“Tell The Truth But Tell It Bent” by Chael Needle

 

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“Tell The Truth But Tell It Bent”

My first thought when I got brained was that, if I met up with Erick later that night, he would think that James had finally smacked me. I did not want sympathy from Erick. Sympathy kills flirtation—I learned long ago that any talk of trauma early on in any romance chases men away. Some may want to become your brother, if you make the mistake of spilling your guts, but they never want to be your lover.

And flirtation, its lightness of spirit, its gesture toward a future of pleasure, is what I treasured most whenever I ran into Erick at the bars.

I would explain, if I had to, that James did not give me this nick at the edge of my eye. The bookshelf did.

It was still James’ fault, I know that much. I am not completely deluded.

But here’s what happened. James had been sitting at the farm table in the kitchen checking his emails. Something irritated him—I couldn’t tell what—and he bolted up. His chair clattered backward, sending Shelby scampering away on his squat bulldog legs, in that casual, alarmed flight that dogs are so expert at.

I paused to wait it out, my hand holding the small box of chamomile as if it were a brick I was about to place in a wall.

James then grasped his opened laptop as if to carry it away but instead flipped it with a grunty fuck. It did not have height but it had speed and it clonked against the wall. The force dislodged a metal shelf support higher up and one volume of my paperback literature anthologies—The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century— fell and plopped on my head. Then the shelf slanted down, slid off its brackets and clocked the side of my face, as I ducked under a shower of knick-knacks and dove for the floor.

I sat there, stunned. My head reverberated with the impact of the shelf, dull and sharp at the same time, a heavy weight with a delicate edge had dead-ended above my cheek and then had fallen away.

A small blue-clouded vase (unbroken). An apple pie candle (its jar not cracked). Beadwork dolls made by grandmothers fighting against AIDS in South Africa (unharmed). All of us lay scattered on the floor.

James immediately crouched to help me stand up. The intensity of his anger had disappeared, blanked out by the softness of his bearded face. His green eyes were drowsy and looked elsewhere, as if to make sure the furry tarantular anguish of moments ago had been chased out of the room.

“Fuck, I’m sorry, Micah.”

I turned away from his touch.

I apologized and asked him to give me a minute.

I did not want my feelings to be dictated by his schedule. James wanted to help, now. Now he wanted to help, when a second ago he was railing against some personal injustice, not caring who became swept up in his tumult.

He seemed to be set on a timer. Everything seemed to be always counting down—toward then.

Toward zero.

But zero was never the end.

After zero there was another countdown and another zero. Weeks would pass. Maybe a month. His anger persisted. He rumbled like a misfit bomb that did not know it was supposed to detonate only once. I allowed myself on occasion one quiet explosion, if that, usually in the form of a snide remark. Why was he allowed as many explosions as he wanted?

His power was the same kind I had envied in boys growing up—the indulgent tantrums that brought everyone running to gawk or comfort or guide or discipline. Nurture me! That’s what I envied, but early on I was determined not to manipulate anyone, to demand attention, to make someone love me. I wouldn’t be that needy boy who always got what he wanted.

 

I had tried to explain the relationship to Erick, but I had not been very good at it. The more complexity I offered, the more I sounded like a simpleton.

I thought I had known James well enough before moving in. I had taken two of the classes he taught at the university. He offered me his empty basement apartment when I mentioned bullying in the dorms. I lived there for two years before our short courtship, before I carted my boxes upstairs to his floor and dumped my plywood and pressboard furniture, its seams yawning, on the sidewalk. He made space for me. He didn’t rent the basement for three months in case I changed my mind. He cooked crock-pot meals for me. He enrolled me in a health plan after mine lapsed. He put up new shelves, though I resisted—my junk, orphaned vases, scented candles, looked out of place next to his contemporary furniture and silver-framed posters of Cocteau films I had never seen—La Sang d’un poète, Orphée, La Belle et la Bête.

But I soon learned that I could never escape his terror, those times when James would work himself up into a silent, insular fury. It would spike, surprise me, give me no chance to flee. Suddenly, driving back from Saratoga, he sped up to 80, 90, weaving in and out of cars, ignoring my shrieks to slow down. Suddenly, he knocked a wine glass on the kitchen floor and the shards instantly punctured three spots on the soles of my bare feet. Suddenly, at a vegetarian cafe on the way to P-town, he erupted at a waiter and all eyes arrowed toward me. I know the other patrons meant to be sympathetic, but it was humiliating, knowing the question that carbonated their minds, the question they burped into their napkins. How could I be so dumb as to stay?

I told myself it wasn’t that bad. In the two years we had been together, nothing had been directed at me. James had always been raging at the shadows of his father, all those years of religious nonsense like loopy scribblings across a fresh coloring book, ruining the outline of every image on every page with petulant starbursts of random crayons.

I had long ago vowed to help him and I reminded myself, after his outbursts, that love wasn’t simple. We couldn’t just shrug off years of oppression. I told myself this trouble between us was a wedge placed there by ideologies and their henchmen who would love to see a queer couple come apart instead of come together. I wasn’t going to let all those zeroes break us in two.

 

Somehow James knew the exact distance away from me that he needed to be so that I wouldn’t tear up and start sniping. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom as I let cold water run onto a washcloth. The mirror held me in its vacant stare. No lasting blood, just a cut. I waited for him to leave, but he never did.

He was apologetic, his hands holding a bowl of ice that I never reached for. It had nothing to do with me, he explained. He hadn’t even known I was near. (How had he not seen me reaching for the tea?)

He was just frustrated, he blurted, because the rally organizers had once again not listened to his advice.

“I don’t know why I try! I give them my best—for what?”

He then proceeded to explain his strategy about the rally, as if testing out thoughts on me that he would later refine for his true audience.

I worried after his laptop, his writings.

“Don’t worry about that,” he downplayed. “Everything’s in the cloud.”

 

Once, when we were entwined on the couch in a darkness that immobilized us like an icy crevasse, James shared his deepest fear—that some crazie would come for him. He had become a talking head on national cable news shows and well-known for standing up to conservative fear-mongering. He often traveled from Albany down to New York City and stayed in his shared pied-à-terre for his advocacy work. A fax to a radio station, five unsigned letters—he was certain one of the death threats he had received would be realized.

I told James I would take the bullet for him. He thanked me and kissed my temple.

The next day, as we drove toward the Vermont border to visit my family for grilled steaks in the rusty grass-swathed patio in the backyard, I couldn’t shake my panic that he had marked, with his lips, an assassin’s target. But I stood by my silly words. I would take the bullet for you. I don’t know why I had said them. Perhaps I felt I had nothing to offer James except the sacrifice of my self.

 

After our picnic-table dinner, I cleared the plates and left James to explain to my parents, for the second time, why he did not eat meat and that the veggie burgers we’d brought were perfectly fine with the macaroni salad and baked beans.

Ducking inside, I checked on my grandmother as she prepared the dessert. I expected a tower of shortcake, whipped cream and berries. I cringed at what I found being laid out in cartoon baby bowls.

“Gran, you bought the shells from the store? Whipped topping? For James?”

She pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes wet with apology. “What do we do?”

“You can make the shortcake real quick, can’t you? What do you need? Eggs?” No.

“Milk?” Heavy cream.

“Flour?” Yes.

I bullied her with questions about what I could do to help. She paused, trying to recall what she needed, as if she couldn’t remember the word for “whisk” or “spatula.”

I flung open cupboard doors, yanked open the fridge door and lifted the cling wrap off the bowl of macerating strawberries—they were small, perfect, machine-cut. “Don’t tell me you bought frozen strawberries? Oh, for chrissakes.”

I puddled in despair.

“It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay,” she promised as she stirred the dry ingredients.

I decided the frozen strawberries were acceptable. The fruit was a month out of season, and, if fresh had been served, James would have probably made some comment about how far the strawberries had to travel or how migrant workers were being exploited. Frozen had an upside.

Gran bustled about, peering at spices and dismissing them with a shake of her head, preheating the oven, trying to remember if she should butter the pans. She decided not to grease them and I glared at her, demanded certainty. She trembled when she added the heavy cream to the dry ingredients.

As the shortcake baked, and I opened the screen door to return to James, to save him from my parents’ details about their love affair with big-box stores, my grandmother stopped me by placing her hand on my shoulder. She smiled. “You hang onto that one no matter what.”

 

From our bed, where our bodies did not touch, I rose up and wandered out to the front room and, without turning on any lights, looked at the snow petalling Swan Street below. All my footprints of the past few years, going this way and that, appeared on the sodden sidewalks.

Across the street, the Empire State Plaza—a large marble-encased concrete slab that provided the foundation for a series of tall state office buildings—was all lit up but completely empty. It looked like a set that some sci-fi movie would use to represent the future on the cheap.

His anger. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t just walk out of the door. I could go sleep on Erick’s couch, as I had done before. I could find something more than part-time work if I had to support myself. I wasn’t trapped, so I stayed.

But sometimes, like tonight, I told myself it was bad. Although I thought it mattered that he never hit me, the absence of contact seemed almost as bad as a punch because it was so similar to what I had been used to my whole life—not violence, but the threat of violence, not a runaway truck that jumped the curb, knocking my wrenched body forward against a concrete wall, but rather a parade of passing cars, all slowing down to a sneer’s pace. The threat of violence left no evidence. It seemed all the more insidious because there was nothing I could point to except elevated stress levels and, possibly, drops in my CD4 cell counts.

I heard Shelby creeping up behind me, his nails clicking on the hardwood floors. He always knew when I cried, even softly, even in shuttered rooms, and would come and plunk down beside me with his little sourpuss face and commiserate, fur against skin, heat against heat.

When I turned, he peered up at me. I looked down at him.

Fuck your sympathy. Dumb dog. 

I stamped my foot in his space. He scampered sideways and croaked his dismay. I hated myself for taking my anger out on him. I squatted and stretched out my hand. He looked at me, hesitating at the corner of the white puffy couch. Ignoring me, he hoisted himself onto its big cushions. He knew the truth of my anger.

Good for you, Shelby. You’re smarter than I am.

I kept company with my reflection in the window. A half hour passed. My body motionless, my thoughts ran everywhere. Was I being an idiot for even considering breaking up with James? Would I ever meet a more brilliant, successful man, one who was interested in me?

No.

A calendar reminder on my phone awoke like Sleeping Beauty—Erick’s going-away dinner. He was taking at least a semester off, returning home to Kingston to care for his ailing father. I hadn’t forgotten, but neither had I RSVP’d.

I texted him. I thought I might catch him for a drink if he were still out.

The dog had snugged halfway into the blanket bunched up on the couch. He was looking for his cave.

I perched near Shelby and kissed him on the neck. I cried even though I had told myself not to. I whispered to him our special endearment. I lifted the blanket for him and he ducked into his cave, where he could put his back to a wall and only worry over three directions of attack instead of four. Was that the best any of us could do—minimize the angles of violence around us?

 

I showered and dressed and I had already tied my laces and buttoned up my coat when I heard James yell out in his sleep. I opened the door to the bedroom and peered at him in the slanting light. Shelby trotted in past me and hunkered down in his bed.

James yelled again—a desperate wail. I wanted to comfort him as I always did. Rubbing circles on his back usually quieted his night terrors. But, even then, I didn’t know how to enter his dreams and chase away what threatened him. That wisdom lay beyond me.

 

The snowfall had stopped by the time I stepped out. Without boots, in foolish shoes on the iced-over sidewalk, I slipped around a bit. I struck out my arms for balance, for walls that were not there.

A cold wind buffeted me. I sought my scarf in the back seat of James’ hybrid, but the lock was frozen. I cursed. I pounded the window with my fist and rafters of snow fell around my arm.

I shook off the snow as I climbed up Jay Street. Someone, walking ahead of me, had swiped their finger along the snow-tufted windows of every single parked car. I kept my eye on the unbroken broken line.

It was a slow trek.

Though it had seemed late for a work night when I left, I knew that two blocks away, in its cozy amber-lit basement bars and on its sidewalks lined with shoveled stoops, Lark Street would be percolating with the Thursday-is-the-weekend students, the pub-hoppers, the bohemians, the late-dinner legislative aides, all unspooling from time, the clocks of Albany frozen for the night.

Halfway up the block, I paused on a belt of blue-salted snow and checked my text messages. I had forgotten to turn my audio notifications on so I didn’t see Erick had answered me, checking in every time he left for another bar, leaving me a trail of crumbs, geolocated pins in maps.

I texted: “Stay where you are. Be right there.”

He gave me a thumbs-up.

At the top of the block, I crossed Lark Street, slush-tracked, and headed for his last location, the bar that catered to the collegiate party crowd, mostly men and women who liked men and women. This was fine by me. I did not want to go to a bar where I knew anyone.

Erick stood outside, snug in his dark pea coat, hailing me with a small-wave hello, the tiny gesture floating toward my heart like a hummingbird. I longed to be sugar water.

“Chasing after straight boys now?” I joked, as I navigated the hardened snowbank like a timid mountaineer.

Erick reached out and helped me down the snowbank, crusted with ice, melded together like peanut brittle that cracked and crunched underfoot. I felt all the toothaches of Christmas when I crossed, holding onto his cold, bare hands.

“Oh, yeah, straight boys. I just love a man in a wifebeater.” Erick stopped short—I could see my silent face in his thoughts for a moment, until it disappeared like a lit match down a dark well.

“How was your going-away dinner?” I asked.

“My friends love me. Even Nathalia showed up.”

“Wow,” I answered, not remembering why Nathalia might have shown up or not shown up.

“Let’s not go here. Too rowdy.” He pulled me forward, in the direction he wanted to go, and I slipped. He caught me. I could tell Erick could see my bruise even in the snowlight. “What possessed you to wear dress shoes, goofball? You’re going to break your neck!”

He locked arms with me for support and, when he hugged me to his side, and looked at me to make sure I was ready to take the next step, I teared up. I did not want him to leave. I could not bear to be apart from him, even though we were hardly ever together.

 

Erick and I only ever chatted when we happened to meet at Oh Bar, a glossy, tin-ceilinged pub up the block that we both frequented. We’d drink our slender-glassed cocktails. We’d argue about who would buy the next round. We’d smile at each other when a song that we both liked lit up the flat screens. We’d hide behind stacked beer bottle boxes in the back to smoke our electronic cigarettes. Play tabletop trivia. Flirt like hell. Share tipsy kisses. Our time together, a string of moments, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, always stopped short of—more pleasure. Then goodbye.

Lately we’d been having longer chats, a sort of guerrilla therapy, our shoulders tensed against the super-reflective white-tiled walls, tamping the shadows that threatened to embrace each other.

He always pushed me to demand happiness for myself, and, when I apologized for James, he shook his head. I didn’t tell him all of it, but he filled in what I left out. He encouraged me to spend time apart from James. Even just a weekend in Lake George. Take the bus. Have a secret picnic on the beach with a submarine sandwich. (I had laughed, amused by the quaint poverty of his suggestion. Submarine sandwich!)

It wasn’t that bad, I would assure him. I would list James’ accomplishments as a scholar and activist, all he had done to unite the community across the state.

“Who cares? The community doesn’t have to sleep next to him,” Erick countered.

“But his work on trans protections? Funding for LGBT homeless youth? That counts for something.”

“You could do that same work.”

“Me? Who can’t speak in front of a crowd? Who can’t talk to a Republican without telling them to go fuck themselves? I can’t do that.”

“I’m not saying be Harvey Milk. But you can write letters. Tweet. Protest. Put your body on the line.”

I shrugged. “Not really my style. I’ll stick with nurturing someone who can do those things. And James can do those things. His first book is coming out….”

Erick did not follow my detour. “Okay, but, then, what does he nurture in you?”

“Nothing. But that’s not his fault. I have no grand project.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I really don’t. I’m clueless. I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

“But you will know, soon enough. What are you, twenty-three? My dad didn’t start his antique shop until he was thirty-one, a year after I was born.”

All I could say was “good for him.”

Erick laughed to himself and then pinned a memory to my breast as if it were a boutonniere. “Antique store—my dad unwittingly brought every gay man in the tri-state area to my doorstep. I would spy on them as they browsed. I knew all the back ways through the furniture and the false walls. I knew all the vantage spots. And my spying paid off. I saw two men kiss for the first time in my father’s antique store. I must have been eleven or twelve. It was the lamp room, where chandeliers were hung at every height, always lit. Like a crystal cave. And there they were—two men kissing like there was no tomorrow. The tenderness! The passion! I instantly fell in love with men who are able to show that kind of affection.”

“I would die for that.”

“You deserve that. Your heart is so big. Too big for this world. James doesn’t know what he has.”

I did not respond, at first, and Erick went silent in response to my refusal to yield to his sense.

“I can’t just abandon him. Not when he’s up for tenure. He’s very stressed. That wouldn’t be very kind.”

“It seems to me that he depends too much on your kindness, Micah. He needs your good to balance out his bad.”

“I hate people who say ‘I do’—”

“You have a ring on your finger?” he asked, sarcasm softening his challenge.

“No, I mean, I hate when people make a commitment and then when things get tough they just leave. Like my brother. Like James’ parents. I can’t just abandon him.”

“But if you stay, don’t you think in some sense you’ve abandoned yourself?”

 

Erick and I ended up at the Palais Royale, a decrepit, barely windowed bar off the main drag. It was the same as always—cushioned-and-metal-framed chairs were crowded around linoleum-topped tables on the grimy tiled floor, tall porcelain cats perched above the shadowy bar, strings of lights circled the walls like a thorny halo. Its decor seemed unchanged from the 1970s, except for later additions, like a Dolly Parton pinball machine, her bosom lighting up to ring in high scores, and a jukebox that played CDs, the hits now all ten years old.

As Erick ordered drinks, I decided I would ask him if I could sleep over. Maybe I would find the confidence to ask for more.

Tomorrow morning, James would realize I had not come home. He would suffer through a breakfast without me and leave one plate, one cup, one butter knife in the deep sink all lonely and crumby and dry. He would take Shelby for his walk. He would iron his own shirt. But then I’d be waiting for him when he came home from his lectures and we’d order take-out at night, not to rekindle our sweeter feelings toward each other but to defer the intimacy of cooking dinner together.

I knew I’d be back, but for now I wanted to ride the momentum of a dramatic exit. For now I could pretend that I might not go back at all.

Erick handed me my drink and clinked my glass. The few patrons in the bar were deep into their own conversations or drunken vigils, so we drank undisturbed at the bar for twenty minutes or so. Then a man drifted up to us and hovered between our stools. Slight and small, he looked like he might be twenty but he was probably closer to forty. His eyes—his eyes stared at me from another century. I suspected he was a mesmerist who had stepped out from a dark Victorian stage curtain into candlelight.

“My mother died,” he told me, leaning in.

Yesterday? Ten years ago? It was hard to tell from his hollow tone.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I answered.

“My cousin died.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“My aunt, too.

“My little brother.

“Did I tell you my mother died?”

“Yes,” I said gently, firmly, hoping this litany of death would end soon.

He reached out and touched my bruise with the tips of his fingers. I winced but kept still as if he were a doctor I trusted.

“The man who did this to you—.”

I cut him off when I saw Erick turn his head toward the man. “A bookshelf fell on me. A small one.”

I didn’t brush his fingers, his cracked fingers, away. Sometimes I felt such a need for affection that I went to the barber more often than needed to feel a man’s hands on me. It was an old habit. I had started at fourteen. I had had the shortest hair in town.

“Careful,” I said. “It smarts.”

“The man is cheating on you.”

Cheating? I didn’t see how it could be true. James had voted for an open relationship. He disparaged marriage as a “heteronormative” trap, even as he wrote scholarly articles and protested in support of equal unions. We rarely made love anymore. I sometimes pursued sex with other men, but once I disclosed I was positive their desire often dwindled to quick-nothing orgasms. Sometimes I felt like a comedian in an ancient Roman play, wagging around a fabric erection at a laughing crowd. James seemed to have sex whenever he could, his empire of pleasure boundless.

“The man who did this. He’s already left you for a werewolf.”

“You’re sure—a werewolf?” I looked at Erick to see if he was also amused. “Not a vampire?”

“That werewolf in the movies. The one with the vampires.”

I laughed until the sense of it kicked in. The last of the Twilight movies had come and gone in the theaters.

“He’s left me for Taylor Lautner?” I chuckled. Erick didn’t. “He is hotter than I am.”

“Fuck no he ain’t,” Erick grumbled, angry at me as if I had said something dumb.

“You’re insane.” I looked to Erick, brows raised. Hotter than Taylor Lautner?

The man continued: “He lets the werewolf tear him apart with his claws. He screams and screams. The werewolf comes every night.”

“You…see this?” I asked.

“I see a lot, but most don’t want to know. Tell the truth but tell it bent.”

“You mean, tell it ‘slant’? The poem by Dickinson?”

“Who’s that? One of the Beats?”

I laughed. “Yes, the Beatnik of Amherst.”

Erick shifted on his stool, looking away, trying to end the conversation by ignoring the interloper.

“This is the one for you.” The man placed his hand softly on Erick’s shoulder. “He loves you.”

I looked to Erick, who had twisted his body around. “Well, I love him,” I answered, with a fake brightness I reserved for strange children I sincerely liked.

“You two will be together.”

“Do you do readings somewhere?” I asked, shifting the conversation away from Erick. What might the soothsayer reveal next? That I was in love with Erick and trembled like a schoolboy whenever I watched thoughts arc across his face?

“Used to. People listened then. People dreamed then.”

“Do you have any family still living?”

“My sister. But I disgust her.” He teetered but somehow his eyes remained steady.

“She told you that?!”

“No, but I see. She has her reasons.”

Erick turned to him: “It was nice meeting you, but we’re trying to have a goodbye drink.”

“You two will never say goodbye to each other. Not even if you part ways. The bond between you will never be broken.” Erick listened to him then, as if curious about what tomorrow might bring.

 

“Are you serious, Micah?” Erick stopped drumming his fingers on the donut shoppe counter after I told him I might break up with James. We had moved on to feast on ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches, warm and soggy from the microwave.

I felt guilty—I often talked through my plans of leaving with kind friends who were polite listeners, who never chastised me later, when I stayed put. But I could tell they thought I was an idiot.

“You’re leaving him? For good?” Erick asked.

“For my good.” I knew what I had to say, even if I didn’t yet believe it.

“Good.”

“I thought maybe I could sleep over tonight—but not on the couch,” I tendered.

A smile surfaced on his face, then just as quickly disappeared, as if dragged to the depths of the sea by a shark. “Hmm. I don’t know.”

I felt deflated. Somehow I had made even friendly sex complicated. I yearned to tell him I was simple. I could be simple. I was simple when it came to sex. I could have mindless fun. I didn’t need to be dripping with drama.

“What don’t you know?” I asked, gently.

I dabbed a crumb from the corner of Erick’s mouth, smiled at him. His dark eyes settled into seriousness. I crumpled my napkin and held it in my fist.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I don’t want to start anything. I won’t be back—till I’m back. We can’t—let’s not start anything. Now.”

His talk of beginnings surprised me. Ever since we first shared a kiss last summer, we both knew that we were on each other’s dance cards, but toward the end of the night. I thought we were only destined to have sex, though—nothing more.

“You’re not taking our friendly soothsayer seriously?” I asked, not wanting romantic love to overwhelm my need for intimacy, a night’s healing.

“I’m not joking. You’re not a joke to me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, I’m glad you did.”

“I love you, brother. But I don’t want you to leave him because of me. I want you to leave for yourself.”

“I know. I know that.” If there was any chance we could be together, I had to appear wiser about life than I was. Staying with James for so long had exposed me as moronic, I feared.

“But I don’t want to ask you to put your feelings on hold. I don’t want you to wait for me.”

“I’m sure you will drive up for the odd visit. It’s only the Hudson Valley. You’re not going to the ends of the earth.”

“No. I need to be there for my dad, 24/7. I’m going to be there until he—”

I recognized the desperate catch in his voice. Why he didn’t want to listen to that man in the bar talk about death. Erick was going to the ends of the earth.

“I’m sorry, Erick.”

“But I know you need me, too.”

“Don’t worry about me. Obviously, I have work to do on myself,” I said, repeating mantras I had heard on Oprah. “I’ve got to learn to love myself first before anyone can love me. And before I can love someone else.”

Erick nodded. “You don’t know how hard it is, Micah. We’re friends and that’s fine. But then we start flirting and there’s nowhere to go with it. You can’t keep taking refuge in me and then go back to him.”

Unable to eat any more, I pushed away my paper tray. I studied how it had been put together, the slots and tabs, the easy construction. “I’m sorry, Erick. I didn’t know you felt that way about me. I hoped….”

“I’m here, in the flesh. Who the hell needs hope?”

I did. I needed hope. At least I thought I did. Hope—I had years of practice, and yet now hope seemed rather bloodless. Erick made sense. Hope seemed yoked to never.

I hoped James would change and love me again like in the beginning. I hoped Erick had the same feelings as I did. I hoped one day I would feel good about myself. Why did it make me feel so at peace, to imagine that love was always coming soon, or returning soon, but never yet arrived? I wanted love to be here. And there was only one way to make that happen—to love now. Love life, as Erick did. Or love the community, as James did. Love myself. I knew it would be the most difficult step I would ever take, to love in the now.

 

A plow scraped past, throwing clumps of snow at our feet. We walked slowly, not yet having to part.

“I have to leave, Micah. My father needs me,” Erick said.

I didn’t know why Erick thought to reiterate his plans. “Of course. I understand completely. You are a very caring person, Erick.”

My shoes slipped on a patch of ice. My arms windmilled and my feet threatened to burst into a little unplanned choreography. I righted myself before Erick needed to pluck me out of a snowbank.

“We should wait. Or am I wrong?”

“No, you’re right. We shouldn’t start anything. I need to get my life in order. I need to find a place to live. I need to finish my degree.”

“Yeah, why is that? What do you have, one more course?”

I nodded. “I mean, I have taken the course. I never turned in my final paper. I have a draft. I just never finished it. The professor gave me an Incomplete, but I just let that lapse. I know—stupid.” My cold hands searched my coat pockets for gloves but I only found one.

“I bet if you had turned in your draft, you would have gotten at least a D and you probably would have passed the course.”

“I know.”

“The professor didn’t suggest that?” We had reached a crosswalk and, though the streets were nearly empty, Erick placed his arm across my chest as he scouted for cars.

“He wanted me to finish the draft. Round out my ideas and put my name to work I felt satisfied with.”

“You know, you can appeal things like this. There’s a process. Who is the professor?”

I was silent a moment before I spoke. “It was James.”

I feared Erick would see how daft I was. I hoped he would see how daft I was. Then I would be irretrievable. Content with nonsense. Beyond anyone’s caring. Alone, with nowhere to go.

“But we weren’t seeing each other at the time,” I added.

“But soon after.”

“Soon after.”

“Micah, he could change your grade with a stroke of a pen.”

“But the ethics—”

“What ethics? Fuck ethics! You tell him tomorrow to give you a passing grade and be done with it. Jesus fucking Christ, all he has to do is say one word and you’d have your bachelor’s.”

“But it is my responsibility to learn—”

“Fuck learning. You don’t need him to learn anything. This is about power.”

I know now I should have never read James’s book manuscript. He wanted me to give him notes, but he was willing to wait till after I finished my paper for his course. I couldn’t wait, charged with such a thrilling task. I didn’t wait. I read, pen in hand, a pen that never touched the page except by accident, leaving stray marks that I scribbled out and annotated with a “sorry!” I found his writing so fecund with ideas, each idea perfectly placed against the next idea like a mahjong game two hours in, the tiles a sprawling continent—I hadn’t known what to say. And when I tried to return to work on my paper, it seemed like one big doodle, a doodle I had worked on for hours and hours. I came to realize some people knew how to tackle the big questions. I did not.

“Promise me, you will ask him, Micah. No, tell him.”

“Yes, I promise.”

I wanted to push Erick, hard. Like you might push a boat off from the dock you are kneeling on. Push him beyond the weeds and the rocks into the open lake. I wanted to launch him away from the stupidity of me.

I waited for him to say it: Something is seriously wrong with you!

But he didn’t say that. He hugged me close, his lips on my ear.

He whispered, “Forget what I said about waiting. Screw it—I don’t know everything. It’ll be okay. Let’s just fuck tonight.”

I felt his grin widen against my cheek. I slipped as we embraced, disentangling myself from his grasping hands. I skated backwards and then stopped.

He knelt and tied my laces.

“These shoes, Micah. What were you thinking?” he asked.

“I wanted to impress you!”

“How? By flailing your arms and legs like a whirligig up and down Lark Street?” Erick joked, as he rose.

I laughed. “But you still like me even though I look like a fool?”

 

We started kissing on his mattress on the floor, pinned on either side by his splayed-open, half-packed suitcases. We spent time touching every part of each other’s body, showing each other his completeness, the wholeness that existed no matter the shape.

But, like a pervy roommate watching through the cracked-open door, violence loitered just outside the room. My gentleness, its obverse proxy—as if I wanted to show, by contrast, that I knew what love and affection could be. I sought to be the opposite of James. My kisses soft and luscious. My embraces deliberate.

Yet I also resisted—my mind willed the door to shut on violence and its prying eyes. Gentleness did not need to be part of the work of balancing. It had a different life, not part of any unequal binary. Gentleness could be nurtured as a singular, beautiful force, less past and more future, less remedy and more prophylaxis.

But even as I stroked Erick, the pain hidden within my caresses was almost too much to bear.

I hesitated, hovering.

Erick sensed my disorientation and pulled me closer to him and yanked down my briefs. I slipped on the condom I had picked up at my clinic, a rather awkward and dry couple of minutes of manipulation until Erick slicked me with lube. He slathered more lube where he wanted me to plumb.

Two of my fingers crossed and delved into him. I put him at ease. He wrapped his legs around me. Staring into his eyes, I sank forward, deeper, my hardness pulsing. And then when he began to kiss my neck I thrust into him with measured strokes, keeping time inside of him. He squeezed my thickening: “Fuck my brains out. Then I’m going to fuck your brains out.”

Later, Erick rolled us on our sides and hugged me from behind, one hand planted square on my chest and his hardness throbbed and buoyed inside me. I had to twist my head to kiss him.

I kept pushing back and Erick kept pushing forward.

I could feel the soothsayer touch my bruise. I could feel the soothsayer touch Erick’s shoulder. It seemed as if the world had married us, at least for that night, if not forever. I floated amid the intelligence of touch.

 

After, long after our breathing steadied, I rose and started pulling on my clothes.

“Where are you going? Stay.”

I didn’t answer at first. “I should go. Get my life in order,” I said, as if I needed to start doing so immediately, as if I hadn’t already started.

Erick grimaced at my resistance. “You didn’t expect me to say that, did you? That I love you. That I want to be with you.”

I shook my head.

“You wanted us to hook up, and then I’d leave town, and then you’d go back home?”

“Something like that. Do you hate me for being shallow?” It seemed somehow obscene that I was covering my body, buttoning, fastening.

“Why? Because you wanted all of this?” He stretched his arms above his head with a sleepy smirk, and, as the entire length of his body tensed and relaxed, it seemed as if every single muscle woke up.

“Fucker.”

“The best fucker.” His face was full of himself. And he never had looked sexier.

“You’re unreal.”

“Stay in my bed. Stay till I get back. Or leave. Do what you need to do. But I want an answer to one question?”

“What question is that?”

“You know what it is.” He clasped his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, as if he might fall asleep before he heard an answer. He spoke gently, earnestly. “Do you love me, too?”

 

Last June, late June, that hot weekend in June when the stores ran out of fans, James and I had been invited to his friend Stewart’s pool party out in the country, at his friend’s lonely house banked by tiger lilies, whose windows grabbed at the sun before it disappeared behind the Helderbergs.

We had been late to arrive. James was perturbed, never liking to keep his friends waiting.

No one answered the door, so we loped around back to the edge of the in-ground pool, which was rocking with waves and laughter as the guests, all men, played a rogue game of net-less volleyball in muscular glee.

Stewart broke from his position and lunged toward the edge of the pool, toward us, bringing with him a swell of water that unfurled across the dry hot cement. “It’s the Professor and Mary Ann!”

It was a loathsome joke but I laughed along.

Everybody shouted hello. I managed a smile, hands on my hips in a stab at casualness. Stewart pulled himself out of the pool and kissed me and James and appraised our gift of strange, imported liqueur with feigned curiosity. James had drunk it every night in Italy when he had traveled abroad to study the Situationists for his dissertation.

I looked elsewhere, at the men, who had returned to batting the beach ball back and forth. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

I followed James into the house as if I too were changing.

“Don’t tell me you’re not going into the pool,” James said in the curtained light of the guest room, as he shucked his pants and rummaged around in his shoulder bag for his trunks.

“I’ll be fine.” I plucked my gray T-shirt off my sweaty chest to let it breathe.

“Christ—the hottest day of the year!”

“I’ll soak my feet.”

“You do this to yourself. The only way to fight body fascism is not to be complicit. You’re smarter than this. Change into your suit and walk out there with confidence.”

“I’d rather not. I’ll be fine.”

“You always embarrass me. Everyone thinks I married a prima donna.”

“We’re not married.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t care what people think.”

“But you do! You’re not going in the pool!” He unbuttoned his blue-and-green-checked short-sleeved shirt. “Look at me. I have a tummy.”

“You have a hairy chest, strong pecs and strong biceps. You look like a cute lumberjack. I’m not a twink or a bear or a muscle god. I look like Ichabod Crane in a Speedo. Tall. Gangly. Painfully pale.”

“You’re going to have get over this insecurity one day. Don’t you think?”

“I think.”

“And I told you to wear trunks that look like shorts, like mine. Hardly anyone can pull off a Speedo.”

“I’ll be fine.”

We returned and there were the usual groans when the others realized I was settling myself into a chaise lounge to read. They had already decided who was to be on whose team.

Their disappointment was brief. They were soon applauding James as he strode out onto the diving board. They quieted as he went through the motions of a dive prep, super-serious. At the last moment, after he launched off the end of the board, he tucked into a cannonball and spanked the water. The blast soaked me.

I fanned my book out to dry.

The afternoon wandered beyond the yard, into the fields, and hid among the sumacs and the sweet pea.

 

Earlier, we had visited my grandmother in the hospital. She had burned her upper right arm on a hot tea kettle, which made no sense, or perfect sense, considering her cognitive decline.

James had brought her flowers, a gigantic display that fanned out like peacock feathers. I thought it was a bit much, an arrangement you might send to a funeral home in your stead.

“Janet? I hope you are feeling better?” he said.

Gran had ignored him and I mouthed an apology, my face turned toward him. “It’s the dementia.”

“I have to tell you something, Micah.” She had clasped my hands and pulled her to me so that I had to crouch over her. She struggled to speak.

“What is that, Gran?”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“About what?” I sat on the bed but still held her hands.

She paused and then offered again, “I’ve changed my mind.”

I kissed her hands over and over, and held her hands, squeezing them softly. She squeezed me back, pulsing out some code I did not understand. I accepted that whatever she had changed her mind about would not be articulated.

“Gran, I wanted to apologize to you. Last summer, remember the strawberry shortcake? I was mean to you—”

“Oh, Micah,” she said.

“I love you, Gran.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” she whispered, her eyes flitting to James, who was reading Get Well cards on the dresser at the other end of the room.

I understood. What had she counseled? You hang onto that one no matter what.

I unwrapped the submarine sandwich I had smuggled in.

“Look, Gran. Meatballs with melted provolone. We can have a secret picnic.”

She grinned. I wrapped the heel of the sub in a napkin and helped her take the first bite.

 

Out of the blue, Erick showed up at the pool party.

I didn’t know that he knew Stewart, but Albany was so small that I wasn’t surprised.

He grabbed an icy beer out of the cooler and plopped down onto the chaise next to me. I noticed James monitoring from afar.

“You’re not going in for a swim?” I asked.

“I can’t swim and talk to you at the same time.”

“Take a dip and then come back.”

“’Kay.” He set his beer down on the low wicker table between us and bolted up, kicked off his ragged sneaks, unbuckled his cargo shorts and let them drop to the cement. I couldn’t not look at his buttocks, how the tattered fringe of his T-shirt rested against the smooth black nylon of his Speedo as it curved and hugged his big round cheeks.

“Walk away. You’re giving me a hard-on.”

Erick laughed. “What are you, thirteen?”

“No, it’s just that you’re so glorious. Whitman, Cavafy, Spender—they’d all clamor to write poems about you.”

“That’s all I get, some frickin’ poems? Some onomatopoeia? Buzz, bang, blop, bloop?” Erick could be frustratingly cute, even when he is making fun of you.

“You want more than poems?”

He wrestled off his T-shirt and flicked it on his chair. He faced me. “Hell, yeah. I want a man to step up and love me. Someone who sees my heart. Someone who can accept the pleasure I give to him. Is that too much to ask?”

His manifesto dazzled my brain. “I don’t know.”

“Oh, what a party pooper. Crushing my dreams.”

“I’m sorry.”

James loomed into view. He placed a hand on Erick’s bare shoulder.

“He’s always saying ‘sorry,’” he said to Erick, before addressing me. “What did you do this time?”

I soured. “I made a grave error in judgment.”

I only brightened when I saw Erick reach back and start to furiously flick at James’ fingers.

“Ow.” James withdrew his hand.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I felt a creepy-crawlie on my back.”

And then Erick was off, darting toward the pool, scooping Stewart up off the concrete and flinging him into the water. They horsed around, dunking each other.

“He’s always so childish—and mean to me. He’s so transparent.” James perched where Erick had been sitting.

“Oh?”

“Ageist. Obviously.”

I smiled. For once, I felt I knew something that James didn’t.

 

I did go for a swim. Erick lured me in when everyone else migrated indoors in search of fresh cocktails. The sun had disappeared and dusk spread like kudzu.

I treaded in place, the deep end of the pool. Erick swam around me, half-strokes cutting a ragged circle.

“Help me make a whirlpool.”

“You can’t make a whirlpool in a rectangular pool.”

“How do you know? Ever try?”

“I did a research paper on it. Proved it beyond a doubt.”

“Nothing is proven beyond a doubt.” Erick stopped in front of me. He reached for me and grabbed at my wrists, pretending he needed my help. “I’m drowning. Save me. Show me how you would save me.”

I stared at him, unresponsive. I let the moment pass.

He persisted. “Goofball, why do you play dumb? You know you want to kiss me. You know I want to kiss you.”

I slipped my arms from his grasp and grabbed at his wrists and pulled his smile toward me. We kissed, a rough, not-very-pretty kiss, as the momentum of our bodies overtook us, as his breast collided with my breast. And then the weight became too much. We sank underwater until my foot touched the bottom of the pool. The whole way down our lips never parted.

 

About the Author: Chael Needle is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Astoria, Queens. He serves as managing editor of A&U: America’s AIDS Magazine, and he coedited, with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). His fiction and poetry have been published in T.R.O.U., CallistoChelsea StationThe Adirondack ReviewOwen Wister Review,  Blue Fifth ReviewLilliput Review, and bottle rockets.

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