“Soft” by Nigel Bray

‘Soft, For the Music Dies.’

Soft, for the music dies within this room

Where once the bridge that Heaven sings

to man, returning him to grace,

is an empty space.

 

Soft, for music never silenced never can return

and we the living must, its passing mourn

sighing in the gloom.

 

Soft, still within the silence lives the love

he crafted here upon an earthly stave;

the song, moon slivered nights and sunscaped days.

Soft, threading memory stakes the muted claim

which we, the living, tearful, bear the blame

denial of our grave.

 

Soft. Dying music’s timbre strikes the note

discordant; chaos bring the age of truth

to him; returns all harmony and places times innocence.

Soft, here lies the living ache, seek the dawn of melodies.

Each day his love reborn sustains undying hopes.

Artist Bio: Nigel Bray is an Englishman, writer and actor. Long-term survivor. Boyfriend, fiancé, now husband, and eloper to France, where he now lives in peace and love, with wine and cheese, his man and his dog. Visit his website at: www.mrlucky-1956.com. E-mail Nigel at amiraculousman@gmail.com.

“Find” by Eloise Typewriter

Find

Find the person
who takes all
of your words
for ransom and agrees
to hold your dripping
ice cream cone
of a heart for as long
as you will have him.
Find the person
who turns sadness
into sunflowers
at your feet…

 

Artist Bio: Eloise is a 20-something poet that believes words can heal the wounds of the world. She received her M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University. Her work often focuses on mental illness and unique love narratives. Eloise has been published in several poetry anthologies, including Splintered Souls by A.B. Baird Publishing and North Carolina’s Best Emerging Poets by Z Publishing. When not sipping coffee or collecting typewriters in Charlotte, North Carolina, you can find Eloise on Instagram at eloise_the_typewriter.

[untitled] by Daniel Pannebaker

[untitled]

I drink from your love’s cup
endlessly (thirst becomes
desire) and know that
I shall never get

my fill.

 

 

Artist Bio: Daniel W Pannebaker has always had a love for language and has a firm belief in the power of words. He has had works published in several literary journals and, in 2014, published a volume of his own poetry, Easter Egg and other poems of faith, hope, & love. Authors who have influenced his writing include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucy Shaw, and Madeleine L’Engle. Daniel lives in South Amboy, NJ with his husband and a fearless miniature pinscher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“So you see” from “Mr. Lucky” by Nigel Bray

So you see, I had already made two (totally unrealistic and unsuccessful) bids for freedom, and now this Simon was heading my way…..what could it mean? My insides were like jelly, it was like being in love again, right at the start, when you’re a bit breathless and you do a small wee. AND I didn’t even know the bloke, though it felt like I always had.

‘The train arriving on platform 2, is the 14.06 from Paddington.’ I (apparently) was running up and down the platform like a fucking eejit, going “Where is he? Where is he? I can’t see him! Where is he?…...” David was standing, arms folded, by the barrier. What premonitions did he have? And, then, at 18.15, April 4th, 2007, as I said, I met the man who was to mend my heart and break David’s. There he was, in his too – small jacket and big red shoes, and I was lost. Gone for good at that moment.

“Oh HIIIIII!”  I screeched.

“Hello,” he said, in that honey voice and leant in to kiss my cheek.

I’m David,” said David, holding out his hand.

“Good journey? Train’s on time. It’s been sunny here today. Have you eaten? Would you like some tea somewhere? A café? Or a pint maybe? Are you tired? Do you want to run away with me and keep me close in your heart in a place where no one will ever hurt us?”

I didn’t actually say that last bit, but I WAS babbling like an idiot as we walked to the car. I don’t remember the drive home, other than I had my hand on his foot all the way, like staking my claim, sneaking my fingers up his trouser leg, or maybe offering comfort. I could see him in the mirror too – and oh FUCK!! He’s looking back! Blue eyes fixed on my reflection. I looked away, burned by the intensity of his stare.

We got home, had large gins. Dinner was ready. He’d changed and was wearing very loose pants, Indian style. He was somehow at my end of the table and – dear God – we were able to play footsie under the table. If David detected anything, he didn’t show it. Dinner passed in a wine fuelled haze, and the next thing I know, Simon was lying (very provocatively, I have to say, you naughty man) on the settee, and I was right – he wasn’t wearing any pants. And David made his move. I was horrified! Mine!! He’s fucking MINE!!

The ‘we don’t play separately’ rule seemed cruelly inappropriate but there it was, so I had to join in and get what comfort I could. We went upstairs, I was drunk, and we had some sort of sex, the three of us, and after, went to bed. Me in the guest room, he in my bed. The only time that the stranger in my bed was welcome and I was in the next room.

The next day, we had a wander round town and then went to the beach and took a lot of photos in which, looking back at them now, there was such a clear and present connection between us; the way we stood, looked, posed, laughed, all pointed towards US being the couple and David the visitor.

We had drinks, overlooking the sea, and were joined by Paul, a sometime acquaintance and the man who was booked in for reiki the next day.

“Paul, this is Simon. He’s a reiki master too, but is trained in Seichem. I’m Usui trained as you know. It might be good for you to have us both treat you tomorrow? What do you think?”

Paul agreed, and we went back home. I can’t remember the evening. Did we do anything? I don’t know, I was only enthralled to have this splendid man in my house and in my life, even just for a short while. It wasn’t long before Simon went off to bed, early, on his own. I think he wanted to avoid another sex session, which he clearly hadn’t enjoyed.

The next morning we did what ostensibly he had come down for and set ourselves up in the study to try to sort out the website, though it was clear all we wanted to do was to have sex again, on our own, but….’we don’t play separately’ and my luck was already massively pushed. We fiddled about with pictures and text frames and hyperlinks and CSS and made the best of it. Paul arrived at 2, and we began our reiki session. Paul had no idea of the cataclysm that was about to unfold above his head…

All was going well, Michael turned up on cue, I was treating Paul’s neck, Simon his feet. The reiki filled the room and it was both tempestuous and healing. Then, I was bidden to stretch out my hand towards Simon, who did the same and our fingertips touched. I am not linguistically skilled enough to describe what then occurred – if you picture what may have passed between Adam and God, when their fingertips touched, as imagined in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A bolt of pure energy exploded between us, through us, each into the other. It was terrifying, and powerful beyond words, but glorious and exultant and exhilarating and magnificent. We snatched our hands apart, both a bit stunned, like we’d been electrocuted by pure love, but unsure about what had just happened. When we eventually talked about it, after we’d stopped pretending it hadn’t meant anything, it seemed a clear message from spirit that we had met our true soul mates; both open to spirit in that moment, we were able to transmit the true essence of each to the other. It was indefinable but without any room for doubt. We BOTH knew what had happened, but what the fuck to do about it? NOW what?

Even weirder, the next day David said:

“I’ll do breakfast. Why don’t you two go out for a walk? 20 minutes?”

“Erm, yeah, OK. You want to?”

“Sure, yeah,” said Simon, glad to get me alone whenever he could.

So off we went, through the hedge, up to the Beacon; a bit of sightseeing always calmed things down a bit. There’s a little area with picnic benches where you can sit and look far down West, where the eclipse had rolled up that day, back in ‘99, scaring the bejeesus out of us all. We sat. Opposite. Our hands touched and with no prompted thought I said:

“We’re going to live in France, and I’m going to help you run a healing centre at your house. Aren’t I?” Actually it wasn’t a question, it was a fact, a thing I KNEW.

“Yes. We are,” he said, and once more terrified, we leapt apart and said no more.

We went back to the house to finish the website (to sit really really close together). The site wasn’t too bad; bit amateur really but it was by now, of course, completely irrelevant.

“I’m just going down the shop. I won’t be long,” called David, and out he went, leaving us alone. Again. Upstairs. What the….?? I knew the shop, the local was just a few minutes and so there was no time to make love, not like we were both aching to do. So we kissed, and as he ran his fingers along the length my cock, he smiled, and said, “I am looking forward to when I can have that all for myself.”

“I love you,” he said.

“I have HIV,” I said.

BAM.

I hadn’t planned to say anything. At least not yet. Not till we were somewhere safe, and he was mine, but that would have been absolutely the wrong thing. He needed to know before, so he had a chance to run. To be horrified. Disgusted. Afraid. Like I was.

There was a beat. A silence. And into it, I expected to hear the slamming of laptop lids, hurried excuses, eyes that were just a moment ago boring into mine, now downcast and avoiding meeting, business arrangements made to pay for the work done so far, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’….

But not this man. Not this brave, gentle, honest, solid man.

Then he looked at me and said,

“That’s OK, It doesn’t matter. I love you. That’s all that matters,” and the front door opened and David was back. We sprang apart, erections wilting, red faced. What have I done? That’s that then. Still better to know now than make some stupid mistake and THEN have it go tits up. But I didn’t know him, this man. This man of courage, this man who loved me. He meant what he said, and I had to trust it. But it wasn’t mentioned again. Was that a good thing or a bad one?

That evening, we’d planned a meal, en plein air, round the chimenee, for which I was cooking Mexican. The works. I know it wasn’t his last night, but we were planning to go out on the last night, a proper Cornish pub meal. I couldn’t bear thinking about it, so I had some more gin. You KNOW what happens, Bray; you and gin are trouble. Anyway, I wanted to quell the panic of him leaving on Sunday. How would we ever put our plan into operation? Then, another weird thing: David said. “Why don’t you two go and have a walk before dinner? I’ll do the prep?” So off we went again. Alarming! What was he playing at? Trying? Trusting? Trapping? Dunno, but I just wanted out of the house, with Simon, for a wee while, probably for the last time, particularly now, after this morning’s liddle revelation, before he left on Sunday. We climbed over the stile, walked up the field to the top and as the sun set over Treningle, my house, and my marriage, we held hands and knew, somehow, we were to be together.

“We’ll have to wait, to find a way. I have NO idea how, or how long. But there will BE a way. YOU know what happened in that room,” he said. The sun grew redder and the air cooler. “Come on, let’s go back. I’m starving!” I said to steer the conversation away from the “thing” so huge it was uncontemplateable.

“We’re back! Ready to eat everyone?”

I put ABBA on full blast, (‘The Winner Takes It All’), poured myself a glass of forget- me- juice and, watching David and Simon sitting chatting, through the window, began to cook dinner. All the red pepper pieces were the same size.

The tracks went down (‘Dancing Queen’ being caterwauled as I cooked), the wine went down and the sun went down. The chimenee was roaring, the table was set, the fajitas were done, the beans refried, the guacamole whizzed to a fine and spicy delight and….I wanted none of it. I wanted it all to go away, to be over and to be alone in Simon’s arms. But. “HEEEEERE we are!” I yodelled, carrying out the food. We ate, the music played on, we talked about the inconsequential, the drinks went down…..then we ran out of chat and sat and watched the flames, mesmerised, in a row, with David in the middle.

Deliberate? Just how the chairs were? I don’t know. What I DO know is that he was between us and, as I got more and more pissed, I got more and more desperate to touch Simon. What could I do? Lean across? Ask to swap seats? I know. I know – I’ll just say, “Excuse me, David, can I sit next to Simon as we’ll be running away together soon.” Fortunately, Simon decided that he really didn’t want to share me at bedtime again and excused himself and went to bed. Probably just as well; my gob was gearing up to run away with me, the pressure was so enormous.

“’Night…..” Peck on my cheek as he leant in and I could smell him, feel his weight on my shoulder. “’Night David,” and he was gone. Leaving us together alone. I’m not sure why David suddenly started touching me, rubbing his hand up my thighs, proprietorially? As a reminder? Just horny? Whatever the reason, and I am ashamed to say, dear reader, that I found his touch offensive and wrong and I pushed his hand off. He put it back, nearer the top of my leg, nearer my balls this time and I said, “Will you just fucking get off me!” A little too fierce. A little too tell-tale. But, he did. Then he went and fetched the brandy (Dartington) decanter.

“I’m having a nightcap. I suppose you want one?” he said in that ‘don’t you think you’ve had enough already?’ kind of voice.

“Yes, please, if that’s alright. … a bit more than THAT. If that’s OK with you?” He’d poured enough to just make a film on the bottom of the (Dartington) glass. Remember, I’M in in control here….. “Thank you.! He poured more. “More, if that’s ok?” By this time the glass was half full of neat brandy (Courvoisier) and we sat in silence, pretending that the flames were interesting. Actually they were. The brandy was fierce and I was becoming unmoored. The man I adored beyond all else was just 20 feet away, sleeping now no doubt, for now at peace and untroubled. More staring. More silence, as wide as the bed which now held my love.

“I’ve had enough of this. Shall we go to bed?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m staying for a bit. ‘Night.”

 “OK. Don’t be long. And make sure the fire door’s shut. And the water feature’s switched off. And don’t forget the light. And bring your glass in. I’m sure it’ll be empty.”

Go. Just go.

Alone and drunk, I wondered if he had any idea why I was so unhappy so suddenly? Everything was so exciting a couple of days ago. I supposed not, in a drunken kind of way; we’d done nothing untoward.

I heard a rustling from next door. Then I had a brilliant idea!

“Hey! I can hear you! And I can smell dope, you naughty girl! Roll us one?” Utter madness. A decision that could only be made by someone already robbed of sense and reason. She passed the joint over the wall and I took a drag. Instantly my head began to spin and I felt disconnected from the world.

“Thanks, G”.

“Go easy, you twat,” came the whispered reply.

Another drag, further from reality. Another slug of brandy. And suddenly. Whoooo. Suddenly I was done. Enough already! I couldn’t really see properly and standing was proving a bit tricky as everything was all slopey. Oh fuck! Suddenly my head spun really fast and I lost my balance, and toppled over, luckily landing on the steps by the gate and not the fire. Wait. Pause. Breathe. Breathe.

Everything slowly came back into focus and gingerly I tried to stand. Shut the fire door. 20 paces to the steps. Switch off water thing. 10 steps back to the door. Switch off light. Good boy I am. Fuckity arse. Forgot the glass. Ne’er mind eh? Need a pee now. Like NOW. Fortunately, I had installed a handrail on the stairs. Came in handy as I hauled myself up to the loo, in that being Really Quiet drunk way. I had to pee like a girl as I’d have needed two hands to wee the boy’s way and I had to hold on to the towel rail. Fuck, was I drunk. And stoned. The whole room was lurching and spinning as the THC in the cannabis thwhacked me in the brain. I felt AWFUL and sorrowful and regretful and my life was shit and nobody loved me and I needed some cheese. Yes, that was it. Cheese.

Hauling myself, I felt my way back downstairs to the kitchen for cheese.

What was it again? I stared round the kitchen, swaying, and threatening to do that funny run that drunk people do, that we all laugh at when it’s not you. I wanted….. um… I don’t know now. My eyes stopped swivelling and came to rest on my phone, on the worktop. I moved towards it, oops, bit too fast, misjudged the distance there. I know! I’ll write Simon a lovely text so he will see it in the morning when he wakes.  I wrote:

My darling Simon

You are sleeping not ten feet away and I am in the wrong bed. But don’t worry because soon we will be in France together. I love you like I have never loved anyone else. It will be hard to say goodbye on Sunday, but it will only be temporary. I don’t know how long, but be strong.

With all my heart. XXX

Aww, that’s nice. He’ll see that tomorrow. Bed. I now need sleep. Not cheese! That’s what it was. Cheese, but I don’t want cheese now, I want bed. Not cheese. And, before I ended up sleeping on the kitchen floor, wove my way back up the stairs to bed.

Leaving the phone on the bench, open. With the text unsent.

05.15. A time, easy to remember. Something kicked my foot, and startled me awake and I was facing the clock. That’s how I know. Woahhhh my fucking head……sleep. More sleep. Then something kicked me again. I opened my eye, and swivelled it in the direction of where the pain was now coming from. And there was David. Holding my phone. Not really knowing what was happening, I raised myself, carefully onto one elbow – Jeez, brandy gives you the WORST hangover – and looked at him. What? What you just standing there for? What’s that in your hand? What are you showing me? Focus. Focus. My phone. It’s my phone.

“What?” What are you doing? Is that you kicking me?”

Silence.

“Why have you got my phone? Has somebody rung?”

“HOW LONG?”

“Uh? What? What are you saying?” Fog clearing….

“HOW FUCKING LONG?”

“What? How long what?”

“YOU AND HIM. HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN FUCKING GOING ON????”

And he shoved my open phone in my face, where I could blearily discern ‘My Darling Simon…’. The beginning of the text I left on the work top. The one where I didn’t press the ‘send’ key. Oh my days. You know the feeling when you are utterly busted, completely fucked with no possible recourse or excuse? That moment when the blood drains from all your vital organs, and leaves you with no breath, just a feeling of imminent death? That’s what I had then, and realising that there really WAS no way out, said:

“Three days. That’s all. Three days”. That was kind of true, but not really, as it had been going on for weeks, even months or even years if you factor in the time the planets had been spinning and bringing us to this moment.

“Down fucking stairs. Now.” David rarely swore, so I think he was probably a bit mad at this point. I stumbled out of bed, feeling real bad. Really sick, hungover, tired, but not scared. That was the remarkable thing. This could have been a trigger for all those times my Dad had thrashed me, but this time I didn’t care. I was SO clear in my intentions, he could do or say what he liked – it just WAS.

He was standing silhouetted in the window, the orange halo making his features indiscernible

“Three days? THREE FUCKING DAYS AND YOU’RE GOING TO FRANCE?”

“Yes.”

“How? Where will you live? What on? You don’t have any money.”

That much was true. I HAD money, but never had any access to it. He always managed the money; when we went shopping for Stuff, he always paid; when we ate out, he always paid. He always joked: “he’s like the Queen – never carries any money. Ha hahaa” Yes, you control freak. That’s because you never let me have any. And again, I let it happen. So. Not really your fault. Mine. Stupid mine, which has led me, finally, to this moment.

“How will you get there? You don’t even know him. Are you fucking mad?”

“I don’t know how. Or why, or when. All I DO know is that I love him and I WILL be leaving you. For him. Sorry. But that’s just the truth.”

“He won’t love you. Not like I do. Anyway you’ve got AIDS.”

And that, dear reader, was the end of all things. If Simon had left tomorrow alone, there is now no way I could ever stay here with this man, who had just said the cruellest of things. I had never fully recovered from, or forgiven him for, the Monstrous Lie, but had married him anyway, but that, that was the worst thing he could possibly have said. And it was the end.

“Sorry. Nothing else I can say.” Actually there was, but noticing the clenching fists and increase in breathing decided it was in the interests of self-preservation that I didn’t. I just sat, naked and shivering – cold, post adrenalin, fear, all three – on the settee that had seen so many betrayals and waited.

“WELL HE CAN FUCK OFF. FUCK OFF OUT OF MY HOUSE NOW!! GO AND WAKE HIM UP! AND YOU! YOU FUCK OFF WITH HIM! BOTH OFF YOU! FUCK OFF!! FUCK OFF OUT OF MY HOUSE!!!!”

I thought about reminding him it was OUR house, actually, but given the circs….

So I went back upstairs, found my clothes from where I’d stumbled out of them earlier, and went in next door. The room of more betrayals.

“Simon,” I whispered, “Wake up. Wake up.”

“Gnnnnnnn….. Oh, good morning. Why’s it still dark? What time is it?”

“It’s early. Come on, get up. We have to go.”

“Go where? What’s wrong?”

I’ll tell you as we go. Just get up. Can we go to yours? In London?”

“Uh….”

“Here’s the phone. Ring your landlady and ask. Do it now.”

He sat up, this man to whom I was now committed and was risking everything for, rubbed his eyes, and said, “Has something happened?” Somewhat of an understatement…..

“Just ring home and see if I can stay for a couple of days. We have to leave. Now.”

After a muffled conversation, which I only heard through the bathroom wall from where I had gone to collect stuff, he said, “She says it’s OK. Are you going to tell me what’s happened?”

“David knows about us. I’ll explain as we go. I have to get a cab. Pack your stuff. Hello? Bodmin Taxis? Yes, Parkway please. Immediately. Thankyou. I’ll see you downstairs.”

“I need my Barclaycard.”

“Please.”

“My card. I need it. There’s a cab coming.”

No response. Just a back, implacably turned towards me. My card was on the worktop. I picked it up. “OK. Well.”

“I’ll see you then.”

Simon came down the stairs and I herded him, dazed and confused, straight out of the front door, and into the waiting cab.

On the way to the station I explained about the text and what happened after, and you know what? He just said: “Well, there you go. Reiki has a funny way of working, but work it does…”

We were in a bit of a state of shock – I had no idea what would happen now; we were together; it was out in the open; I had no Plan B, But, after a strong coffee and politely telling a well-meaning, but really really annoying man to FUCK OFF and no, we weren’t interested in seeing his model railway, we boarded the 08.20 to Paddington, holding hands all the way to London, as we hurtled towards whatever new life awaited us.

 

Artist Bio: Nigel Bray is an Englishman, writer and actor. Long-term survivor. Boyfriend, fiancé, now husband, and eloper to France, where he now lives in peace and love, with wine and cheese, his man and his dog. Visit his website at: www.mrlucky-1956.com. E-mail Nigel at amiraculousman@gmail.com.

 

“Kintsugi” by Eloise Typewriter

Kintsugi

The Japanese do not
disguise their breakage,
gluing back the broken pieces
with a special lacquer
dusted with gold.
I would be much more willing
to show the world my scars
if my flaws could ever
look that beautiful.

When I am ready to forgive you,
there will be golden seams
running through my veins.
There is beauty in repair…

 

About the Author:
Eloise is a 20-something poet that believes words can heal the wounds of the world. She received her M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University. Her work often focuses on mental illness and unique love narratives. Eloise has been published in several poetry anthologies, including Splintered Souls by A.B. Baird Publishing and North Carolina’s Best Emerging Poets by Z Publishing. When not sipping coffee or collecting typewriters in Charlotte, North Carolina, you can find Eloise on Instagram at eloise_the_typewriter.

“Be The Change…” Interview with model Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart
Madeline Stuart, wearing a beaded dress, looking into the camera. She holds a bouquet of flowers. Image from her Instagram. 

Madeline Stuart, a young woman who stands as a role model and advocate for diversity in the modelling world, was kind enough to answer some questions for TROU. Below you will learn more about her work and her views on romance, dating, and everyone’s favourite fairy tale films.

TLM: Would you please tell me a little about yourself and your career for any readers out there who aren’t familiar with your work?

MS: I’m Madeline Stuart, I’m an international model with down syndrome (the first ever), I love to dance and I spread the message of inclusion and kindness throughout the world.  As for my career, it continues to grow rapidly everyday! It started in April 2015 when a photo of mine went viral after I lost 40 pounds. From there I grew all over social media and I was asked to walk New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion week, London Fashion week and so many more. I’ve travelled all over the world working in the past 3 years and have loved every moment.

TLM: What are your sources of inspiration that helped get you to where you are today?

MS: My mum. She is my biggest inspiration! She also handles all the business side of my modelling, so she is such a big help on where I am today. My own determination and strong will also helped to get me to where I am today.

TLM: I saw that you shared a lovely picture of you and your boyfriend on your Instagram page. We, at TROU, are all about inclusive love stories, would you like to share with the readers your own love story, or experiences being in love?

MS: I have been with Robbie for over 3 and half years, I didn’t realise but he had a crush on me for a long time before we started dating, I had a lot of boys that were just friends and I did not really have any romantic feelings towards any of them but Robbie grew on me and I ended up falling in love with him. Now I could not imagine my life without him, we talk every day when I am home and try to talk when I am travelling as much as possible but it is hard with the time difference.  

TLM: Do you have a favourite love story, poem, or photograph you would like to recommend to the readers?

MADELINE AND ROBBIE
Madeline Stuart with her boyfriend Robbie. Robbie and Madeline look into the camera, smiling. Robbie is hugging Madeline from behind. They wear casual clothing. This is Madeline’s favourite love story.  Image provided by Rosanne Stuart.

TLM: What advice would you give to someone interested in dating a person with Down Syndrome, or other types of challenges?  

MS: The same advice I would give to anyone, be kind, be honest, be true. Everyone is the same and everyone one wants to be loved and respected, people with Down syndrome don’t come from a different planet.

TLM: In your opinion, how has the entertainment industry done with representing love stories of people who live with physical or mental differences?  

MS: I think there is lots of beautiful stories out there about people with and without disabilities.

TLM: Do you think social media has helped people become more aware and accepting of those living with challenges?

MS: I think everyone lives with challenges, just because I have down syndrome does not mean I have more or less challenges than you, my challenges may be just a little different sometimes. On the whole, [everyone feels] self conscious sometimes. Do you struggle to get out or bed in the morning as that pillow is just so comfortable? Do you put on weight if you eat too much chocolate? These are all challenges we all face in life

If you are asking do I think social media has made people more accepting of disabilities than the answer is yes, people are scared of those things they do not understand, so the more people see images of people with disabilities the more they realise we are all the same inside and we all have different packages on the outside, just like you and me. I also think it has definitely helped people become more aware of inclusion.

TLM: What are your personal favourite, inclusive or diverse, social media accounts the readers might be interested in following?

MS: I love Melange and Winnie Harlow.

TLM: Many of us grew up watching Disney fairy tales or reading fairy tales where the prince rescues the princess. If you could write your own fairy tale for Disney to make a movie, what would you add or change to make it more inclusive?

MS: I would definitely add more people of diversity, whether they be gay, trans, coloured, different cultures and I would also like to see more strong women because in reality most of the time women are the ones saving the day, looking after the families and running our world.

 

Dislamer – “Madeline Stuart’s answers were written with the assistance of her mum, Rosanne Stuart” 

Learn More about Madeline Stuart here and on her Instagram.

 

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

 

blue water
Photo by Matty Cooper on Pexels.com

“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.