Belated present for Sundown, who had t3h birfdays.
Happy aging, my friend.
Warning: In addition to obvious gay, flashback!pedobear rears his head. Also, ridiculously long. Know this going into it.
My mother was a porn star.
I saw one of her movies once, when I was nine. Someone had left open the thin curtain between the adult-only section and the real world. The clerk with the handlebar mustache stood in front of the boxy TV, ogling at the screen. Returning movies and there she was, bare-chested and blonde-haired, on the monitor. All the colors were washed out and reddish, she looked younger —twenty instead of twenty-five, if that's really a difference— but she was undeniably the woman who made my lunch every morning.
"That's my mum," I had said to the clerk.
He popped the tape out of the VHS player and handed it over.
"Say hi to her for me."
Sometimes, I worried he would run into her, at the grocery store or waiting in line from the post office or driving around in the afternoons. My mother liked to be productive: blond hair frizzy around her shoulders, she went out every day in huge sunglasses and nylon legging and her blue 1979 Camaro.
No one ever said anything to me. The entire time I lived in the shitty end of town next to the railroad tracks, where no one ever wanted to go, no one ever said anything to me. Though various guidance counselors and cheerleaders and Spanish language teachers peered down their noses at my trailer park accent and their expressions were an unmistakable blend of pity and disgust, not one bothered to say to my face, "Damn, doesn't your mother get fucked for money?"
That was the beginning of my long relationship with apathy.
I drink red wine. Hardly sweet. Mild. Warms through the veins that twine beneath my bluing skin. I bought it from the organic market and it came wrapped in a crinkled paper bag the color of mud puddles. As everything grows heavy in the artificial light, my own heart accelerates before slowing to a steady, contented hum, lulling my thoughts into lazy, bumblebee patterns.
Shiloh mixes his with limeade because he doesn't really like the taste of wine. He tips back the paper cup brimming with sour alcohol and gulps it down in swallows, only pretending to relish the sting on his tongue. Eyelids flutter. Mouths open, but no one says anything. The piano strikes only one more chord before falling silent. Outside, they aren't even paying minimum wage.
"This is delicious," he says into my mouth when he straddles my lap. His audience is my tongue. It's so cold that for a moment, I worry we will freeze together like one twisting, copulating ice sculpture; instead, all his hands, all his teeth, all his bones clink together like keys on a xylophone, writhing in consistent rhythm.
Does a xylophone have keys?
But I don't know and he won't answer— instead, the language of cheap wine and angry, angry people screaming at each other with no words. What's the sensation of falling when we are as low as we can be? We can dig with our hands but there is nothing but bedrock and hell below us.
Halfway out of his jeans, Shiloh lies in the nest of cotton sheets. Nothing about this is romantic. The long string of techno songs make me feel like I am fucking inside of a dream machine. Wide-eyed, junkie boy, you taste good— like something familiar, like something I have wanted for a long time and only now have found my way to savoring. Poisoned as he is, tainted and ugly as he might be, he satiates the hunger that has become constant inside of me.
Eventually, we both stop. All the sweat settles and cools on the slick surface of his skin. I bury my face in his neck and inhale deeply until I catch the sharp tang of man, of yang, of bright power in a dark room.
His stereo plays speed metal. When his stereo starts to play speed metal, we stop trying to act like adults and he dissolves like sand into oceans. All the pieces are still there, Shiloh. Just scattered. Ruined. He will come back in with the tide, but until then, it's just thrash guitar and the same drumline over and over.
Do you know the freezing point of heroin?
No, it's still colder than this.
"Julien," he pleads softly into my chest. I could ignore him, it would be easy, and the thought crosses my mind once and twice and again, but by the time I process it, it's too late: angular Shiloh fits against me altogether too well to push him away. "You are so warm."
He is what I want. There are other things I want, but they are all out of reach: Shiloh can be touched, acknowledged, needed from my exact position beneath the zodiac. For a lot of reasons, he is what I want, and for a lot of reasons, I will never possess him completely.
"Thanks," I say, because I don't know what else to say. Perhaps I am warm because everything else is cold, even though the shade of frost clings to my still-breathing corpse. Winter comes early and leaves late, like an impolite party guest. Not that I have gone to very many parties, so I just guess.
For a while —not sure how long, because the clock in my bedroom always says 2:26— I listen to New York makes its own kind of music, even in the first few hours on the morning. The burn of lust has reduced to the dull ache of longing. Skin hunger.
Beside me, Shiloh dreams in fits.
It's not me. I know it's not me. I lie on the bed we sometimes share and listen to his distress— nestled in our sheets, his cries are the unintelligible language of bloodthirsty mermaids. What accidental star burns hot and bright inside his sun-bleached ribs?
Shiloh injects amber death sentences directly into his arm from a needle of infinite precision. An entirely different kind of gamble, an understanding of the greatest ugliness in exchange for a shard of soul.
I say his name again, louder, and again, louder. He starts, sits up with a straight, steel spine. Eyes luminous and amber peer through the darkness that hangs heavy like blue stones. "Did I wake you up?" Yawning, he stretches out in all directions, the whirling compass of my bedroom at dawn.
"You did," I say, even though I had been staring at the first commencement of day long before he first began his familiar pattern of stop please please stop stop please; his spine bows in shame. When I press my ear against his chest, I hear his heart beating beyond blood, quick as a snake striking or a hummingbird's wings. There are some things that I can't fix.
There are some things I can. I keep Naloxone in every room in the house. Even the kitchen— the syringe is in a coffee can in the refrigerator, out of sight but easily accessible. Just in case he shoots too much heroin and I have to save his life. I know I could do it, if I needed to— injecting people with needles is second nature to me. I wasn't a very good EMT, but even a bad EMT knows how to do that.
We lie like silver fish on a silver platter. Gasping for air, yes, in a net of unspoken truths. Careful touching, experimental reconnection and mutual fascination— the balancing of scales, the selling of ourselves for the consumption of the hungry, narrow-mouthed masses. He slides from the bed and cross the room to the window.
And he kicks it open, climbs out onto the fire escape without a railing to dangle his legs over the edge. "You don't have to worry about me."
But Shiloh would jump. He is sick enough to jump. If I tried to sleep, I would lie in bed, listening, waiting for the sound of his slender body hitting the cloudy concrete.
So I climb out to sit next to him.
"Are you hungry?"
Shiloh rests his chin on his knees and peers out at the industrial city that glows below us. The residential lights are only beginning to brighten on the horizon; the trickle of neon cars thickens and swells to become a river of light and motion— although the city might never sleep, yuppies with cars do. It begins to snow and the wind picks up, whipping around and around in willful cyclones, stirring great waves of striking morning that tousle hair and steal hats. All white. All winter. More snow flits down from the sky, each tiny ballerina twirling faster and faster, moving delicately towards their asphyxiation on the concrete below.
I wrap an arm around his shoulders. Brush his hair over his ear.
Shiloh's stomach growls. He looks at me and then he looks down at the street. "I'm taking the bus over the hill to see a friend of mine about a job, I'll be back later."
"How much later?"
"1. 2 at the latest." He wrings his hands, trading the tendons and bones with the pads of his opposite fingers. He studies himself critically, finding flaws in the tiniest wrinkle, the smallest imperfection.
Without the slightest shift in expression, he climbs all the way back into the room and disappears into the bathroom, even though it's too early for him to leave and I don't want to go to work. I want him to come back to bed, to stop fumbling around in the bathroom. To stay with me.
But he doesn't, just as I don't stay with him, and I shake my head to clear it of its cloying nostalgia.
For the first eight years of my life, I lived in poverty in France.
For the next eight years of my life, I lived in poverty in California.
My mother smoked cigarettes she rolled herself. She patched each one together from other people's cigarettes, which they had probably rolled themselves. She spoke beautiful French and foul English, occasionally both— bonjour, motherfucker, comment-allez vous?
And she slept with a lot of men, which is why she became a porn star. Met a pornographer in Bakersfield and migrated to a city south of there— like trying to shoot the moon on a bare 10, except she had a bare queen. She spit pomegranate seeds on the sidewalk and did ugly things because she loved me.
I remember her slender hands, all tendon and bones, dicing peppers and slicing onions. "This," she would say mildly, holding up a fork or a knife and twirling the utensil in circles, "this is the greatest tool you will ever use. Do you want to get to someone's heart? Soul? The deepest, crudest part of them...it can be accessed with a single bite of perfectly prepared croque-madame."
No one ever accused me of being refined. My shirts were too small, my jeans too tight, my shoes too pinchy. I took the bus everywhere I went. All my friends were brought up in neat houses with central heating; they all took vacations to the coast twice a year. My mother loved me, but from a distance: one pinky extended while crossing the street so I could latch onto her, quickly snatched back when we reached the other side. No one ever hugged me, and I resented that.
But I was well fed.
And that counted for something.
We ate dinner in the dim, dated kitchen, bent over our microwave-safe bowls. None of our silverware matched. We spoke only in French, rapid-fire sentences designed to inform but not relate. Every year for eight years.
"How was school?"
"It was fine."
Romualdo Pacheco K – 8 Charter School was fine in the sense that the percentage of people who die while attending it was roughly equivalent to the percentage of people who die from hornet stings.
I coughed into my hand.
"Don't do that. Cough into your sleeve." My mother leans over and plucks the little green bottle of hand sanitizer off the counter. She holds it out to me. "Wash your hands, Julien. You don't want to get AIDS."
The slimy sanitizer makes my skin stink of sterilization.
"I won't get AIDS," I said.
My mother pursed her cherry-red lips and took another bite of her ravioli. "You can't be too sure," she said, shaking her head in such a way that her curls bounced in a way that was dignified, even if she was a French porn star in the silicon valley. It must have been the way she did her make-up, even when all she did on Wednesdays was sit in the trailer and drink cooking sherry.
She kissed me on the mouth and left me alone in the kitchen with the bare light bulb.
Tim was tall, had a bizarre birthmark and an architecture degree. He wore tight blue biker shorts even though it was the middle of winter. I could see his penis, strapped tight against his tanned leg by the synthetic fabric, but my mother would assure me that it was just how things worked in California, and besides, we were French, we had seen it all. At night, Tim would come out of my mother's room, his upper lip glistening with sweat, and tiptoe down the hallway towards the front door of our shady trailer. Sometimes he stopped in the kitchen to pick up a pear or something.
I sat in the living room, reading Anna Karenina, which I had checked out at the library that week. My mother's relationship with Tim —if you could call it that, instead of an on-again-off-again fling that spanned half a decade— was at one of its low points. They had argued over the dishes. He had shoved her. They had fucked, later, and now he was leaving with a long smear of red lipstick down his neck.
"Oh, I was just..."
I looked up from my book. Tim's face had wrinkled in confusion and I had watched him think, trying to come up with something to say, some escape, but nothing came to him; instead, he stood like a deer in the headlights, stranded in the living room without direction. I didn't pity him. I didn't have it in me to pity Tim any more.
He cleared his throat. I had looked up at him again, and he had looked more relaxed. "What're you reading there?" he asked, tilting his head to one side like a vulture documenting its preys last moments for historical purposes.
"Aren't you a little young to be reading that?"
He looked taken aback. His face began to the color to match my mother's lipstick, still askew on his face. I could tell he had something to say— his throat bulged with words desperately competing for air time and his face went ruddy at his inability come up with anything better than silence.
On the most basic level, this is why I had never respected Tim: a grown man should not ever be bested by a twelve year old. Especially not when the twelve year old's comeback is "fuck you," but not ever. Tim had failed my one and only test.
Tim had bitten his lower lip and taken a step backwards. Finally. He had moved. He had started again rolling Newton's ball. The slats of light from the streetlamps below had sliced across his mature face, impervious and ambivalent to the interruptions of his form.
"I'll see you around."
I had said nothing.
After Shiloh leaves —for wherever Shiloh goes when Shiloh leaves, which he always insists is to see a man about a horse— I take the subway to work. The turnstile didn't turn easily and the woman beside me probably had bird flu or something, but I make it to Giuliani's Pizzeria, named for the mayor and owned by a man named Juan, with a little bit of time to spare.
I was meant for more than this life.
Kate waves from behind the counter. Her blonde hair sweeps over one triple-pierced ear. As co-workers go, Kate is among the least bothersome and most helpful. Even for a New Yorker.
"Hi Kate." I wipe the snow off my shoes. It's not even really snow any more, as trampling feet and blue-grey pollution have long turned it into slush. "How are things this morning?"
She beams. "Slow," she says. All mornings are slow. This is why we work mornings— it's just the two of us, standing in a pizzeria, making food for a few early-morning stoners. I've made more anchovy pizzas since I started working mornings than I ever thought possible for the human race to consume.
That is, about fourteen.
"I figured out how to turn on the oven," Kate says proudly. She leans back on her heels and swipes her bangs out of your face. "Turn around, your tag is undone."
She fixes the tag.
"Juan is coming in soon," she says. "He's bringing his nephew."
"Juan sent out an email."
"I don't have an email."
"Who doesn't have an email?" Kate leans against the cupboards, which have yellowed until they match her hair. She looks unimpressed. "His name is Ryan. He's a freshman at NYU, studying English. He enjoys listening to 90s rock and Aggrotech." Nonplussed, she shrugs, and begins to arrange the plastic tubs of toppings by color instead of by size. "Juan wants us to meet him or something."
Then Kate smiles in a way that makes some people think her head is empty. She shuffles into the kitchen and comes back a minute later with a mess of brown paper towels.
"I don't like using sponges. Very unsanitary."
"So what about the Nephew?" I press. "Is this...why would Juan send out a email with his favorite kind of music?"
"I don't know," says Kate. "I don't really know or want to know how Juan thinks. He is a communist who owns a business and has a lot of money: that makes him a very dangerous person."
My mother and Tim and I went to the seashore. My mother wore a pink dress and left her hair loose and long around her shoulders, and she looked statuesque. The wind was merciless, but she plodded through the sand any way, scouting out a location for our beach picnic.
"You should have worn wellies," Tim joked. She laughed and I didn't.
The sand was coarse under my hands. We sat in a semi-circle, our backs to the cliff, and ate open-faced bolognia sandwiches on rye, and I watched birds swoop down over the waves, picking shells off the shore to crack open and consume.
I threw one of the off-brand potato chips into the clearing of white dunes, and a nut-brown scavenger descended on it.
"Don't do that," scolded my mother. "That's wasteful."
"It's just one chip," Tim pointed out. He nibbled on his sandwich noncommittally before picking up another chip and casting it out for the birds. My mother scowled at him, but said nothing. "We don't go to the beach very often."
He smiled at me. Instead of smiling back, I looked back at my dog-eared copy of 1984. The little Times New Roman letters peered up at me from the page, coaxing me away from the picturesque nightmare in which we drank orange Fanta and looked out at the glassy ocean.
With the smallest figment of a smile, my mother picked up a chip daintily and takes a tentative bite. "Too salty," she said.
The sandpiper swooped to catch the chip as it sails through the air.
"And this one too."
She joined us in feeding the birds. We threw the potato chips and ate the pretzels while Tim told stories about the German military and my mother told stories about going to Russia before she met my father. "I backpacked all over the Soviet Union," she said proudly. "Didn't know a word of Russian."
Tim reached out and touched her hair, but his eyes were on me instead.
Kate is on edge.
"I'm Kate." Kate points at herself with a spoon. "That's the sink." She points at that too.
Ryan looks unimpressed. "I figured," he says. He smiles at me, and it's like looking at a toothpaste commercial. "Who are you?"
It's abrupt. Not rude, but abrupt. The back of my neck flushes red.
"Julien," I say. "I'm French."
Ryan has little teeth and is attractive the way Mexican Calvin Klein is attractive.
"I took French in school," he says, in French. "And I've been a France a couple of times."
His accent is very good, lilting in all the right places. And it's polite French, civil French, which I never spoke with my mother, even in her most elegant hour. "You speak it beautifully."
He flushes and ducks his head. "Thank you."
The bell above the door chimes. "I'll get it!" Kate shouts, bolting from the kitchen at top speed, leaving me alone in the kitchen with Ryan and Juan. Ryan smiles, twirling his thumb ring nervously. Juan, who is obviously used to awkward silences, does not seem concerned by the sudden tension in the room, unrelieved by Kate's abrupt departure.
Juan is an ex-priest, an ex-mercenary, and an ex-Bolivian. Kate once asked him how he could be an ex-Bolivian and he told her not to ask so many questions. His mustache is small, penciled in with eyeliner and he strokes it when he talks about politics, which he does often.
"Is it usually this slow in the morning?"
Kate rematerializes in the doorway. "Yes," she says. "It doesn't really pick up until lunch time." She holds out a scribbly piece of paper, which I gingerly take. One order of spaghetti and meatballs to go. I imagine the sort of person who would order spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast. In my head, he is wearing a vest.
When I finish the spaghetti, I bring it out to a man in a vest. As it turns out, he is the one that ordered it. "Lucky guess," I say, when Kate asks me how I knew. "It helps that there's only one customer."
Ryan is an English major. He has money, designer sandals and glasses he doesn't need. His hair is bleached to look like he is from the part of California that wasn't populated by meth addicts, even though he has a New York accent. "When I was in Thailand, I was hanging out with these monks and we just opened the drum circle," he says, stirring a pot of pasta that would be very hard to ruin. "It started pouring down rain and everything was alive."
He nods sagely, and Kate looks like she might be interested for a second, although she ultimately returns to mopping the floor. She serves a squadron of fat school children different flavors of gelato. She saves the world in her spare time.
I allow myself to be captivated.
When my shift ends, it's snowing again. The flakes descend in ballet leaps, twirling and twisting like fantastical acrobats. Or artists. Painting every thing white to create a new canvas. Truly the modern day creation story.
"I have a car," says Ryan. "Uncle Juan took the subway."
We get in the car. He drives. More snow falls from the sky and gets swallowed up under the wheels of the mid-afternoon traffic.
"Thanks." I brush my hair behind my ear and slide my eyes over to look at Ryan.
We drive by the park, listening to techno. Shiloh listens to techno, lying on the bed with his eyes rolled back in his head, the same four notes repeated over and over resonating in each of his prominent bones. Ryan doesn't seem like he'd ever look like that— instead, he is refined. Polished. People studying English do not usually shoot up with heroin mixed in spoons.
Traffic slows at a roundabout. "And how did you get to New York?"
"By bus." I chew on the end of my unlit cigarette— they belong to Shiloh, but I keep them with me. Just to look mean. "I'm from France, by way of some central California shithole. What about you?"
"My parents had money. Just no time."
But they're one in the same. Isn't that the modern plight? No balance? I don't comment, letting the words settle. "I'm sorry. My mum was...eccentric. I think that's the words I use to describe it."
I have other words to describe my mother. She was coordinated, ruthless, experimental. She was glittering, luminous, spare. She was bitter, damaged, selfless. I don't use any of them because just one will always be inadequate.
Ryan drops me off in front of my apartment building with an apologetic look that says I'm sorry you live in a crack dungeon. I offer him a smile that says there is more than meets the eye to me! even though I really mean I don't give a shit what you think. On that note, we part: I to an empty apartment; he to an endless waiting in lazy, mid-afternoon traffic.
Shiloh isn't there. I'm not surprised. He's late most of the time.
We had been sitting on the sofa, watching a movie, Tim and I.
I only pretended to watch— what the fuck did dinosaurs know about existentialism? Tim wore white socks and drank grape soda, stealing glances in my direction. Even white trash kids read Nabokov, and I could tell, just by the way Tim was breathing during the 53rd Land Before Time movie, that he was thinking impure thoughts. About me. Even though I was too thin and had hair the color of a scab.
"Are you hungry?"
I had pointed to the pile of styrofoam plates, stacked on top of the empty pizza box.
"I forgot we ate. Sorry."
I recognized the weakness instantly, and, hungrily, I descended upon it.
"Tim." Purring. Cats purr. I purred too, playing mind games with my captor. "Why don't you come a little closer?" Just the weekend prior, he had told me that he was twenty four and hadn't really finished his architecture degree, which apparently made us the best of friends. Although Tim was not my first choice of a friend, I did not have many to spare.
"What do you want?"
I wanted to hit him. I wanted some defining moment that would interrupt the long smear that was California: yellow grass, baggy pants, and a million one trick ponies. I wanted unconditional love. I wanted beautiful things and beautiful people to give them to. I wanted to speak French with someone other than my mother, and in turn, hear it spoken in a voice unblistered by cigarette smoke and semen.
But instead, I would take what Tim could give me.
Tim had slid his hand up my leg. I remember the sensation of being touched there so distinctly: the warmth of his palm creeping nearer and nearer to its goal. When I had looked at him, I had looked at the awkwardly shaped birthmark on his forehead. His mouth had smelt like Listerine so strongly that I could smell it on both of us: the pungent, sterile scent permeated everything and I shut my eyes against it.
Even then, I wasn't afraid of Tim. He was small, like a pill bug from the garden, insignificant. Nothing about his average features and narrow mouth satisfied me, so I pasted someone else's face over his in my mind. Let him take what he wanted, there was enough left over to feed a dozen more. My eyes rolled up in the back of my skull. It was dark in there. I could feel his tongue and teeth at my throat, nipping at the raw skin like a horse.
His creeping hands had ceased instantly, though he still hovered over me. I had wrinkled my nose at another tang of spearmint. "What?" And he had whispered, as if anyone would wake up. My mother worked in the evening, straight into the late hours of the night while I stayed home, watching cartoons until I fell asleep on the couch.
At least I ate three square meals a day, cooked in a dreary trailer kitchen with duck wallpaper. The only thing my neighbors were cooking in their trusty, crusty kitchens was methamphetamine.
"I just wanted to see if you'd stop."
I had bared my teeth in a grimace that he mistook as a smile. His slimy mouth reattached itself like a sea urchin, suckling insistently at my collarbone in a misguided attempt at seduction— perhaps if I were a whale and he a barnacle, but alas, I was a twelve-year-old boy and he a fucking pedophile, so it was never meant to be. I had curled my fingers into the velveteen throw and threw my head back, focusing my eyes on the steel ceiling, making a most concerted effort to remain totally still.
Dishes were piling up in the sink. From my position, all I could see was the corner of the sink, but I imagined the porcelain bowls in the sink, half-filled with water, waiting for me. That's why I made Tim eat off disposable plates.
I could hear my neighbors outside with their dog, lighting off fireworks. They were lighting sparklers off the fat woman's cigarette when Tim had my jeans off. The dog yelped sharply at something in the bushes and Tim's head had raised to look out the window. Nothing but shadows danced on the metal carcasses adjacent, but he had seemed nonetheless satisfied. Neither of us said anything.
After, clothed in my body, I had laid naked on the couch. Tim kissed me once on the mouth to excuse himself of wrongdoing and left, taking with him a bunch of mealy green grapes from the bowl on the counter. I ran my hands over my my stomach, thighs, hips, just to make sure I was all there. Upon rediscovering that my body was exactly where it was supposed to be, I was still for the first time since Tim's departure.
My voice had felt broken even before I spoke aloud.
It started with let's get coffee.
Ryan is fresh-faced and smells like Axe. I wonder if he knows I'm not a woman and that I find the scent appalling, but realize there's no way he could know that, so I say nothing when he waves me over to the table he has staked beside the window. "Hi," he says. "You look great."
Manhattan is like a foreign country populated by white people. In Queens, half the population was born abroad. Here, it seems the Bohemian population of the Village has been completely supplanted by college students and middle class women that travel in clusters. All the edges are crisp and metropolitan.
"Winter break just started. That's why there's a table here." Ryan laughs nervously and drinks his non-fat soy latte with extra coffee. "Usually this place is filled with hipsters and poseurs."
I stare across the table at his chemically straightened hair and giant square glasses and don't say anything.
"What do you want to do with your English degree?" I ask, reclining in my chair. I invested in a banana mocha, which, according to the nutritional charts, will make me twice as fat as Ryan's latte. "The market is slim right now. Don't you want to major in business or something?"
"I'd rather be happy than rich."
"What makes you happy?" I lean across the table and our eyes meet. His are brown. I knew they were brown already, but on closer inspection, my greatest suspicion is confirmed— they sparkle.
"I like to read."
"Does that make you happy?"
He nods. "I want to be an editor."
A very wholesome, steady job. I imagine him in an office, those ridiculous glasses perched on his nose. He probably wouldn't keep a pretty secretary, but he might. They'd have sex in the office late at night. Nothing about his life would be particularly exciting.
"What about you? Tell me about you."
I try to think of things to say. "I'm 25," I offer, and I watch his face flush a little darker. He nods though, waiting for me to go on, and I know I haven't scared him off by being old. "I went to the community college to become an EMT, became an EMT, realized I hated being an EMT, became a pizza artist. Spectacular, I know. My aspirations include getting to the gym sometime this month and paying my rent on time."
Scraping strangers off the sidewalk was not what I imagined when I signed up for something as glamorous as an Emergency Medical Technician. The grayscale memories of zapping fifth-grade junkies to keep their heart beating and dragging Hello Kitty whores away by ambulance linger in the back of my mind even now.
Ryan laughs. "I'm on the Lacross team," he says. "And the soccer team."
He doesn't pay his own rent.
"In tenth grade, I was an alternate on the volleyball team," I say. I sip my banana mocha. My arteries clog. "It was an exciting season. We lost every single game that year."
"Were you that bad?"
"I didn't even play. The rest of the team were the ones who lost."
He laughs, and I feel unexpectedly less hollow for the first time.
I want to find things wrong with him. There are a lot of things wrong with him to begin with; he is too young and too immature and too cocky, he has yet to learn his place in the world, he doesn't understand what it means to struggle. These are not enough for me: I seek a reason to cast him aside altogether, to return to my haphazardly addicted lover and my heatless apartment.
Nothing comes to me though.
We sat in a Burger King perched on a highway, overlooking a mattress factory and a concrete river. The seats were cold on the back of my legs. Everything smelt like ketchup. Saturday night, and the restaurant was packed with deadbeat fathers, clutching their children on visitation day.
Tim pushed the French fries over to me. "Here," he said. "I'm not hungry any more."
Our ankles brushed against each other. I don't know why he kept bothering to smile at me because I never smiled back, never met his eye. I provided him with a commodity. Sometimes I forgot that, fascinated by his adulthood and experience.
"When I was in the military," he began, pausing to take a sip of his synthetic strawberry milkshake. "When I was in the military, I met a man who said he was a communist."
"A communist," I echo. I read about communists in school. I wasn't sure red was my color. "That's not very surprising, Tim."
Tim nodded. "After the wall fell, a lot of people were communists. Except no one talked about it."
"Just like no one talks about being a homo."
Scowling, Tim took another sip of his milkshake. "So this man," he continues, struggling to resume his momentum. "He's a communist. And he says to me, 'Tim all people are equal. God bless Trotsky.' And then they shot him. What do you think about that?"
I wondered if he confused Trotsky with Tolstoy. I have read the writings of both, but I didn't have a taste for politics and Trotsky was too ambitious for my particular brand of reality.
"I think he was right."
Tim didn't understand the magnitude to which this communist had been right— all people were equal in their faults and flaws and many disappointments. They all fell short. Every single one. Some fell further than others. Tim could live in a silver jelly bean and still look himself in the eye; Tim could eat macaroni every night for a year and still like it; Tim could listen to the same song forever and never want anything else. He was the flawless example to illustrate my point.
I was meant for more than this life.
My mother listened to a lot of Faith Hill.
In fact, she owned every CD Faith Hill had ever made and that all sat stacked up next to the stereo she stole from Walmart. The people next door would blast white power music and my mother would just turn up Take Me As I Am as loud as it would go.
Ours went up to eleven.
"Isn't it nice out this time of year?" It was a Wednesday, her day off, in the June I was fourteen, and we drove in her same 1979 Camaro over back roads lines with succulent plants. "I'm so excited, Julien."
I stared out the window while the cloudless horizon raced distantly to keep speed with the car. So few trees, so many rocks.
"I've never been to a Faith Hill concert," I said. I picked at my shoe. "I don't think I've ever paid for a concert before."
She pulled up to the stop sign and took her foot off the gas. "Once, when you were younger, we went and saw one. In France."
"I don't remember that."
Foxes darted on either side of the street. I peered out the window. I wouldn't meet her eyes.
"I remember stuff about France."
My mother tapped her thumb in annoyance. Red light. No one. Nothing for miles and here this red light telling her to stop. She growled in the back of her throat. "I'm sure you do. But you were young. You're more American than French, anyway."
Crossing my arms, I put my seat on the dashboard. "I'm French."
"I suppose you can never really stop being French..." She trailed off, lost in thought for a moment before regaining her spatial vitality. "The ladies at work were really surprised that I won tickets on that radio show."
She just ignored the next stop sign.
"At work," I echoed, and she caught my eye. "Don't they win radio contests?"
Her eyes were back on the road. "Sometimes. Hannah won a barbecue last summer."
I tried to imagine a hooker named Hannah. Nothing came to mind though, beside the girl in my grade, but she wasn't pretty enough to be a hooker. "That's neat." I yawned and let my eyelids flutter tentatively over my eyeballs. "It was nice of you to take me instead of Hannah."
"Hannah's a bitch."
"She would be."
"You didn't have to come," my mother pointed out. "You could have stayed by yourself while I went. You would have found something to do."
Tim was back. He had gone backpacking for a few weeks and every night, I would hope he would be eaten by a bear. He wasn't, though, and he came back and they started up again. "I don't love her," he would say, after we had sex. "I only love you."
I wouldn't even say it back.
"I could have stayed home," I agreed. "But I didn't want to."
She licked her mouth in irritation and looked back at the road. "You could at least be a little bit pleasant."
I stretched my mouth into a smile so convincing that I fool myself in the rear view mirror. We listened to oldies instead of looking at each other. Neither of us spoke a word for another dozen miles.
It quickly evolved to let's do dinner.
Ryan and I tuck into a Greek restaurant comfortably near campus. The walls are white with the occasional blue tile as interruption. We order grape leaves and moussaka and a woman with curly black hair delivers the plates. Ryan makes conversation about the economic situation in Malaysia.
He's never been to Malaysia. He's never touched a homeless person's hand, not even when he passes them crumpled dollars, which he never does. Eighteen? Nineteen? His face betrays him as unready to face a world of harsh realities. Quietly, I compare him to my own wispy lover— Older by only a couple of years, Shiloh has been a drug addict for the better part of the decade; roadmaps to distant tragedies weave like spiderwebs across his face.
Finally, Ryan stops saying nothing and says, instead: "Do you want to come back to my place?"
Shiloh wouldn't mind. He said he wouldn't mind, early in, because he slept with other people sometimes, for skag or heat or fun, and it would only be fair. I tumble the words around in my head on spin cycle: Shiloh wouldn't mind; it would only be fair. There aren't many words to tumble.
Ryan's opulent apartment glitters with iridescent walls and crystals in the window. "My dad's got the rent," he says, as if it will impress me that he is still a child. "Come this way. Put that in the refrigerator."
Shiloh likes grape leaves.
Ryan's bedroom looks like the inside of an eggshell and smells like a hookah lounge. With insistent, impatient hands, he yanks me onto the bed with the white spread, his mouth pressing up against mine as if he wants to swallow my heart through my throat. He tears at the buttons of my shirt, trying to strip me free of identifying markings.
When I press him into the mattress, he cries out in the language of sea gulls and flops with each of his limbs. Holding him down isn't hard, and he likes it because he doesn't know how to want anything else, to expect any kind of gentleness. His anemone fingers are gentle, soft, but he has yet to breathe the ocean.
Naked, I spread him apart and adhere our bodies together by the hips. His cock is above-average. His voice is melodious. His face reminds me of paintings painted by people who are dead but leave legacies on bare, white walls. The heat of our bodies melts the room into a blur of colorlessness and I no longer smell anything.
I like how he tastes, but it doesn't satiate the burning addiction in my belly.
Shiloh lies in the empty bathtub, wrapped up in more layers than an onion. His face glistens with sweat and he is so still that, for a moment, I fear the worst. A minute later though, his eyes are fluttering open and his cracked lips part, parched.
"Hey," he says. He reaches out to touch my face. "Come lie down with me."
I climb into the bathtub to lie next to him. His skin is feverish and warm, his breath shallow and raspy.
"Why are you in the bathtub, Shy?"
He presses his ear to my chest and listens, the way children listen for the ocean inside of whirling shells. Nothing but blood there. "I don't know," he says. "I can hear your heartbeat." He kisses my arm, because that's what his mouth can reach.
"Are you sick?"
"Maybe a little. It was raining the other day and I had to be outside for a while."
I don't ask Shiloh where he goes. He comes home late with stacks of bills and bags of heroin and says nothing about either. Mostly silence, sometimes "I love you." He crawls into the bed and lies there as if he had died and left only a warm cadaver.
"Don't be in a bathtub. Come back to bed, I'll get something for you to drink."
He climbs out, a little shaky on his legs. I touch him and he balks, bumping into the cabinets. "Sorry," he says quickly, rubbing the place where his head connected with the wall. "Jesus, I'm cold."
We only have tea, but Shiloh doesn't like Earl Grey so I just bring him warm water, held in a ceramic mug I won in a community college writing contest. He peers up at me from his blankets, bright eyes just above the edge of the fabric.
"It's just water," I tell him.
He moves with the tentative bursts of a frightened monkey, his hands claps around each other as if he wants to keep his hands entirely to himself. "Thank you," he whispers, in a thick voice. No eye contact. He's not much for looking people in the eye to begin with, but it's worse than usual.
Once, I scraped Shiloh off a sidewalk. Just as simple as CPR. He lay in the gutter of slimy leaves, gasping for air as his eyes slipped open to greet the bright light of the streetlight. He sat up, blinking; bony boy with lilac hair, he smiled at me and twined his arms around my shoulder in a delirious embrace. I remember the sharp tang of burnt heroin and orange peels that clung to his clothes.
"Thank you," he had said. He had been so thin I could wrap my fingers around his wrists; one ankle looked broken but he walked on it anyway, one foot turned out like a bird. Enthusiastically, he had kissed me.
I had taken him home. I have no where else to go, he had said, pulling his ratty grey sweatshirt tight around his shoulder. I hadn't been able to leave him there, standing in the snow, even if I could hear my mother's voice echoing in my head: junkies steal junkies steal junkies steal.
I lean forward to kiss his neck. It could prove disastrous, because Shiloh is unpredictable at the best of times, and I pull back quickly, in case he's going to chuck hot water on me.
It's happened before.
Instead he blushes. He sips the water and keeps his eyes glued to the floor, tracing and re-tracing the grain of the warping floorboards. His arms shake; his pupils become pinpricks in the bright blue well of his iris. "I love you," he whispers. He furrows his eyebrows. "Do you love me, or are you just lonely?"
I ask myself that a lot. I don't think I know how to love anything— it's like trying to imagine the sensation of dying. Maybe I should give up and let him find someone better than me, run back to neatly polished Ryan and his upscale apartment for quick sex that really shouldn't mean anything.
None of these answers are the right answer. "I love you," I say instead, under my breath, so only he can hear me.
The whole truth has never helped anyone.
"I dreamed you were in love with someone else. You said you loved them too."
But I kiss the hollow of his neck.
"There's no one else," I say.
I will never tell Ryan that I love him. I do not care for him enough to lie to him, to tell him what he wants to hear.
Tangled up in each other's bodies, we lie listening to mingling of our rasping breaths. Still feverish, Shiloh curls against me, his hair curling around his thin neck like a nautilus shell. His hand wraps around mine and holds it against his chest so I can feel his heart beat irregularly against my palm. He kisses my cheek gently.
"Good night, Julien."
I kiss him back.
"How was work?"
My mother looked up at me, her fork poised halfway to her round, red mouth. "Fine," she said. She looked down at her ratatouille and prodded it experimentally. Then her sparkly eyes were back on mine, bridging the gap of the table. "I'm in line for a promotion."
"I didn't know you could be promoted."
We were gray. Our whole relationship was gray. Nothing about the way I spoke to my mother was straightforward, and in turn, she presented me with interlocking riddles. Between us, we wedged as many blank looks and late nights as would fit. By the time I was 16, I was so jaded I saw nothing but potential weapons, impending battle in our conversations.
I forced myself not to think about it. I bit my cheek and stirred boiling pots of ravioli and marinara sauce part-time so I didn't have to look her in the eye. She took her doxylamine while I chewed Ritalin with my hard candy. Neither of us believed in God.
"If they can't prove it, it means nothing to you. Faith is an excuse for the blind to lead the stupid."
In the kitchen, above the yellow pot, the clock ticked the one-second waltz. My mother tapped her cranberry fingernails on the checkered linoleum table top, keeping time for the symphony. The dripping sink accompanied her in spasms of plink plink plink.
"I got a call from your school today."
"I don't go to school."
"As I am now aware." She lit one of her slender cigarettes and leaned back in the dining chair. Eying me across the sparse table —populated with ratatouille and cheap red wine and day-old baguettes— she blew smoke rings in my face. She was the queen of spades, the queen of swords, always at arm's length. She studied me, eyes narrowed to viper-slits. Another drag of her cigarette, more bluish smoke exhaled into the air of our kitchen. "Can you get a job with a tenth-grade education?"
I opened my mouth, but she lurched forward before I had the chance, pushing her face so close that I could see each and every crease in her browned skin. She wore eyeshadow the color of eggplants, swirls of liner that swept along the curve of her angular cheeks.
"You think you're smart enough to stop going to school, Julien?"
"I have better things to do." White-hot anger flashed through my body, fueling the barrage of justifications. "I could go out and make something of myself instead of playing their mind games."
"You're stupid," she spat. "I came to America so you come have a better life, not so you could throw it away."
I snorted. "Some better life." I head learned apathy, and now I couldn't make myself care about the preservation of my situation. "Moving to America doesn't automatically mean you're trying to make a better life. At least we got to be poor and French before. Now we're just white trash."
In one swift strike, my mother ripped the cigarette from her mouth and ground it against my arm. Like the pale underside of mushrooms, my skin gave way to the orange ember; I clasped my hand to the sudden bee-sting of adulthood.
Tears pricked at my eyes and I wrenched my arm away, growling in the back of my throat. "You fucking bitch!" It came out in English, because I wasn't used to shouting obscenities to my mother in French. "You get fucked for money. That makes you a whore."
"And you're the son of a whore. That makes you even less."
She rose, dropping her extinguished cigarette onto her empty salad plate. Her eyes fixed on the plastic chandelier in the next room and she sauntered past me, into the next beige room. My knees clattered together like stalks of jello. The front door slammed, followed shortly by the sound of my mother's departure in her truck.
I collapsed on the couch and stared at the bubblegum pink curtains for a long time. I imagined them catching on fire, just in case I had latent pyrokinesis. I didn't though, so instead I just put all my things into my backpack and disappeared.
I dreamed about the smudged windows of the bus. I could make out only the shapes of distant hills and dusty strawberry fields, ripe with sun-dark workers in broad-brimmed hats, billowing clouds that brought false promises of storm. The rocking of the wayward lulled me in and out of consciousness— my eyes opened once, in Iowa, and the sun above the maize had teeth the shade of pearls.
And later, of nothing but snow— pale ballerinas, slush below wheels.
"Where are you going?" asked the trusty, crusty man beside me.
"New York City," I said.
He looked affronted. "But what about the terrorists?"
A city shocked. A nation on its knees. Every station echoed cries about the tragedy of this September, but I promised myself I wouldn't listen to any of it. No one knew how to do anything but lie any more, I told myself, and instead I read pamphlets handed to me by extremists— the truth is the midpoint between the two ends.
Things really were that bad.
"I've heard it's nice in winter."
But that man wasn't talking to me any more.
It wasn't nice in the winter. Drifts of white snow piled up at every opportunity. I hadn't seen snow since we lived in France, and that had just been frost, making the ground hard and our teeth chatter. Here, in foreign New York, the slush stuck to my shoes and soaked them through.
Still, I didn't miss the yellowed grass of California freeway meridians. The wild scents of New York, the harsh fumes and fresh gyros, coaxed me deeper into its belly, promising me a better life. With nothing to lose —no more pride, no more prejudice— I stepped into it.
So long ;-;
Reviews that hate on this will be tearfully agreed with.
I had fun writing it though.
Hope you rike, Sundown.
Thank you all~