I don't know what I'm looking at. There's an extra shadow outside my window. Like a second tree trunk blockng the streetlight where there should only be one. It's a black stripe. I want it to be Something Strange. I know it's not. In a minute I'll see what it really is and I'll hate the boringness of it but I can't stop trying to figure it out.
I'm eight years old, and I can't sleep.
Lately Mom has been saying 'Henry is eight going on forty' with a sad little smile. I like that. People who are forty get to make decisions. I only get to have reactions. School is a prison riot and Mom is sick and Dad is on the business trip that never ends. Someone who was forty could do something about that. But I'm not scared. That's why I can't sleep. I have to stay awake and be not scared.
I try to see the shadow as a person. It could be a burglar or a crazy bum or a chainsaw murderer. That would be rad. I would be the only one at school who ever saw one.
Not that I would tell anyone. I don't talk at school unless I have to anymore. There's no point in it. No matter what words come out of my mouth, all they hear is, 'I smell of another hive, please destroy me.' If I told Mom, she would be scared and helpless. I'm not big enough yet for her to be scared and helpless.
I wouldn't tell, I would just know. That would be enough. But no matter how long I look, it isn't person-shaped. It's just a stripe.
I try to remember: did I hang something on my curtain rod? No. I did not. Did I prop something in front of the window? No. I did not. Did I tape something to the window? No.
My eyes are watering with tiredness. I look away at the clock. The red digital numbers flick from 2:06 to 2:07 while I watch. I know that when I look back at the window the shadow will be gone, or turned normal.
But it's still there. And I still can't see what's causing it.
I could get up and go to the window, but that would be cheating. I have to figure it out. It's no fair to go look.
The black stripe is actually made up of two thinner black stripes. Was it always? Is the gap between the stripes widening? It's definitely widening. There's no way I could've missed that. It's changing.
And then, sudden as a startled fish, the shadow opens like a scissors and walks away like legs, two steps and gone.
I hurtle to the window, fingers prickling with adrenaline, to stare out at the street in search of it. But there's nothing. The street is empty. The world is empty of anything like what I saw.
My eyes sting, then pour tears: I'm crying with joy. It was Something Strange, and I saw it. I and no one else. I will never, never tell.
I'm sitting on the hill at the top of the playground. It's spring. I'm nine. I'm making kids trip without touching them. I'm making them drop the ball, fall off the jungle gym, miss their landing when they jump off the swing and fall in the mud. I decide such a thing will happen, and it does.
Not all the time. About two-thirds of the time. I don't want to push for better accuracy. I somehow know that if you try to make a science of this, it goes away.
The satisfaction I get from doing this is like the satisfaction from finishing a very easy jigsaw puzzle. Like draining the bathtub and hearing the last slurp of water down the drain. It isn't vengeance. It doesn't matter to me whether they get up laughing or lie down and cry. I'm just flexing a muscle. I'm just tapping my pencil on the desk.
I do know that it's messed up how I don't care if I hurt them. But since I know why I don't care, I don't worry about it too much. I didn't start this. I started kindergarten ready to be 'us' with anyone who smiled. I came to this school in love with learning and full of hugs for kids and teachers alike. They're the ones who disliked me on sight, then nurtured that dislike into hatred. I still don't know what it was I did wrong or what was different about me. By this time, I don't particularly want to know. Because that information would have to come from them, and nothing they have to say is worth hearing.
All day long I listen to my own thoughts while voices drone around me as if speaking another language. I read my textbooks and ace the tests and never touch the homework. At random intervals, I am attacked in some manner; I retaliate as hard as I know how, then return to the inner world. It's like being homeschooled in a war zone.
Last year I had friends in school. Two of them. A boy and a girl; Missy and Drew.
Missy and I used to play in my sandbox, Transformers and Barbies and Matchbox cars, sticks and leaves and sand castles all rolled into one glorious chaotic neverending spy thriller. But Missy started to be embarrassed about making things up. About doing or being or thinking anything new. Then she only wanted to play House. She would be the wife and I would be the husband and I would come home from work and she'd ask how my day was. It made me feel like I'd been eating baking soda. I stopped inviting her over. When the school year started, she was somehow mysteriously already part of the girl tribe that cuts up my workbooks with scissors.
Drew and I used to be space pirates. Our dirt bikes were space fighters. We would make laser noises as we jumped the tractor ruts down at the construction site. Sometimes the urge to rassle would come over us, and we'd roll around grappling and giggling until we collapsed all over each other laughing, panting, stuck together with grass stains and sweat. Then the laughing part went away, and Drew could no longer touch me without hostile intent. On the second day of the school year, I made a vampire joke at lunch and tried to bite his neck, and he shoved me off the bench and called me fag. That was when I noticed that boys aren't allowed to touch without fighting anymore. When did they make that rule? I wasn't notified! It will be another year before I find out that 'fag' is not the same as 'jerkwad' or 'buttwipe'.
Now Drew and Missy are Them too, and I trip them without prejudice. Their voices are a foreign language just like all the rest.
My only friend now is William, who doesn't go to school anymore. His forehead bulges like Frankenstein because there's something terminally wrong with his brain. He knows he'll die soon, and so he's more alive than anyone else. Every minute I spend with him is like my birthday. He doesn't have any friends besides me because of his funny-looking head. I love him so fiercely I don't dare call him my best friend, for fear whatever it is that stole so many other things from me might notice him and destroy him.
Late at night, when I really understand that William is dying, I try to use that strangeness inside me to heal him, or at least slow the inexorably building pressure inside his mushrooming skull. Hold back the tide just a little. One more winter of drawing monster-movie murals on long rolls of butcher paper. One more summer of sitting in the wading pool tossing a water balloon back and forth, trying not to break it. One more drop of childhood before he goes into the dark and leaves me.
My wishes do nothing. William's condition worsens at the same steady rate as ever. My strange ability is only good for making hands slip off the monkey bars and shoes come untied.
I'm thirteen, and I've learned to fascinate. Now I wish I could learn how not to.
Junior high is different, it's saner, the others are still Them but now simply foreigners rather than animals. They see my otherness, but it doesn't always make them angry. Sometimes only curious. Sometimes even a little admiring, in a cautious way.
Without their automatic hatred to shield them, they're open to me like unlocked diaries, like treasure boxes. I can see every thought written on their awkward, out-of-proportion, pimply faces. Hear every emotion in their squeaking, honking, unreliable voices. It's a whole new game, and at first I play freely, plunging my arms to the shoulders in those strange jewels with no thought for the consequences.
I could blame it on my relief at the end of daily bullying. Or being distracted by my own awkward pimply honking. But whatever my excuse, I don't notice until it's way too late: everyone I've played with seems to be hyperaware of me, and I can't make it stop.
I make friends with the outcasts in self-defense. The thought of befriending any other kind of person doesn't even cross my mind. I sit with with the nerds and weirdos at lunch and make weirdo nerd jokes. I'm surprised to find I actually like them. Macy, the fat girl with the bowl cut, knows the strangest things about science; she tells me all about tube worms, quasars, and flesh-eating strep. Laura, whose hair is blue, introduces me to music of wonderful weirdness. Dale, bitterly witty and full of spite, is so proud of his poetry that I'm driven to compete. Ben and Stefan, inseparable as the poles of a magnet, bounce along like happy autistic balloons and never get tired of reciting comedy sketches to me. My hedgehog distrust and my eerie seriousness are, to them, simply a defining quirk, another dish on the table.
But still the fascinated watch me, question me, seek me out, perplexed by their own interest. Popular girls dutifully ask me who I'm taking to the social; they flip their hair and flirt in stunned, wooden tones; they seem relieved when I'm not interested. Boys who hold themselves like conquering heroes in the hallways are furtive and lost when they find me in the art room after school, not knowing what they want, terrified they might find out, and they escape like rabbits when I only stare.
Alarming as the whole thing is, I'm thirteen. I have to accept one of these reluctant offerings just to find out what will happen.
His name is William, the same as my dead friend, but he's otherwise nothing like him. He's big and healthy and alarmingly normal, and I convince myself I want him, because apparently he's the sort of person people want. He smells like deodorant and gym shoes and boy. He makes a thin pretense at roughhousing, then sticks his hand down my pants and kisses me wetly. After a short, awkward makeout, I tell him my ride is here and he runs for the bathroom.
All the way home, I replay the makeout in my mind, hunting that little shot of adrenaline I got from it, testing to see if it feels rose-colored or desperate or in any way like love. All it feels like is licking a battery.
When I see him at school after the break, he's different somehow. Flat, unreal. A bit player. I avoid two hesitant attempts to get me alone, and he gives up. We're both embarrassed and relieved.
This, I understand now, is not how I want it to be. But I can't turn it off, this flashing light, this neon banner scrolling look at me, look at me! -- can't even remember what it was like to be without it. All I can think of is to focus it on those who are already paying attention to it anyway. My misfit friends, with their off-brand clothes and braces and home-cut hair. They become sunflowers turning to me; the rest of the world fades back just a little.
Just enough that I can convince myself it's me my friends are so mesmerized by, and not the Strange Thing that rides me like a loa.
I'm fifteen, and I think I'm in love.
Evan goes to a different school, way on the other side of town, so we don't see each other often enough for the shiny to wear off. We meet at the parties of mutual friends, drift away together, and walk and talk for hours. Every so often, a kiss, a shy grope. Evan is afraid of my hunger. I feed on his fear. We drive each other to poetry. It isn't like licking a battery; it's like being a power station.
It's snowing tonight, and we're holding hands in my coat pocket for warmth. The party we left was of no interest to either of us, and we won't return until time to go home. All we want is this empty street, the orange of the streetlamps and the thick snow drifting, our fingers interlaced, sweaty, in the deep pocket of my handed-down peacoat. We're talking about art and philosophy, pretending we know anything about it -- our nerdy way of showing off, as much a mating display as locking horns. It's not enough for him to want me, he has to admire me. If I had to choose between getting into his pants and having him concede a debated point, I'd pick the intellectual victory.
We look so different that we're tired of hearing 'opposites attract'. He's tall and thin, dark and delicate, and I like to imagine he's some fragile otherworld being posing as human. I'm short and fair-skinned and bright-eyed, and what he imagines I am, I don't know. But behind our eyes, we're twins. One hopeful cynical conceited adoring rageful numinous dreamer in two skulls. For the first time in my life, I'm not alone in my inner world. It isn't safe, but I need it.
What was previously unthinkable becomes necessary: I tell him about the Strange Thing. The shadows with nothing to cast them. The way my games of pretend would sometimes turn out prophetic. Tripping kids on the playground just by deciding they should fall. The liquid dark that wells up inside me and makes me move the world against its will. I don't tell him about the fascination, because he might wonder if I used it on him, and I don't know if I did. But I tell him everything else.
His hand stays clasped with mine, his profile sharp and serene against the snowclouds like a Persian king on a coin, and when I'm done he only makes a thoughtful sound. His acceptance is absolute. Of course I can do these things; it's hardly even news.
I stop us, lean in to rest my cheek against his and smell his neck. Three heartbeats, four, five. Then I pull away and we walk again.
Now he tells me of his own Strange Thing. How insects will fly in patterns for him, but only on a certain kind of night. How crowds will gather or disperse as he wills it; slowly, over an hour or two, but very reliably. How he can conduct the wind, the rain, even thunder and lightning, to dance to the music in his head. Only if he, too, dances. Only if no one is watching. But he thinks he could do it with me there, he tells me. Because we're the same kind of thing. Whatever that is.
I agree softly, near tears as some knot inside me begins to loosen. I tell him it doesn't matter what we are, because whatever it is, there's two of them now.
At the end of a lacy vault of branches, on a street as empty as a solipsist's dreams, we kiss fearlessly at last. Holding nothing back for saving face, not hesitating for fear of going too far -- not locked in our own heads in adolescent uncertainty, but empty-headed and full-hearted like lovers. When the kiss is done we simply hold each other for a few minutes more. I watch snow glitter in his dark curls, melt on my freckled knuckles, dance in the streetlights to the music in Evan's mind.
But even things like us get cold. We arrange hands-in-pocket again and turn to go back.
There are no footprints in the street.
It's not until I see the street smooth as a silk tablecloth that I realize there should be snow in my shoes. It should be packed hard down the sides of my socks, weighing my pants cuffs, crusted on the laces of my sneakers. It's the kind of snow that does that. But only if you sink into it.
We look at each other, eyes full of wonder. We don't say anything. We just lace our fingers tighter and start walking back. This time, we plod ankle-deep, shin-deep in places. Earthbound once more. In a way, it's a relief. The effective dosage of ineffability is very, very small.
When we get back to the party, we're surprised to find we were only gone an hour. All that laughter and music and color hurts our heads. We steal a two-liter of soda and shut ourselves in the laundry room. There we gorge ourselves on kisses, finally take the step of Clothing Item Removed -- shirts -- and goad each other with whispered dares into leaving hickeys on each other's necks that parents are sure to see.
Just like regular teenagers, normally abnormal, just like members of the human race. I'm so relieved. I'm so happy. I want to wallow in this... this cease-fire.
It's then I spot the hairline fracture that will eventually break us: Evan's not wallowing, he's tolerating. To him, this is disappointing. He'll settle for it, because the wonder can't last forever, but all the time he wants it back. He's waiting for it to start again. He looks down on me -- just a little -- for enjoying the ordinary, as if I don't appreciate what makes us special, as if I'm not special enough to embrace it. And I look down on him -- just a little -- for never having been battered by wonder, never wearied to tears by it, as if he's a civilian in wartime.
But his lips are sweet and his hands are warm and our bodies twine like high-voltage wires, and for now we are nothing but fifteen and in love. And for a while, our feet didn't touch the ground.
I'm seventeen, and Evan isn't enough.
It's not that I don't love him. It's not that I don't crave him so badly it's physically painful. It's that I do, but he indulges my feelings without sharing them, all the while yearning after that strangeness I've already had too much of.
The rare chance when we can unfurl our wonders, wind our weirds together and make the heavens dance -- it is glorious. But it isn't everything, and he lives as if it is. He talks in circles, treading the topic hard and dry. How much stronger we are together, how wonderful it is, what it all might mean and come from and become, that it's real -- as if he thinks I doubt it. I tell him and tell him I never doubted, but still he reminds me. I'm not wise enough to understand that he's the one who doesn't quite believe.
I'm tired. Hurt, insulted. My pride is large and fragile; it can't take this battery. I offer him adorations of words and skin and breath and silences, he brushes them aside to talk again of the storm we toyed with weeks ago... no, I can't love him enough to let that fly. I'm seventeen.
When I catch a rumor that my witty, bitter, poetic friend Dale has a crush on me, I don't so much decide to move as stop holding back. Any action would've been a relief, and Dale's hot. Self-involved, incomprehensible, and kind of creepy, but hot. Evan goes to a different school. He doesn't need to know.
My Strange Thing, the loa that coils around my soul, is sickened by sameness, weakened and weary. Storms and snow and cricket song, fine, prophetic dreams and games with flames, fine, fine, but that stuff is bread and water to a shadow like mine. It wants meat. It wants blood.
The day I hear the rumor, I catch Dale alone between classes and ask him outright. Casual, unjudging: I just want to know, whatever you say we're still cool. For a split second, the thing I thought was Dale parts like clouds and I glimpse a turmoil of pain and hope and want and rage. As real as a fist to the face. It's gone the next moment, hidden by shrug, smirk, maybe this is gonna sound harsh but you need to get over yourself -- but oh, it was there, I saw it, I know your secret now and my shadow has your scent.
What Dale actually wants doesn't matter. I'll make him want me if that's what it takes to sound the mort.
I fall into my darkness with such relief, there's no room left in me for scruples. The changes I've made since I was the bitter child on the hill seem artificial. Friends, rules, aesthetics, public image, two years of loyalty to Evan -- all baggage I'd shed if I had to, just to lighten myself for this hunt. It's not really about Dale. I hardly even want Dale. I just want to win something. If Dale had stammered me a blushing confession, surrendered without a fight, I'd have brushed him off with a brotherly hug and looked for a harder target.
He's determined to save face, though; he fights me with all he's got. But all he's got are words. Against my looks, my smiles, my sitting a little too close, my innocent questions, all he can field is sarcasm. As if that will stop me when I can smell his yearning panic.
I play him for almost two weeks. Friends pick up on the tension but don't know what it means. Stefan, in a moment of surprising perception, asks me in a baffled tone -- right in front of Dale -- if I'm still dating Evan. Yes, of course I am. You don't want to hear about my sex life, little nerdling; go draw MSpaint cartoons with your Hetero Lifemate Silent Ben. Sheesh.
Nibble a hangnail, glance at it, suck my finger. Glance at Dale under my lashes. Remove finger very wet, leave lips parted for a moment... one mississippi... smirk at Dale and point out that the details of my private life would probably explode their heads. Or their pants.
My arrogance frustrates him. My flirting inflames him. But his pride keeps him from crossing that final line, and that's just how I want it. I can't win this without the shadow, and that's the whole point. I can hardly sleep for the anticipation. I'm pale and bruise-eyed and manic. I know it looks good on me.
Friday of the second week, I fall into step with Dale as he leaves school. Make light conversation for the first half block of his walk home while his confusion grows. At last he asks dryly if I think I'm coming home with him or something.
My shadow uncoils all at once. It hurts like a sucker-punch. My eyes slam shut, I gasp, I shiver. Feel it flaring out wide and high and dark and so hungry, so very hungry after all this time. Open my eyes to find Dale watching me with open concern for once, unguarded, about to ask what's wrong.
I wrap my strangeness around his heart, run dark through his veins, touch his lips and chest and groin with boiling need. His eyes darken. He starts to tremble. His breath comes short.
I smile and answer innocently that, well, yeah, if it's okay, I do want to come over. Dale's reply is a little strangled, but the way he picks up the pace is answer enough.
Ten minutes later, we're in his room with the door locked, necking frantically, dry-humping like the world's about to end. It's a whole new kind of wonderful. He wants me so bad. He wants me. My hands in his hair, my rocking hips, my teeth in his lip. Not some... curiosity I can perform, not some mystery. This, here, now, real, solid, real, yes, yes, ohgod yes --
When the world comes back, I deduce it must've gone away. If the look on my face is anything like the one on Dale's, then we both look like we got planked upside the head. I find myself giggling from sheer relief, and he hides his face in my neck and joins in. And suddenly it doesn't feel like a conquest. It feels like... just a little bit... just a tiny bit like home.
I think I'm kind of in trouble.
I shouldn't go to Dale's house every day after school. I shouldn't blow off homework and club activities to do this. I shouldn't be distracted and bland when I talk to Evan on the phone. I know, I know, but I can't help it. And I don't know why. Dale and I don't even really like each other, all we do is make out, he thinks I'm shallow and narcissistic, I think he's pretentious and bitchy. This is not a relationship. It's just something we need. Touch, urgency, loss of dignity. Confirmation that we're both really here and someone knows it.
Of course Evan finds out. Of course he doesn't confront me. No, I find out from a friend that a different friend told him. When I call him, he leaves long uncomfortable pauses in the conversation, and when he does talk he sounds like Eeyore. He's sulking.
Oh my god. He's sulking. We're the only two whatever-we-ares we've ever met, but I'm two-timing him with someone I'd sell for a dollar, and he's sulking too hard to even tell me he knows. We are such teenagers. This is disgusting. This isn't what the Strange Thing is for. It's not for making airy fairy twinkles in the back garden, true, but it's not for getting my rocks off either. I'm so fucking petty.
I hate myself so much. So much I find myself crying on the phone while Evan listens unspeaking, letting out the occasional staticky sigh to make sure I know he's not impressed.
I let it all spill out. It doesn't make a lick of sense. I don't think he understands a goddamn word of it. It's all tangled up, unrecognizable: need to be needed, solid ground under me, not this bliss bunny bullshit, you don't talk about anything else, why do you even care if I mess around with Dale, it's not like you're interested, at least I'm not trying to forget I have a body -- and then a sudden about-face, I love him so fucking much I can't stand it, tell me I didn't ruin it, tell me how to make it work --
Even while I spill this torrent of teenageness, even though it's sincere enough that my chest hurts, there's a part of me that's watching from the hill. Shaking its head, disgusted. So naked, so needy, so demanding, drenched in tears and snot, you cannot have this and the Strange Thing too. You can't. It doesn't work that way.
And that part of me studies the blubbering, begging part, and it decides that I'll trip and fall.
Evan breaks into my babbling, voice icy with contempt. That's enough, he spits. I don't have time for this shit. Then a click. Then a dial tone.
I don't know what horrifies me more. Evan's coldness, my dissolve-into-goo, or the fact that I willed the end on myself. I could've reached out to him, could've fascinated him, I could've talked of his favorite subjects, I know what he likes to hear...
Yes, I could've manipulated him. I could've been a social animal. But down in the part of me that's still honest and full of rage, I chose not to be.
That doesn't make it hurt any less. It only deprives me of the option of changing my mind. Cold turkey, out of nowhere. I'm not sure I can survive. Can't eat, can't sleep, typical. Instead of doing homework, I stand in the parking lot with the basketball hoop, shooting lay-ups until my hands can't feel the ball, hour after hour, long after dark. And of course it all had to happen just before midterms.
Naturally Dale drops me like a live grenade. My implosion doesn't serve his needs.
In my grief -- for all its theatricality, it is grief, and it's deep, and the loneliness is deeper -- it takes me a while to notice the trappings of normality falling away from me. I just don't have the energy to keep it all going. I don't know how I managed to keep it going so long.
I no longer care about the school's power dynamics. Can't be bothered. Boring anyway. Same shit, different day. I let it fly past.
Buttering up teachers is also too much work. They get paid to stand there talking, I'm required by law to show up for it, good enough. I do homework sort of absently whenever I'm bored, which is enough to pull my grades out of the toilet, though they sure don't soar.
I stop trying to dress like someone interesting. Jeans and a sweater every day will do. Some mornings I remember to wash my hair and shave, some mornings I don't. Laura warns me not to take the Kurt Cobain impression too far. My derisive laugh seems to soothe her fears. I'm not suicidal. I'm just jettisoning dead weight.
Friends start to drift away a few weeks later. At first they have their conversations near me even though I don't join in, but in time they stop making the effort.
By the end of the year, the only one still bothering to hang around me is Stefan. For some reason, Stefan is now ubiquitous. He didn't used to show up at just the right moment to give me a pencil or remind me what my next class is. It's not like he's all over me trying to be my crying pillow, he's just... helpful. Looking out for me. Like I suppose friends normally do, in a life that isn't mine.
When that realization hits me late at night, I cry myself sick until morning. Half self-pity: nobody ever looked out for me before. Liked me, entertained me, tried to impress me, sure, but nobody ever fetched me a safety pin when my bag strap broke. It just seems so wrong. And half remorse: I have no idea why Stefan is doing this for me, I've done nothing to deserve it, I've just been laughing him off ever since I met him. Maybe he's just a really good guy? Maybe he'd do this for anyone?
Knowing Stefan, even that's probably too complicated an explanation. It's probably more like: Henry looks sad, I bet a new pencil would cheer him up.
Whatever his reason, I'm so grateful I can't even speak my gratitude out loud. I just hope he can read my thanks in my eyes. Thanks for having an extra sandwich when I forget my lunch. Thanks for calling my name when I walk off without my books. Thanks for telling me a dumb joke when I look like I'm about to cry.
Thanks for being such a goddamn clueless silly-looking dork that it doesn't even occur to anyone to start rumors about us, even though I'm starting to look at you like you're Jesus every time you walk in the room.
Oh, and thank you Ben, for putting up with the temporary interruption in Team Asperger's busy nerding schedule. You're a good guy too.
And the rest of the bunch? The entire rest of the human race, in fact? Fuck them all. Every last one. I don't need them. I never did. Everything goes away except what you nurture in the dark earth of your soul. Even sweet, sensible Stefan and tolerant Ben will go away in time. School will end, things will change.
Hold ground, move forward, or be broken. Everything else is written on water.
At my eighteenth birthday dinner, relatives comment on how much more mature I seem. They say it with an uneasy shift in their eyes. I just smile and say thank you.
I'm working at a gas station when I run into Evan. Awkward heartiness, exchange of phone numbers. I'm about to turn twenty, and he just did. We get together for coffee. He tells me he's majoring in psychology. I tell him art school was a bust. For a while we meet out of a sense of duty, trying to prove we're not the stupid teenagers who screwed each other over in service to our own personal drama. As the weeks and months pass, though, we find a friendship in the comforting familiarity.
Eventually the subject of the Strange Thing comes up, and it triggers a flood of reminiscence. He hasn't changed. He still uses it to play harmless games. He still wants to talk it to death. But now I understand that his circular conversation is how he tries to control it. He's scared of it, and I sympathize. I play his harmless games with him sometimes, and I listen to his mantra with a patience that surprises me.
My own loa, having ruined art school for me, now drives me mercilessly to paint. When I let it out, I'm guaranteed a three-day sleepless bender and half a dozen filled canvasses, one or two of which will be kind of brilliant. You can tell the difference between the shadow's paintings and my own even if you don't know why they're different. Evan is impressed that I'm getting my paintings hung up in coffee shop galleries, impressed as hell that they sometimes even sell. I was impressed with myself too, the first couple times, but it doesn't pay the rent. It hardly pays for necessities: paint, canvas, whiskey, cigarettes, condoms. I need the gas station job for the rest.
We know better than to try dating each other. He's a king looking for a trusty knight. I'm a wolf among the sheep. It would never work. That doesn't keep us from falling off the wagon a couple times, but that's all it is. Even the King of Faerie needs a good fucking now and then.
When he finds his Lancelot, I resolve to keep my hands off both of them, and am amazed to find myself keeping that resolution. I don't even resent their happiness.
Hell, I'm not ready to be happy. I have too much painting to do.
I lose the gas station job. Get and lose restaurant jobs, movie theater jobs, phone sales jobs. I get sick of couch-hopping and move back in with my parents, though I know they can't carry the dead weight. But I'm not giving up. I'm just resting for a little while. I'll get up and wade back into the fight any minute now. My shadow can't help me with it, so I'm taking the time to marshall my forces, that's all.
There's a hung-over metalhead sitting on the steps of my parents' apartment. That's a new one. This is a nice neighborhood. I wonder idly if he's around my age and hot, since what little of him I can see -- long dark hair and long legs -- doesn't look bad. But the way he's hunched over his knees behind the drape of his hair makes me think he's probably about to puke. That's not real attractive. He's in my way, though. I clear my throat.
He looks up, bounces to his feet, beaming. Not hung-over; he was just playing with his phone. He shoves it in his pocket and waves jauntily. Damn, he's cute. In a sort of weightless, dorky way, but still.
While I'm gnawing the beginnings of a suspicion, he gives away the mystery: Hi, Henry. Don't you recognize me? It's Stefan!
An incredulous smile breaks over my face. He takes that as permission to hug me. I hug back, and we laugh and thump backs and then shake hands for good measure. I ruffle his hair, laughing at how long it is. And when did he get so goddamn tall? Of course we have to go out for beers and celebrate. He's over twenty-one, right? I just turned.
He is, and he knows when my birthday was and apologizes for not sending a card. How strange. Did he always know my birthday? I don't know his.
We catch up. He tells me he finished college already and is working in the IT field, hunting for an apartment, decided to look up old friends. I tell my sorry tale of aborted art school, wage slave jobs, evictions, all I need to do now is start a garage band to be the perfect slacker. I fully expect him to be uncomfortable with my failure; the rest of our nerd clique all did so well.
But he just grins and offers to play lead guitar. He theorizes that he probably doesn't suck any worse than me.
When I reconnected with Evan, it took weeks for the awkward to fade. With Stefan, it takes ten minutes. He's the perfect representation of the ordinariness I used to crave so badly. Reaching that state of rest has been so hard lately that I pretty much gave up, but somehow, before I've even finished my first pint, Stefan has wrapped me up in it and made me safe. Yes, this is life, this right here: what we can touch with our hands, what we taste and smell and see, and it's enough.
We get an apartment on the West Bank. He knows I don't have a job, but he's confident I'll get one. If not, I can just contribute whatever I can spare from selling art. It's cool.
I can see he'll be different from previous roommates the very day we move in. He shows up with an actual moving van and unloads everything he owns in under an hour, then goes to return the van. It's like a well-planned surgical strike. Me, I'm up until three in the morning, shuttling back and forth with small loads of my half-packed, broken crap, whatever will fit in the back seat of my car. Stefan helps carry things up the stairs, but that's all the help he offers me. He's self-contained. He does things his way and lets me do things my way, and never wonders if that's right.
Restful, but sometimes infuriating. We end up having big old roommate fights about once or twice a month. I yell, he shrugs it off, I storm into my room to cool down, he knocks on my door an hour later to ask if I want pizza. We sit down together to eat, me all scowls and him all serene, and little by little he teaches me to solve problems instead of beating myself bloody against them and giving up.
When I let my shadow out and go on a painting bender, he stays out of my way. He asked, the first time, what such self-destructive behavior was meant to achieve. Well boozed up by that point, I spilled some fragmentary explanation about the Strange Thing, the way it needs to come out, the way I see things other people can't see and do things other people can't do, how I'm not in control of it, and how much it hurts. He listened intently, then asked if it would hurt less if I didn't fight it. I insisted that I don't fight it. He accepted that, and now he just leaves me alone when I get like that.
Somehow, the way he accepts my frenzies makes it less necessary that I drink myself sick while I'm in them. He keeps the fridge stocked with cola and there's always a pot of coffee brewing; I start by switching from straight whiskey to Irish coffee, and then gradually find I prefer the coffee without the whiskey. It makes my head clearer. I get better paintings that way. The booze was only a painkiller, after all. When Stefan's around, everything hurts a little less.
The day I get up the courage to tell him this, he gives me one of his random hugs, and tells me that's what he meant when he said I was fighting it. If the loa wants to paint, then paint! Getting shitfaced is just a distraction. He has a point. I also like the way he just up and hugs people. He does affection by-the-book, there's a sort of posed quality about it, but that's just the way he is. Nobody who's seen him smile could doubt it's sincere.
I very much enjoy having a huge, hopeless crush on him.
My parents like him. He's sensible and funny, and I'm not so tightly wound when I'm with him. My mom jokes that I should marry him; I laugh and say I wish, and shrug, and she pats me on the shoulder like it's a way bigger deal than it is. I'm not breaking my heart over him or anything. I think he's asexual. At least, as far as I know, he never dates.
Me, I'm still a wolf among the sheep, but my interest in conquest is waning. It's too easy, and none of it means a damn thing. I try to make friends with some of my sweeter victories, but that just makes them uncomfortable. More and more, I channel my desires into my painting instead of going out to hunt. At least, with a painting, you have something to show for it.
I throw a big party for his twenty-third birthday. He doesn't like big parties, but I feel the gesture is necessary somehow. I entertain everyone while he quietly geeks in a corner with Ben.
Later, Stefan goes for a walk to escape the smoke and get more soda and chips. I talk to Ben for a while, see how he's doing. He's engaged to a nice girl with a biology degree. He feels bad for not spending more time with Stefan. He knows how happy Stefan is to be with me, he says, but it's pretty stressful for him too.
Suddenly the party atmosphere and the alcohol in my veins are frustratingly unreal, and I want my wits, I want to be sharp. Something about the way he said that. All I can muster is a mumble about how I'm getting less stressful, little by little, and if Stefan could just stick around for another year or two...
Ben looks surprised. Stefan will stick around forever, he tells me flatly.
For the rest of your life, if you let him, Ben says.
Ben just shakes his head. Ask Stefan. He looks up and nods, and there's Stefan, struggling under two twelve-packs and an overloaded grocery bag. I rush to help him, laughing with relief. What I'm so relieved about, I have no idea.
In the aftermath of the party, when everyone's gone home, we turn on all the lights so we can clean up a bit. Stefan confesses that he didn't get any of the birthday cake. He was waiting for Ben and then it was gone, but that's okay because he's not really into chocolate. He wonders if there's a way to put a birthday candle on a can of stout. I tell him to close his eyes and hold his hands out.
Then I leave him sitting like that for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes while I rush around looking for his present. He keeps his eyes closed, hands open on his knees, laughing at the noises I'm making. As an interim measure, I put a can of stout into his hands; he yelps and jumps, grins, fumbles to open and drink it without opening his eyes. I'm aching with the adorableness of him. I'm thinking about what Ben said. The way Ben clammed up tells me more than what he actually let slip.
Finally I locate the box I was hunting, scramble back and plunk it onto Stefen's palms. I sit down beside him to watch him open it. It's a painted-up shoebox, not wrapped. He lifts the lid off and studies the objects inside. Several mechanical pencils, a stick of gum, a gift card for a sandwich shop, a pack of safety pins, that sort of thing.
He isn't perplexed for even a moment. He knows what this is. He looks up at me with a huge smile. All the stuff I gave you, he says. You remembered.
I nod seriously. I tell him I just wish I could give him the intangible things. Peace and trust and acceptance. Return them with interest, just like the safety pins.
His smile softens. He shakes his head. Peace is his job, he explains. Inspiration is mine. He makes sure I eat breakfast, I make him want to get back on the roller coaster. It works.
I lean over and kiss him. He doesn't kiss back, but he doesn't pull away. When I sit back, he's flushed and his eyes are dilated. For a moment I know he's going to pounce on me, and that's all I want in the whole world, but instead he looks away with a sad little quirk of his lips.
Not unless you want to be serious, Henry. You don't want to be serious with anyone yet, I don't think.
All I can do is plead with my eyes. I can't speak. But he's right. I want to reach out and take this, but only because I don't have it yet, and once I have it I'll choke on it. Quiet, safe, simple. Shelter in a storm, but not somewhere I want to live.
I'm sorry, I whisper at last.
He leans to bump my shoulder with his. Don't be, he tells me. It's just how you are.
Evan is skeptical. He doesn't see the appeal of a geek like Stefan. True, Stefan did grow up awful pretty, but he's as much of a dork as he ever was. He'll probably tell jokes in bed, Evan warns me. You hate bedroom comedians. Besides, he wants True Love Forever to be step one. That's not how it works.
These are all good points, and I've come to the same conclusions myself in my weeks of brooding on the topic. But something's missing from this logic, because if it were complete, it would work. I would be relaxing back into simple friendship, rather than becoming more and more obsessed until I can't even paint anything but Stefan. I know perfectly well I'm a shallow jerk who lives for the chase, I know I'd hurt Stefan badly, but still...
Stefan knows about the Strange Thing, just like Evan does.
Stefan, unlike Evan, helped me use my shadow for something satisfying, and gently taught me how to do it without tearing myself apart.
Stefan doesn't have a shadow of his own, but his absence of shadow is like a hollow for me to fit into. He has... the opposite of the Strange Thing. Zen or something, maybe. Something so ordinary, it's almost mystical in its ordnariness.
Tao, Evan supplies. Nevertheless, you will break him and he'll never forgive you, because he's never broken anyone and doesn't know why it happens.
So Stefan and I go on as before, friends and roommates and nothing more. I do tell him about the absence-of-Strange-thing, though, which is maybe Tao, and fits so neatly with my exuberant darkness.
Stefan smiles and says: Before painting, chop wood, carry water. After painting, chop wood, carry water.
I want so badly to crush him in my arms when he says that, but I don't. I just laugh and agree. As time goes on, I think about what he said, juggling it like a hot potato at first, then gradually wrapping my mind around it, making friends with it, until I'm comfortable understanding it.
The riddle: Who could stay forever with a frantic ball of inspiration and hostility and lightning and nothingness, and never get tired? The answer: After enlightenment, the laundry.
Here's another riddle: How do you give your trust to someone else when you can't trust yourself?
I hunt the answer to that one for most of another year.
It's hot as hell today, but it's kind of nice in the shade. I've been climbing around taking reference pictures of overgrown factory ruins for hours, and I'm beat. Stefan looks cool and amused. He's been sitting under a tree the whole time, playing a handheld game. Every so often he calls out some mockery of my efforts. When I give up and plunk down beside him, I'm feeling kind of discouraged.
I sometimes get the impression, I tell him sullenly, that you don't take my art seriously. You don't have to like it, but you'd better recognize how important it is to me.
He looks surprised, then remorseful. I'm just joking around, he says, and takes my hand. I mean, I live with you, if anyone knows how hard you work on it, it's me.
I sigh. I lean over to rest my head on his shoulder. I don't even know if this factory series is going to work.
It will, he assures me. It's going to be brilliant. You'll bust ass and go crazy and end up exhausted as usual, but it'll be worth it. It always is.
We sit. Cicadas drone. A breeze cools the sweat on my back.
I have a koan for you, I say. I don't know the answer. I bet you do.
Sure, fire away.
How do you trust someone when you can't trust yourself?
He thinks about it for all of two seconds before answering:
You just do.
And I am enlightened.
I don't even have to lift my head and watch his expression, because I know him so well now that I can see his face with my eyes closed. Still resting against his shoulder, I make my life-changing decision, and I don't even have trouble getting the words out.
I'm so in love with you, Stefan. I love you so much. I don't know if I'm ready to settle down, but if you'll help me, I want to try.
I can feel his smile without seeing it. He rests his cheek on top of my head and squeezes my hand: Silly Henries, you settled down with me a year ago, you just didn't notice.
Now I slowly lift my head, laughing relief and confusion. I know he's beaming at me but I want to see it. I demand: Nothing changes?
He shrugs sheepishly. Well, obviously the physical aspect -- as in there could be one --
I knock him over and kiss him dizzy. Then we pack up my camera and go home.
I'm twenty-eight years old, and I can't sleep.
The neighbor's wind chime is telling me a story. There's a song on the wind. The darkness is calling me to run, fly, whirl into weirdness and dissolve, hunt the night and cast shadows where no shadows should be.
Stefan's breath stirs the hair on the back of my neck. His hand is warm on my stomach. I smile and close my eyes.
I'll paint it tomorrow. It will still be there.