgotten that Michael lived much closer to the city than I did and was rarely treated to such a view. I sighed.
“What?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing.” I looked down at my feet and kicked the ground, my foot getting caught in the fresh snow. “You can see the bands of the Milky Way from here,” I said, surprised at my sudden offering of knowledge. “And Mars. And Venus. And sometimes Jupiter, on a really clear night.”
I walked closer to him and stared for a minute, pensive.
“What’s your zodiac?”
“Oh, um… I’m a Scorpio.”
I moved behind him and took his hand, tracing the outline of his shape in the sky. I wondered if he could feel my heart pounding against his back.
“There it is.”
After I pointed out the last star I rotated awkwardly, trying to move us both at once.
“There’s mine. I’m a Taurus. And there’s Mars- right there, above the horizon. Do you see it?”
Michael’s voice was quieter than I had ever heard it.
“Yes.” His weighed shifted. “It’s freezing.”
I took this as my cue to move closer and hold him tighter. I rested my chin on his shoulder.
“And that’s Great Bear and Little Bear, right there. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor… mother and son. They’re my favorites.”
Michael detached himself from my right arm and turned to me, looking quizzical. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged a little. I think he was more cold than anything else.
“Do you like living here?”
The question threw me off guard.
“Wyoming. Do you like Wyoming.”
It sounded more like a statement than a question and I wasn’t sure how to answer this any more than I knew where his train of thought came from.
“Yeah, I do. I love it, actually. I like my space and I love the stars and I love the winters and the cold springs. I love the Wyoming wind. Some people hate that it’s always so damn windy but I figure at least it’s constant, which is more than I can say for myself.”
At this, Michael smiled.
“See, I wish I could live like you. I never see you doing any work and you live out here on this big piece of land and have the stars to keep you company and…” He trailed off.
“Stars aren’t quite as good for that as people.”
Michael laughed and breathed in deeply. I shot him a smile and he sent it back, his teeth white enough to shine in the darkness. He closed his mouth but it retained the shape of his grin and we became very quiet, looking at the night. He moved closer and took my hand, not to point out stars but just because he could. I squeezed and he squeezed and it was only he and I in the world; there were no cars or cattle and certainly no other people.
Michael turned towards me and bore a hole through the center of my brain, reading me and gauging my thoughts. He leaned in a little closer and his lips brushed mine and I shook. Neither of us moved in either direction. Our breathing slowed. I couldn’t take the tension any longer and I kissed him, full and deep, and he returned while the sky blazed patterns overhead.
This year would be different. That’s what they told Ellie- this year would be difficult and maybe a little uncomfortable. He would have to take on some extra responsibility, maybe. Help set up, help clean up, read an extra page or two. As if he didn’t know. Like he was a disillusioned four-year old. They babied him for weeks.
Ellie knew all of this, anyway. Any boy his age would. He knew Passover would be somewhat quieter, somewhat less fun without Rachel. He sat on his parents’ bed trying to tie his tie in a half-Windsor knot, like his sister had shown him, but realized he couldn’t. He was thinking about no more passing notes under the table. He remembered he’d have to face his estranged family without her.
He thought about how she looked that day.
She looked good, he thought. Very pretty, like she always did. Wearing the red dress she loved so much and a small bouquet ribboned on her wrist.
And he smiled.
Ellie carried the cooler inside of his Aunt Barbara’s house, something Rachel usually did. It was full of most of the Passover dinner, since his aunt couldn’t cook very well. It was a fair trade. Ellie’s father always made the food; Ellie’s aunt always hosted dinner and no one seemed to mind very much.
Once he handed over the cooler, Ellie stood idly in the kitchen, watching everybody work. On a normal day, he might have been in someone’s way but today everyone found a way to work around him. No one asked him to help, and he wished that someone would. When he offered to dish out soup for everybody, Aunt Barbara merely sighed and smiled.
“That’s not necessary, El.”
He tried to tell her he’d like to, he tried to tell her that he really wouldn’t mind, but by the time he did she had already swooped away and asked his Uncle Henry for a hand.
Ellie sat in the back room while everyone else was eating soup. He never cared much for chicken or matzoh balls, which always reminded him of internal organs that you ate with utensils. Like a brain he had to dissect, like every piercing motion of the fork tore another hole in the fragile cerebral membrane and dug into the fleshy insides of the matzoh mind. That was what Rachel said, anyway, so that’s what he thought.
Nothing good was on, so Ellie sat there for a while with his hands in his lap. He listened to some of the conversation leaking from the dining room into the den, but he didn’t care much about what anyone was saying. Rachel never liked the family, nor did he.
He remembered one time, months ago, they were sitting in her room. It was her freshman year at county college, and she was majoring in art restoration. She had a cigarette which she was smoking out of the window (a “dirty, dirty habit,” she would always tell Ellie) and her harp was propped between her legs. She threw the butt away and wiped her fingers on her skirt, plucked a few notes.
“I’ll never be any good.”
Ellie idolized Rachel, to be sure, and he had never heard a better harpist.
“I think you’re wonderful.”
She smiled her Pepsodent smile.
“I know you do kiddo, but I don’t think I’ll play anymore after this year. That’s the problem with music, there’s always someone better than you.”
Ellie pleaded with his eyes and told her she was the best.
She ruffled his curls.
“If it really means that much to you, maybe I’ll keep it up for a little bit longer.”
Ellie weaved his toes in the avocado shag carpet, the one he liked to lie around on when no one was home. He used to think that was the way grass should smell and feel, soft and curly with an air of spilt perfume. He spent more time in Rachel’s room than his own.
“What do you think you’ll do after college?”
Rachel stood and walked towards the window, her red hair shining like the sunset. She grabbed another cigarette.
“Want to light it for me?”
Sometimes, when she was in a mood, Rachel would let Ellie light her cigarette. She wouldn’t ever let him smoke one, but if she was feeling wistful she would hand him a book of matches and the cigarette and he would take a single puff, get it going, and hand it back to her. It made him feel much older than he was, much older than he should.
“Well, I’m not hanging around here, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll drive across the country. I don’t have much to me anyway, I’d have so little to drag along.”
“Where would you work?” Ellie tried to strike the match, which snapped in his hand.
“Wherever I could find a job. Probably a big city, for what I’m majoring in. But I’m sick and tired of the dreary East.”
This scared Ellie immensely. That she would travel anywhere without him, that she could so easily up and go without her family.
“You wouldn’t ever leave me, would you?” he inquired.
She couldn’t help but smile.
“No, never you.”
Ellie turned on the TV again at Aunt Barbara’s house just as he was being called to dinner. He stood and left it flashing blue on the walls and went to sit with the family he hardly knew but had come to dislike so much anyway. He fit snugly in between his parents, legs close together, head down. When his Uncle Henry reached over to tuck his napkin in Ellie’s shirt, Ellie shoved his hand away, leaving a strained and choking silence.
Uncle Henry cleared his throat.
“Ellie, would you read the Four Questions, please?”
Ellie wanted to say no. He wanted to say that it was always Rachel’s job, despite the fact he was the youngest. There was no reason to break tradition now. He wanted to tell everyone to wait patiently and if they set a goblet of wine out for Rachel as well as Elijah, she would come home.
He wanted to tell everyone this, but instead began quietly, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Ellie thought of the year before, when his sister read the questions like she always did.
“She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin chameytz u-matzah, chameytz u-matzah. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, kooloh matzah? Why is it that on all other nights we eat bread or matzoh, but on this night we eat only matzah?”
When Rachel thought no one was watching, she had scribbled a note onto a napkin and passed it to Ellie under the table.
“She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin sh'ar y'rakot, sh'ar y'rakot. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, maror?
Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?”
It had read:
My Four Questions:
1. Why are we here?
2. Are these people really related to us?
3. Why aren’t Mom and Dad doing anything?
4. Want to go get ice cream later?
“She-b'khol ha-layloht ayn anu mat'bilin afilu pa'am echat, afilu pa'am echat. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, sh'tay p'amim?”
Ellie had written back:
My Four Answers:
1. I don’t know.
2. See Above.
3. See Above.
“She-b'khol ha-layloht anu okhlin bayn yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin, bayn yosh'bin u'vayn m'soobin. Ha-lahylah ha-zeh, ha-lahylah ha-zeh, koolanu m'soobin?”
Ellie finished even more softly than he began and looked around the room, all eyes on him. Uncle Henry smiled.
“Thank you, Ellie.”
Ellie nodded vaguely like he had seen his father do, his pale blue eyes welling with tears. He blinked hard to keep from crying, because that’s not what ten year olds do. And when he tried to excuse himself to go to the bathroom, no one listened, so he stood and hurried away unnoticed.
Ellie sat on the closed lid of the toilet for a very long time, trying not to think about anything. He willed himself to clear his mind entirely like he sometimes tried to do if he was overwhelmed. Many times it didn’t work but when he closed his eyes and squeezed them tight and clenched his fists and stomped his feet, Ellie liked to pretend he could hear his thoughts fizzing out of his mind, floating away, like a perfect whispy cloud of yellow haze: fleeting and entirely untouchable.
Very quietly, because the hinges of the toilet creaked, Ellie slid off the seat, knelt in front of the bowl and rested his elbows on the lid. The motion was one and fluent-spontaneous- and he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He was trying to find comfort in any level of communication with any level of being, anything to shake the Incomplete Passover from his mind. Ellie clasped his left hand in his right.
“Dear God, I realize this is a little bit… un-Orthodox.
“I was wondering if maybe I could talk to Rachel. Just for a minute, because it’s a holiday. Even though we’re not supposed to get presents on Passover.”
This made Ellie think of the time when Rachel came to tuck him in when she thought he was sleeping. She had tiptoed across the hallway, from her room to his, and opened the door very slowly. Ellie snored loudly to try and fool her. Rachel walked over to the bed, seemingly gliding in her long muddy colored skirt . She too spoke to God. It had surprised Ellie at the time, since his family had never been particularly religious, but even still, Rachel placed her palm flat upon Ellie’s head and whispered so softly he could hardly hear, “Please God, keep him safe.”
Back in the bathroom of Aunt Barbara’s house, Ellie’s voice quivered.
“A-a-as God, I think it’s your duty to keep at least one promise that’s asked of you. My sister asked you to keep me safe and I’m sure that you mean well but I don’t think I could ever be safe without her. So, do you think I could talk to her? Maybe just for a minute? Okay. Thank you.
“H-H-hey. Rachel? Um, well, wherever you are… Kevin Van Sant said you went to San Francisco, but that doesn’t sound right. Anyway, I miss you a lot. I think you probably know that because you always knew everything but I just wanted to make sure that in case you weren’t positive that you knew. Do you think you could convince Mom and Dad to take me out for ice cream, too? No? Oh, okay. Well I guess that’s it. I love you.”
There was a rapping at the door, Ellie’s mother.
“Ellie, honey, who are you talking to?”
Ellie thought this was horribly cliché of her to ask, and if she wanted to be original she wouldn’t have asked at all.
He sighed deeply.
“No one, mommy.”
Because she wouldn’t understand.
He sidled past her out of the bathroom, trying hard not to meet her gaze, like if he did she might know. Mothers always know.
Ellie ate the rest of his Passover meal in silence. The family asked him questions, how was school, how was life, how were friends, but Ellie only shrugged and made feeble noises at the most. No one pressed any matter, however, Ellie thought maybe no one really cared much anyway.
On the way home, Ellie saw a young mother pushing a baby stroller. She had Rachel’s red hair, Rachel’s pale skin and thin hips and long legs. He felt a strange, insatiable urge to roll down the window and call out her name- but of course, he didn’t know her name at all, she was not Rachel. He admonished himself for being so naïve, for being so inconsolable. Ellie willed himself to look away.
Once in is house, he bounded up the stairs on all fours, the Berber carpet blurring under his speed. He locked himself in Rachel’s room.
Like he did when no one was home, he unbuttoned his shirt and laid it on Rachel’s old bed. Petey the cat purred on her dresser. Carefully, like he was old and tired and crippled with age, Ellie got on the floor and stared at the ceiling. Rachel had sticky tacked glow in the dark stars to it. Sometimes, when he was much younger and Rachel was about 15, she would lie with him on top of the covers and point out constellations like her purple ceiling was the night sky.
“You see that?” she would say. “That’s Gemini, the twins.”
Eliie would look at her.
“Is it really?” he would ask.
“No, not really. But it isn’t it nice to pretend?”
Ellie would nod and snuggle close to her, his ear to her chest.
He ran his fingers through the tangles of her carpet. Passover had been so tedious, just like he had expected. No one was able to make small talk. No one really laughed or smiled, only for the sake of preventing awkwardness. Ellie didn’t mind, though, because he figured anyone who wanted to talk to him would just make him sad. He wanted to forget.
He crawled over to the side of the bed and propped his arms again in a posture that suggested prayer. He took a deep breath.
“Rachel? I’m sure God would let me speak to you, but he’s probably really busy eating Passover dinner so I didn’t want to bother him.
“I didn’t know what to tell you before, since nothing really happened, but I thought you’d like to know that Jodi is pregnant again, with a baby girl. They’re going to name her Olivia. Tonya and Michael didn’t come because Tonya said the baby is sick, but Mommy didn’t believe her and now she’s mad. Cousin Jimmy got fat. That made me giggle. I wanted to throw my dinner across the room and see if he’d chase after it.” He searched for anything he might have forgotten. “Er… well, okay, that’s all, I think. I’ll talk to you soon. Petey says hi.”
Ellie, cold and uncomfortable, put his shirt back on and went to sit by Rachel’s old harp. From the column, an angel hung suspended over the carpet like a cherub on the bow of a ship. The shag strangely resembled the green, broiling sea. Ellie sat on the stool and propped the instrument between his legs the way he had seen Rachel do.
He had no experience with the harp whatsoever. All he was capable of was pressing a few pedals and plucking a few strings in impersonation of his sister, but nothing he could manage sounded anything near what it was supposed to. On her desk was an old pack of cigarettes, the ones Rachel used to let him light. Ellie pulled one from the cardboard, struck a match and sucked until the cigarette was burning then threw it out the window. Rachel always said he was only allowed to take one puff.
He thought of the last conversation they had.
Rachel was chain-smoking, muttering about the dangers of the habit every time she lit up again. Ellie was sitting cross-legged on the bed.
“You understand, don’t you kiddo? A puff of smoke from Rachel’s mouth. She had decided college wasn’t for her, that it was too restricting, that it allowed her no room to be the free spirit she really was. She was leaving.
Ellie nodded with a smile. “Yep. You know it.”
For some reason, he couldn’t help but think how beautiful his sister was. The strap of her red dress had fallen down her arm and allowed a mostly uninterrupted view of her collarbone and upper chest. Her creamy skin was unblemished and pulled tight over muscle and bone. Ellie’s eyes were fixed.
“I’m a bad example, baby. Promise me you’ll go to college and you’ll stay.”
He couldn’t think of defying her, no way, never. All he could do was nod again. That was enough for her.
Ellie tried very hard not to ask, he knew what her answer would be and he didn’t want to hear it, but as the silence grew thicker and thicker he blurted out, “Areyougoingtotakeyourharp?”
Rachel swallowed, the faint lump in her throat bobbing.
“You know I don’t have room for that. Maybe you should take it up.” She laughed. “Follow the family legacy.”
Their mother and her mother and her mother had been harpist all their lives. It was a practical form of sacrilege for Rachel to give up before her dying day. Her voice echoed in his head from months before, “I’ll never be any good.”
Rachel came over to the bed to sit with Ellie, laid her hand on his shoulder.
“Look, baby, I’m passing the torch to you. Do me proud.”
Ellie could feel himself begin to cry.
“Okay, I will.”
He had never told his parents this. He never told his mother or his father (or his grandmother, the harpist) that Rachel had asked him to try. He couldn’t, he thought, he was entirely incapable of anything musical. He had no sense of pitch, he had no sense of rhythm. He could read music no more than he could read French. (Ellie was a student of Spanish.)
And then Rachel’s voice began in his right ear and traveled to the center of his brain, where it struck a nerve like a chord.
Do me proud.
Ellie sat on the stool behind the harp and let it fall back between his legs. Rachel had a music stand directly in front of the harp, and Ellie through the piles of junk on her desk to find himself an early method book. Opening the old, crusty pages, he had to squint at what it said once it was on the stand. The ink had run.
Play a C by placing your index finger on the…
He played a C.
Play a G by placing your middle finger on the…
Ellie played a G.
He continued to follow the instructions given by the book until he could pluck a series of notes that resembled “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He put the harp down. Ellie promised himself he would enroll in lessons, the way Rachel wanted. He promised himself he would sometimes look at the stars on the ceiling and will himself to pretend the constellations were there. He promised the next time he saw the family, he would be social. He promised he would try matzoh balls.
Ellie unlocked the door to Rachel’s room and let Petey out, since he had been waiting by the door for almost an hour. He turned off the light and the stars on the ceiling shone light in his big blue eyes but he looked away because he couldn’t stand the sight.
And as Ellie closed the door with a light click, he said something he couldn’t bring himself to say at dinner but felt that maybe sometime he should. Whispered like secrets or the buzz of the harp, Ellie made one more promise to no one in particular. “Next year in Jerusalem.”