The Little Mermaid

Now all the little mermaid can do is open and close her mouth, open and close her mouth, open and close her mouth. It looks good for a blow job and nothing else. The sorceress sea-witch Ursula has stolen the slutty sardine’s voice so say au revoir to sweet underwater arias, those scaling vocal improvisations ripe with pre-pubescence, say bye-bye, you clammed-up ginger sea-cunt, say bye-bye to saying what you want.

We all know how she got here. Want. Desire. All the poor little mermaid’s ever wanted is legs, to split open like a lazy mollusk revealing its tender bits; to break the surface and live within the world on the other side of it. So the sea-witch promises her a set of skin-stumps in exchange for her voice. Mermaids have the most beautiful voices, surpassingly more beautiful than any human voice. It is a well-known fact that the singing of a mermaid has been known to dislocate poor sailors hundreds of nautical miles. Remember Odysseus, plugging his men’s ears with beeswax, instructing them to bind him to the ship’s mast and not to undo him no matter how desperate his begging?

Where are my legs? is what the little mermaid says to the sea-witch with her eyes, though it comes out the mouth soundless now, a lonely shape; a sphere, a bubble, a ball of gas. Weightless, it rises to the forbidden surface.

She can no longer make a sound! boasts Hans Christian Anderson from his cedar casket, meters deep in the cold, brown earth, lying in his own boxed-in underworld beneath the narrow streets of Copenhagen where, up above, the statue of himself attracts the selfies of visitors. Even though he’s a dead virgin Hans can make a sound. Each time some tone-deaf twerp attempts Part of Your WorldHans grumbles the tongue, the tongue, which the witch was supposed to cut. He explicitly narrated the castration of mer-muscle from mer-mouth. Regardless, the freshest batch of children have been taught that what the sea-witch extracts is no longer the tongue itself, but quite surreally, the voice belonging to it. These new children are so soft, with their Post-Danish-Golden-Age bullshit, Hans whines from his death nest, but he is dead, and dead men have no choice other than to let things go. These new children are all so lazy, outfitted in oversized metallic jackets labeling them “Supreme,” lolling around with green tongues, watching themselves in those screens so intently it’s as if they’re waiting to see if they actively do something in their life. Childhood was different back in his day. Back when young Hans had spindly legs that hadn’t quite yet grown to fit into the caps of his own knees he, each night, knelt in a dingy corner, cloaked in his deceased father’s coat, just praying to god, begging him for a better life, for banquet tables overstocked with Smørrebrød and tarteletter, god, to be of a better world, god, please. For beauty, he looked to the garden blooms his mother planted at the lunacy asylum (she took him to work alongside her often, the asylum slop was much better than the lack of food at home), plus there he could stroll along hydrangeas and tulips; rows of purples and yellows like butterflies paused mid-flight, hanging backwards from the ground by their green-stemmed straws. All he ever wanted was someone to talk to. Children today? They barely care to speak at all. A complete sentence? Rare. Maybe a syllable, a frustrated move. They just let themselves get dragged around from monument to monument, their mommies and daddies stuffing their little mouths with empty crunching foods that reek of oil to keep them full and quiet. 

No, they know nothing of what it is to be a hungry child waiting for free pea sludge. Hans remembers inside the asylum so distinctly he can still smell the reek of iron restraints in the hallway, and this one particular afternoon when from her enclosure a naked madwoman enchanted him with her singing. Her song was so pure it was alien, unaware of the notion of precision, drowning in its own breathiness. Upon hearing her, all he wanted to do for the rest of his life was listen. But the moment she’d caught his ear pressed against the food slat of her cage, the otherworldly melody switched to a sharp cry of pain, she seized her opportunity, reaching through the slat, grasping the edges of his frock with her lunatic fingers as if desperately trying to glean something of his that she so urgently wanted; his youth, maybe, his sanity; most likely, his freedom to come and go. Everyone desires freedom, Hans and the little mermaid agree.

Dead Hans is relieved by his own immortality, for at most moments in time, in living rooms and slums at any pin on the map, in the imaginations of small children, because of him, a mermaid loses her ability to speak. He’s the one with the tale that’s been translated into every modern language, so Hans still has a voice. Hans still has a voice, though the little mermaid does not. Hans still has a voice, even though he’s been dead for decades, so what does he know, the mute mermaid thinks, of what it is like to be me?

Ever so quietly, the little mermaid leaves the cave of the sea-witch, swims home. But so what if the little mermaid can’t talk, she’s still perky in her Shop Bop scalloped bikini top, still pretty, with dead skin cells that grow out of her scalp into hairs that are red, long and flowing. Mermaids never cut their hair. What they are is hairs and singing. Now she stays in her bedroom, lumping on her rocks in teenage distress, marveling at the playthings in her room; sunglasses and busted clocks, thingamabobs and tampax: the swollen and gigantic white-white balloons that she untangles from the tangerine and violet anemones along the phosphorescent reef floor. She loves teapots even though she knows nothing of the fire they require in order to steam, never knowing how one model might whistle while another might scream. She uses the thingy to pour the seawater through her one nostril so it can flow out the other. Nasal cleansing, she discovers, is divine. She’s passionate for toaster ovens, and uses the dual toast slots to store coins, a currency developed by human beings to replace talent. Under the sea all doorways are open, the windows pane-less, so fishes can swim freely in and out, like birds might if we left our windows open. And because she’s never used a door, she thinks door knobs are brilliantly manufactured bulbs, capable of concealing an explosive behavior that humans call privacy. To be a lady! the Little Mermaid thinks. She wants to someday hide her nipples in something called silk and take them for a ride in something called a carriage. Above all else, she treasures the marble statue of the prince she once rescued from a shipwreck. Her forever handsome prince, bent down on one knee wearing human pants. Pants are human. The geoduck-shaped flesh hanging between the thighs is definitely human. A merman could never possibly wear either pants or own what the helpful seagull once told her is called a wang wang. She realized this once upon a time when she was daydreaming, her mind lost in a highly-pixilated interracial fantasy, involving the horn of a sea-mammal and a deep-sea fisherman in a waxy yellow jacket. When she tried to impose herself in the scene of her own fantasy, she found herself unable; as soon as she remembered the end of her own fishtail, the fantasy dissolved. The fantasies always dissolve, break down into particles of unidentifiable debris, to drift off, meld in the muck of marine snow as if the vivid scene had only ever been a part of nothing. In both fantasy and reality, one thing is indisputable, the fin of her lower half would prevent her from properly doing with a human wang wang what a good girl knows she should do with it. She wants so many human things, a dildo, legs, a new hole to go with them, a soul– her prince, her prince, her prince.

The water is the same as it’s been all her life, a very very blue. She feels blasé about the blue, as a human would feel about the translucence of air. She stays horizontal on her bedroom boulder doing very little, waiting for the leg delivery. No news. Another tide passes. Humans believe that tides impose on their coasts, people think the water is pulled by a moon. Over the course of their history they have wasted infinite energy calculating this whole complicated mechanism called time based on their one-sided interpretations of the moon. Mermaids know what’s true; the ocean pulls what looms above it. Her grandmother, the old dowager, told her bedtime stories filled with glorious human misconceptions, reminding her consistently that they were lucky to be of this world and not the one above it. Mermaids have swimmingly long lives but once they are dead, they turn into nothing, they become seafoam, have no grave to mark them. They have no afterlife. Humans on the other hand, if they do right, have immortal souls, go on to thrive for eternity in this golden cloud run by a Hans named God. It wasn’t a rare occasion that the old maid would snap at her and say we are much happier and better off than human beings. The little mermaid has never broken the surface, so she has never seen the thing called moon, but she’s heard it described in the slow moans of whales who have seen it, as they have lungs requiring what is above the surface in order to breathe. The moon, they moan, is a rock that glows like a jellyfish, hangs over the surface world like the lanterns sailors use at sea. Grandmother has told her of lanterns and many other wonderful things about upper-earth, about automobiles, a hot meal on a stick that’s called a Kebob, about the legged pedophiles who shamefully slink through something people call alleyways.

Because it is the way the little mermaid is written, she’s always preferred the mechanical look of human men, who dreamily march on their one side and then the other. She could blame her desire on Hans, but blame would not cease the painful longing for human men, who make her heart swell like a live organ stung by a stonefish. It is said that the men march powerfully through the streets demanding a great many things. Her grandmother has told her what she knows about men, too. The men on land are all princes with their god and their church, tools, rules, intellectual accessories like linear time, and armor, inside each of them is housed a key (wang wang, the little mermaid thinks) that will someday unlock the great gate of heaven. At home their wives sit; doodling meaningless tasks to busy themselves, quiet, obedient. Her grandmother, though she knew everything, gave little detail on the wives, wives never go to sea. But you must find a gentle merman, her grandmother would always warn her, wearily, her withered finger bobbing in the gentle current. But the little mermaid feels nothing for the mermen, who delicately flip around, brushing their hair, worshipping only their aquatic flower gardens, music, and poetry. They know nothing of church bells, wives, Jesus or prayer. She does not like their chanting or their sea-glass necklaces, she does not like their boring shitty sea-flower poems. She solely fetishizes the foreign human objects she’s plundered from shipwrecks, wants nothing more than to split her legs for a key flesh piece to enter her. If mermaids could make tears, she would cry! What wouldn’t she give to have a human prince, live a short human life, die a human death— the little mute thinks as she lovingly cradles a bundle of pillaged dynamite as if it were her own human baby.

Please remember, this is a love story. Without legs the little mermaid might never be able to meet her handsome and deliciously average prince, who is everything she desires with his tucked-in man-blouse and a duck-tail hair-do that was styled for a time when men drove convertibles that they picked you up in, handed you a single daisy before driving you to dead-end lanes to kiss you. Now, every afternoon, her prince does the same thing that my prince once did, when he was my prince; I had a prince once, and he, like her prince, did the very same thing all modern princes do to make use of their limited time. They devote their days to personal quests, a singular and important mission: to rescue old statues of themselves from the ships they’ve capsized. Just watch The News. Someday, were her bedroom to be ransacked by divers, the stone version of her perfect prince could be returned to its pedestal on upper-earth, to glare down at the maids tending his courtyard. My prince, my prince, my prince, the little mermaid thinks. My prince, she sees him in her mind’s eye, so real he has pores, so real it’s like his cheekbones were sculpted in someone else’s dream. How will I ever seduce my prince as a mute? the little mermaid wonders. I know this mutishness, I too have been so alone that my own voice becomes a stranger to me. She cannot tempt him with her baroque improvisations, she can’t walk or talk. Like a real human girl, all she can do is wait. It’s the worst. My prince my prince my prince my prince like a skipping cd my prince my prince she waits my prince and waits.

The little mermaid lies around for so many tides that even upper-earth gadgets begin to bore her. For how many tides have I been mute? the little mermaid wonders, looking into her handheld looking glass. In the reflection staring back at her, she sees something in herself she’s never seen before: a gray hair. Upon seeing the gray hair, the little mermaid turns and leaves her den, now lonesome, closer to becoming seafoam. She doesn’t know where she’ll go, but realizes, as she swims, that her fingers have missed the feel of cutting through her watery depths. As she swims, the blood swims inside her too, warm, and with the return of her circulation so returns her curiosity. She swims beyond the walls of her sea palace, out through the gateway where one thousand oysters display their living pearls, over a slight dune a school of fish seems to be climbing to take a plankton tour of a plastic bag from Duane Reade, when she hears a pssst – a voice! A ghost?the little mermaid wonders, swimming over to the deteriorated body of a flounder who’d once gone by the name of Flounder, but no, this voice is of another register, and a voice is always the thing that defines the soul of the thing, as the little mermaid well knows, now missing her own more terribly. Inside the rotting, yellow and blue striped flesh of Flounder the flounder, a plush white edge prods–wriggles. Hello, little mermaid, says the voice. The little mermaid swims closer to the unidentifiable end, likely a head, though he doesn’t appear to have any equivalent of a nose. This worm is a tapeworm, Morris, clinging to Flounder’s dead guts. The little mermaid’s not the only one waiting to be part of a new species. What fine skin you have, Morris says with the flash of his dull tailend. The little mermaid says nothing as Morris unclips from the corpse, gliding up and away, beckoning her elsewhere with his proglottid.

Who is that? Hans Christian Andersen interrupts, horrified. Morris is not a character, he posthumously groans, even his immortal soul can’t take a restHad his eyeballs not been the first things to rot, they would be rolling. If you don’t delete this Morris character, I’m going to blow my stack, Hans says out of human habit, though dead men can no longer blow their stacks, I let the little mermaid know. The little mermaid offers Morris her slender pink hand, and he loosely snuggles up around her pinky finger, leading her away from that part of the ocean with glittering fruits and fine white sand.

Morris guides the little mermaid to a nearby shipwreck, one long ago looted by expeditioners with their flash boxes, the warped banquet tables long ago plucked of their silverware. What remains are the bits of shattered chandeliers and dilapidated velvet curtains studded with barnacles, like a cape made by Viviane Westwood or whateverThis here is a library, says Morris, who turns out to know everything. Upon seeing what is there the little mermaid immediately understands that libraries are brown and unimpressive.

Over the course of countless eras, Morris has housed himself in the bowels of many humans, and what he calls “their beef”, which he describes as sea cows that people murder in gigantic machines to be seared, sliced and served on a fine white edible sand called rice. His immediate segments have inhabited man and beast in every continent so he knows of the many human peculiarities that define a culture. Morris can cry out pain in the voice of any animal, can read and translate nearly all of the human alphabets. Morris agrees to read to her, whatever she likes, for sixty tides, in exchange for the thing he wants; her body. What more is there to take? thinks the mute, nodding her head yes, in promise. Stop talking to Morris, he doesn’t belong, Hans mutters, annoyed with me, but Hans’s voice begins to fade in her little mer-ear. Morris goes on. Morris can read her real human words that were spoken from ink pens held in real human hands; what better way is there, the mermaid thinks, to learn of their world?

When being read a tech manual for something called a microwave, for instance, she learns of important inputs, cords and system preferences, time zone settings. Morris reads the parts he calls excerpts from a book about a kind man named Hitler, who Morris despises, though the little mermaid just adores the logic in his poetry. Hitler teaches her many human sentiments like “words build bridges into unexplored regions” and, her personal favorite, “anyone who paints a field blue and a sky green ought to be sterilized.” Given an opportunity to hold a brush– anything she could paint would surely be blue, she’s only ever seen a world of blue and sterilization is lovely, a condition that means exquisitely clean. She reads a fairy tale about a world where men fly through the air, from city to city on a magic rug that smells like a thing called dust. She gets lost in the stories. Listening to a story can have such an effect, she forgets about her mutishnessher body dissipates, first the fingers melt into water, then the arms–gone, the torso, her fin; until she’s on that magic rug as someone else who is still herself, traveling from human marketplace to human marketplace, or splitting her legs to ride a great galloping beast called a horse. While listening, her limitations erase, the beasts black mane, soft as mermaid hairs, blows into her face, moved by something called wind.

Morris translates Russian to the little Mermaid beautifully, one day reciting a poem by a poetess. A wandering boy plays a flute in order to drown rats in a nearby river. The little mermaid doesn’t know what is a rat, but imagines a rat is a lobster, a fuzzy bug-eyed crustacean with a muscular tail. She likes the poetesses the best, her gleaming eyes say as she listens. Poetesses are the unknown wives of men, and she finds each one reveals a new and undefinable wildness. The poetess wives were women with madwomen inside of them. Once the rats in the poem have drowned, which is something upper-earth legged things do when they go over their heads in her water, Morris says, this poetess lives in exileShe was something called poor. Her husband maybe helped with the assassination of Trotsky’s son, he goes on, in a way that suddenly makes him seem pretentious, he full well knows that words like assassination, words like Trotsky, mean nothing to any mermaid.

Through the poems of wives, the little mermaid learns that there is a different kind of split in human women. Mer-people, unlike humans, all have the same number of tails: one. She wants a madwoman inside of her too, that is what it is to be a human lady belonging to a prince, living under the rules of a god.

Once they’ve run out of poems, she has Morris read their prefaces, though he constantly interjects, reminding the little mermaid that these histories were written in unrelated cities at completely irrelevant times in history. It is in these prefaces, the little mermaid thinks, that she might finally be able to locate the source of a female splitting, with the hopes that someday, she too might similarly divide. The prefaces declare that madwomen often ended up murdering their bodies, e.g. demanding a body to stick its head in an oven. You have come so far and now it is over, said the madwoman of a Sylvia. The madwomen whispered instructions that the bodies string themselves to the ceilings with something humans called a noose or fill their lungs with something called carbon monoxide. One or two of the bodies freed the madwomen by swallowing a brilliant combination of pharmaceuticals with extra-terrestrial names. The names of the pills are so beautiful, the little mermaid thinks when Morris says them, she wants nothing more than to pronounce the sounds out loud herself. They have names that sound like beautiful anemones, Quaaludes, Benzodaizepines. Some poetesses wrote their last poems of goodbye and walked into the little mermaid’s sea to drown themselves and she knows, the little mermaid knows, that just as she so badly wants to be a lady, they so badly wanted to become mermaids. Our tides are almost up, Morris relays, after so many tides. For her remaining stories, she points to pages she wants told to her again. He repeats the reports of their drownings and their suicides. If human beings weren’t compelled to drown themselves, might they live inside their bodies forever?

The little mermaid is a mermaid, with no choice other than to keep her promises. Mermaids are pure, they cannot lie, cheat or steal. Now, she embodies the obedience of a human woman, opening her mouth, allowing the worm to enter. Hungry, hungry Morris floats up and into the hole where her words used to be. She does with her tongue the only thing that it is capable of doing. She swallows.

What is Xanax in Russian? He needs to be quiet for a bit, he says, sucking in, sounding annoyed, meaning I am shutting up for all eternity. He’s very hungry, the kind of tiny beast that goes on being hungry forever. At least she will get thinner, if there is any room left for her to shrink. Inside her, Morris feasts. She is dumb, mute, other than her parasite, alone. My prince my prince my prince. Her prince, she fears, is a fading possibility. She uses her finger, longingly tracing an absolutely gorgeous human wang wang in the mealy gray sand.

The wang wang wangs on the ocean floor. She and Hans both gaze upon it with unbridled lust. I wonder if this story about the mermaid is actually about me? Hans Christian Andersen asks himself, finally able to wonder something he was never allowed to wonder in life. He is suddenly unsure if what he has written is not a mermaid at all, but instead a story about a human, perhaps a little boy, who wanted a prince he could never have. Is the little mermaid me? Hans wonders, removing his human pants. Together, both the little mermaid and Hans look at their lower halves and wonder; with this fin, how might I ever lose my own virginity? Neither of them, in either world, have anyone to ask.

On the day the little mermaid was born, her grandmother declared that she’d one day have permission to rise up out of the sea. Fuck permission. She swims to the surface, like she’s done it a bazillion times, no big deal. As she swims up, the blue loses opacity, pressure loosens– she breaks through to the other side of it. The instant her upper half meets air for the first time, it’s as if a rib gets uncaught, something in her snaps. She gets all up in that surface. An overexposed plane, light so white that at first she thinks the middle of death. What gets breathed in is so thin, it makes her a little dizzy. She looks up towards the place called sky. Up above, a circle torn out from the gray is so tortuously bright that it burns the mermaid’s fair skin. She cowers in the hot of it, holding her mer-body in a flumped U shape until some ominous gray shifts, veiling that circle, a hazy guard, softening the intensity just enough that her eyes can adjust to the new expanse, letting her unfold.Like all desperate longings that are eventually achieved, the surface is exciting for a moment. Pregnant with aimlessness. Then: disappointing. The upper-world is a gigantic divide. No matter which way she spins, the little mermaid only sees the same line. Aside from the seafoam, which is soapy and easy and soft, she’s alone on the line. She looks down into the seafoam for guidance, the same way the poetesses once hunted for meanings in the sky. In the foam she sees the bobbing finger of her grandmother then, she blinks, the finger mutates to an amorphous geometry, drifts away. My ancestors, the mermaid watches as the seafoam travels the edge of water as if being pushed towards an end. There must be an end in some direction, but in which way? The mermaid swims around herself and sees no end in any direction, only light and the flatness of sea, the startling harshness of the divide. She swims and stops, swims and stops, swim swims and stops, finding herself, somehow, at each stop, in the exact same place. Why can she not just be a person and die? You can die, says a voice coming from inside the splitting mind of the little mermaid. It is not the voice of Hans, nor is it the voice of her grandmother, it’s not me, not her prince. The voice of a madwoman, at last. The tongue that is ranting in her ear is the tongue of a stranger. It pleas to a god.




Court

Picture Credits: Phil Roeder

D’Ora wakes up smooth.

Enjoy these few seconds, girl.

Three … two … one … bam!

She gets out of bed and whispers good mornings to Marta’s dog. The dog is preparing to die on a pile of old towels in the corner. D’Ora doesn’t want to disturb her. The dog’s breathing is shallow.

Don’t hurt, little girl. Either die or get better. If I had some oxy I’d cut it up and give it to you.

Probably not a good idea right now since she has court today. She carries this dull thud with her into the kitchen where Marta is watching the news. From the looks of things on CNN, no one else is doing too well either.

D’Ora needs a minute to orient herself as she goes to the always-full coffee pot. She had forgotten about the election. Didn’t vote. Isn’t sure if she’s registered. “My vote doesn’t matter,” she had told Marta.

“Every vote matters. You’re a fool if you believe otherwise.”

How can a person as smart as Marta believe that?

Marta is talking to the television. D’Ora doesn’t say anything anymore, but it’s beyond her why Marta bothers using up all that energy to get mad at something that doesn’t have anything to do with her.

“All those people sobbing like this is their first disappointment. White people. Privileged people. Plenty of brown people sobbing too. Their pain makes sense though. They thought they had something. They – we – have a lot more to lose.”

A young man is being interviewed. D’Ora imagines her son might look like that one day. He is smiling sad and looking away from the camera like he is following a memory. “Seeing the election results feels like watching the girl you love walking off with Charles Manson.”

Marta nods and smiles. “He gets it.

D’Ora has no idea who Charles Manson is.

Two old white ladies are standing arm in arm. One wears a smooth white jacket and matching ugly pants that again remind D’Ora of her appointment in court. The other lady has a t-shirt that says Nasty Woman. They must be in their seventies and look the kind of healthy and cared for that having money and husbands can give you. “We have been waiting for this day,” matching lady says. “This was supposed to be our day.” Her voice cracks. “I still can’t believe this is happening.”

“Believe it,” Marta says.

D’Ora wants to say that the t-shirt seems strange for a woman that age.

Marta looks exhausted. “I’ve been up all night. This is unbelievable. I’d bet money lots of those protesters didn’t even vote.” She turns back to the television and yells, “This is yours. You asked for this moment. And now you’ve got it on a gold-plated platter.”

“It’s going to get ugly,” D’Ora says using words she heard someone say a couple of days ago. None of it seems to have anything to do with her.

“It already is ugly.”

D’Ora doesn’t like to watch the news but she doesn’t want Marta to think that she is stupid. She sits down at the table and drinks her coffee swirled up with CNN and Marta’s talking back and pretends she’s interested, tries to keep up.

“Following the election results there is outrage everywhere. There have even been reports of rioting in Portland.”

“Rioting in Portland sounds like the name of a band,” Marta says and nudges D’Ora with her elbow.

D’Ora with her coffee tries to focus and listen and care, but in a quick minute her mind goes to Phil. It’s been doing that a lot lately. Maybe because of court. Not Phil with a bullet in his face, but Phil who found her on a mall bench all those years ago and poured sweetness onto her. Phil who said that looking at her was like looking at strawberries that had been picked too early: they were still beautiful and plump, but they were bitter for not being allowed to ripen. He had just enough sugar to sprinkle on them to make them come into their own natural sweetness. That was Phil. He talked to her with charm like she mattered. Brought out her true self. She trusted him. Trusted him with everything.

He didn’t ruin her – which is what Marta had said – because her cousin had already done that. Marta doesn’t know about her cousin. They don’t talk about the long-ago things like family. Phil had made it go on a lot longer – had pimped her out for years – but had also loved her, unlike her cousin and his friends. Phil had acted tough but was soft inside. She saw through him, saw his shaky moments when he’d walk around the apartment touching things – furniture, clothing, himself – as though he were reassuring himself that he existed. Made her want to protect him. Turned out he was full-on crazy. Brain-tumor crazy. They didn’t find that out until after the bullet.

Just after Phil had died and she was trying to get off the streets, she had been talking to the mandated psychologist about that first day in the mall and the strawberries. She knew she was supposed to say horrible things about Phil, but he was dead and everyone knew the bad, so she talked about the other things.

The psychologist had interrupted her. Phil Martin? We are talking about Phil Martin?

D’Ora had nodded.

The same Phil Martin who beat a thirteen-old girl to death because she had skimmed money after he pimped her out? The same Phil Martin who sold you repeatedly to other men when you were a teenager, who kept you like that for years, and who injected you with drugs when you were pregnant because he knew that way the baby would be removed from your custody and he could still profit from you? That Phil Martin?

Meth. He injected me with meth. Yes, he wanted all my attention. He was a child himself. People show different sides of themselves to different people. He started out different with me. You can say it was part of his plan, but he really loved me.

She’d been thinking this a lot lately. That she had been loved. And it was love that had destroyed her.

No, you are not destroyed. You are at the front door of a new day.

Feeling love had opened the cap on the destruction that lived within her.

The psychologist had opened her eyes larger. Was that surprise? The psychologist relaxed her face again and watched her, waiting. She was trying to hold onto her emotions, struggling against laughter or screaming or some other loud and inappropriate response.

This is why D’Ora hated the psychologists and social workers and case managers she was forever having to interact with: their job is to help and guide, but they cannot handle the truth and details of real life. Of her real life. And their own shit always shows through.

Still, she accepted whatever kindness they could offer.

This psychologist was easy to talk to, didn’t seem to judge too much.

D’Ora had said that in their session. The psychologist asked her if she often felt like she was being judged.

“A lot, yeah,” D’Ora had said. “Always.”

“How do you judge yourself?”

She answered before she could think. “I am shit. But I am also beautiful.”

The psychologist had smiled at her. “If we’ve been judged too much we tend to take on those judgments as fact. Internalize those words we’ve heard over and over. Very important to be able to trust the words in our heads. If we’ve been given too many lies or ugly ones all we trust is that we are those things, the stuff that says we are bad or ugly or stupid or whatever it is. Those stories often dictate how we react and we tend to make poor choices. When we respect and love ourselves, the outcome is better. When we can tell ourselves we are good or strong or kind, we learn to believe it.”

At the time D’Ora had nodded, but hadn’t been able to take it all in.

“You have suffered because of your past and everything now comes through that filter. And you deal with us and we want to help, but we also know all of your everything details so sometimes we remind you of that more than is necessary. You need people who aren’t just looking at your surface and aren’t just looking at your past, people who know you, D’Ora the person. That is when you will find someone you can trust.”

That conversation was years ago but D’Ora remembers it often. Makes more sense of it with distance.

Marta is that kind of person. She doesn’t judge. Doesn’t look at her past and only see that. Doesn’t look at her today and only see that. Marta is good people.

You spend so much time trying to find yourself that you hold on for dear life so no one waltzes in and takes you away, hides you under his cloak.

*

After coffee and more than enough news D’Ora goes back to her room and talks aloud to the walls, to the windows, to the dying dog in the corner.

Wow, you’ve gotten a lot worse, girl. Your bones stick out so much. You’re barely breathing.

No good court shoes. No good court anything. That black dress. Too short. If I put a jacket over it, it will look professional. I will look like I can handle this situation. Clothes everywhere. I was organized once, used to be able to find anything clean and pressed. Those days are gone for now. People want to hate on a person for not keeping her house neat, well that’s on them. I know I can, because I could; I just can’t right now.

“What are you doing?” Marta asks from the doorway. D’Ora likes to pretend they’re related, especially when Marta comes with her to court. Marta would make a good mom. Courts don’t know that and took her two kids away years ago. That was when she was using and selling and living with a biker gang. No place for kids in that story. Then she found God. Now she works two jobs and opens her tiny apartment to people in need. For right now it is just her and D’Ora.

“How do you not put your clothes away? You are like a teenage boy.”

“I put them away, but then I go to find things in a hurry and chaos happens.”

They both giggle.

Chaos happens is something they say sometimes. Neither can remember who started saying it first.

Marta offered to loan her clothes, but everything she has is big and nothing will fit.

“I’m going to wear this to court.” D’Ora holds up the black dress.

“Girl, you must be crazy. You are going to court, not hooking.”

“I’ll put a jacket over it.”

“Let’s see the jacket.”

D’Ora picks through piles of clothes. I need to do laundry. She holds up a red silky jacket.

Marta makes a face.

D’Ora drops it back on the floor. “I know I have something professional in here.”

“Why don’t you fold the things you aren’t wearing? Or hang them up? Why do you just make the chaos grow?”

“I don’t have time for that. I have to get ready for court.”

“Court’s not until after one.”

“I need to get ready.”

“Blue. Blue would be good. I’ll be back.” Marta walks away. She does this when she gets frustrated. She thinks she’s subtle and no one notices, but D’Ora’s got her figured out. Walking away with whatever thoughts or memories she made come up by keeping her room messy. She should clean it. After court she will clean her room.

D’Ora stands up and looks around. It’s not like there’s so much stuff either but all what she has is a pile of mess. She spots blue and smiles out loud, drops out of her sweat pants and tank top and puts on the black dress. Without a jacket it is a bit much. The jacket though. It’s blue. Got some bling. Some shine. It’s a patriotic blue and the judge will like that. The best part is she has shoes to match. Doesn’t take much digging to find them. Hasn’t worn them in a while, but as she wriggles her feet in they feel good. I look good. Confident. Professional.

She walks out into the other room. Marta is cleaning the kitchen sink. Cleaning is something else she does when she is frustrated.

“I’m ready.”

Marta turns around. Because of the shoes they are almost eye-to-eye. Marta looks her up and down. She is thinking something, but her words don’t quite make it out.

*

D’Ora takes the shoes off and kneels in front of the dog. Smells are coming out of her everywhere. There’s sick in there, but there’s also something different. Medicine maybe. Her head is lifted and her breath is fast and strained.

D’Ora rocks gently back and forth, sucking on her finger and humming to the dog.

When she was on the streets after Phil kicked her out the first time she met a man who sucked on his finger too. She didn’t see it right away, but when he got to know her better he was himself. He was some kind of social worker, though when she first saw him she had thought he was a john with his pasty skin and look of wanting dripping off his face. This guy he was nice to her, helped her get in programs and tried to get her off the street.

That was his surface man. Underneath he was bad news, a hippopotamus sitting there in plain sight looking all still and innocent until it decides it’s hungry and then it’s all over in a blink.

One time she was in his office and strung out so she couldn’t sit still and she was wandering around and looking at his pictures and the flyers he had on the wall and she glanced at him from across the room and there he was with his fat pasty finger in his mouth, sucking on it like it was a tiny dick. She had laughed out loud because of the unexpectedness of it. He smiled that big friendly hippopotamus smile at her and asked her what she was laughing at. “You have issues. Mouth issues. You suck on your finger. You do it when you are scared? Worried?” Without missing a beat he told her he did it when he was turned on but couldn’t do anything about it. He smiled at her in an awful way that said he had power over her.

Twice he tried to fuck her. He didn’t expect her to come at him with a knife when he tried the first time, which turned him on as much as it scared him, gave him one more story to tell.

The second time he had tried to get her into his minivan, but she had been high and when she realized what he was about a quiet fury overtook her and it took three men to pull her off of him. She would have gouged out his eyeballs if she could have. After that he stopped paying any attention to her.

Rocking in front of Marta’s dying dog she wonders why all of this comes back to her now that her life is trying to be so different.

The dog’s ribs stick out with every breath and her hips poke upwards. The dog hasn’t been able to stand on its back legs for a few days. Marta and D’Ora take turns carrying it places. Inside. Outside. To get water. To eat. To pee. Sometimes they forget. Sometimes the dog wakes up soaked in pee because she can’t lift herself.

“If I ever get to that point please put a bullet in my head,” Marta says the same thing everyday. She doesn’t want the dog to suffer.

The heave rises up without announcing itself, starts just below her ribcage and moves like a giant stone beneath her heart. D’Ora forces herself to breathe, lies down on the floor next to the tiny dog with her face right close even though the smells coming out of the dog are terrible. Death smells.

D’Ora closes her eyes.

They taught her in one of her classes how to shut everything out. Focus on the breath. It was bullshit. But it also wasn’t. She forces the nasty smells coming off of the dog into her own lungs, jams all that burn into every cell of her body.

This is what I deserve.

I deserve shit.

I am shit.

D’Ora falls asleep for a bit. The stink is deep up inside her.Yes, this is who I am and exactly what I deserve. She dreams of being on a boat with a gutted whale. She pulls at the blubber and surrounds herself in it like a dress. It is both disgusting and comforting.

I am the queen of gross.

Girl, you beautiful.

Girl, you ratchet.

There is no end to the voices, but the blubber helps her to hide. Under the blubber she is safe.

*

When she wakes up, the little dog has gotten worse. She isn’t dead yet, but she isn’t breathing right and she is hurting.

D’Ora touches the dog’s head with her fingertips. There is a concave spot just below the dog’s ear, big enough to accommodate a large man’s thumb.

After Phil was dead and when she still had her second daughter and was still using, she had a boyfriend. They had found a tiny Chihuahua the day they met. She kept it and cared for it. Late one night the boyfriend accidentally stepped on it. Her baby was asleep and the dog was screeching like it was a broken person, its whole body facing in wrong and impossible directions. The boyfriend was tired and didn’t want to deal with the dog so D’Ora scooped its yelping self into a blanket so she wouldn’t have to look at the impossible angles and ran to the 24-hour vet two blocks away. She wanted them to put it to sleep because she knew there was no fix for that much crooked. The vet people had come to her and removed her squealing pile of dog from her hands and taken her to the back. D’Ora sat down in a chair, pleased with herself for doing the right thing, the normal thing, until the woman came back and told her they had the dog under oxygen and were trying to assess whether they could save her.

No, she is too broken. You can’t save a dog that broken.

Our vet is doing an exam right now.

$479 later the dog was dead and D’Ora was in shock. Here she thought she’d done the right thing by the dog that they had found, that had never been to a vet, that ate whatever scraps were available, and she had to pay $479 to have it die in sheets. It was an insurmountable bill to be handed on top of death and D’Ora bartered a quarter gram and used as soon as she left. She went home to find her boyfriend gone and her daughter alone in her crib shrieking. Police pulled up just as she ran in because her daughter had been crying a while, perhaps the whole time D’Ora had been at the vet. Police questioned her and she told them about the dog dying and taking it to the vet and they could go and talk to the vet if they didn’t believe her.

“Why didn’t you take your daughter?”

“Because my boyfriend was here. I was going to an animal hospital and that’s no place for a baby.”

“Makes sense,” the officer said. “Did you know that he was going to leave?”

“What kind of question is that? Of course I didn’t know. I told him I was taking the dog and to stay with the baby and he said he was tired which was why he didn’t take the dog.”

“Do you know where he is now?”

“No idea. Maybe in hell.”

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

“I am fine. I just took a dying dog to the vet and they charged me $479 and it died. I just wanted them to put it to sleep and they charged me $479. Where is a person supposed to get that kind of money? I just wanted it not to hurt.” She couldn’t stop talking.

The officer was sweet. Young and innocent looking. “Right?” he had said. “They charge a lot and they know you aren’t going to argue because you are there with your dying animal, but for right now let’s focus on your daughter.”

“Exactly,” she had said, relieved that everything was going to be all right.

But it wasn’t and it never would be. Child Protective Services had been called and they felt the need to drug test her daughter and she tested positive for marijuana and cocaine.

“I don’t use either of those substances,” she had said.

“But you are her mother and you are in a house where those substances are being used.”

Looking back she has almost no memory of what happened afterwards. It involved a lot of yelling and throwing things and cursing at the nice young police officer who was not so innocent after all and had suspected that she was high and was trying to draw the conversation out in an effort to clarify.

Clarification occurred. She was arrested. She lost her daughter. One year and two days later her rights to a child were severed for a second time because she couldn’t get clean and if she was honest with herself she still wasn’t ready to be a mother.

And now here she is. Another dying dog and another child in DCS custody because of her drug use. This time, though, things are different. For the last 18 months she had supervised visitation with the baby, classes, and appointments. Mostly she has been doing good. A few bumps, which was why it is 18 months and not less.

Things are different now.

Phil had ruined everything, but Phil is dead now.

This time she is not stupid enough to take the dog to the vet. This time she will make the dog as comfortable as she can and when it is finally dead she will wrap it in towels and then a trash bag, maybe two, and she will throw it in a dumpster in the next alley. That is one way she can help Marta out, thank her for all she’s done.

*

1:20 is a strange time for a court appointment. It’s always been on the hour or half hour before. She double-checks the paper. 1:20. She checks the paperwork by the door again though she has done this already half a dozen times. Sign-in sheet from the anger management classes and substance abuse classes. Signature card from counseling. Hours logged from the job-training program. Enrollment certificate in GED study program.

She has done everything they’ve asked of her. A short ripple of pride washes through her.

The television is still on because the television is always on. One of Marta’s friends spliced into a neighbor’s cable so they are binge-watching while they can. The volume is low and there is a beautiful breakfast in an impossibly clean white and wood kitchen. There is a family sitting at a round table and they are all eating pancakes and smiling.

Who are these people?

I want to give this to my son.

Even as the thought wanders through, she knows that a pretty life of blueberry pancakes and breakfast in a big airy kitchen is never going to be for her. Not ever. Something inside is rigged wrong.

Not a fucking chance.

Hard when you are out of the motherhood loop to just step back in. Hard to give all of yourself over if you got used to soothing your own pains.

Marta walks in the front door. They are only smoking outside now in anticipation of her son’s return.

“I can’t go with you to court today; I just got called in to work. They threatened to fire me if I don’t go and I can’t afford that right now, even if they are wrong for calling me in on my day off. You going to be okay?”

D’Ora’s stomach heaves. “I’ll be fine.”

They both know this is a lie.

“I called your lawyer and she is going to meet you there. I called your case manager and she can’t be there. They tried to find someone else, but I guess things are really short-staffed.”

“Marta, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” She puts her hands on her belly to push the ache deep inside. “I’m an adult and I can make it to court. Didn’t you see? I have all my papers by the door. I have all my court clothes ready. I am on this.”

She knows Marta doesn’t believe her. She doesn’t believe her.

“You’ve got this. This is for your son. You’ve done everything they’ve asked you to do, jumped through every damn hoop, so you go into court proud and own that.”

“What about the dog?”

“What about her?”

“Want me to take her to the vet?”

“If we were smart we would have taken her to one of those all night clinics, rung the doorbell, and then ran. They would have given her an injection and we wouldn’t have to pay the $60. As things stand we’re going to have to let her go. I’m too much of a wimp to bash her head in, but that would be the kind thing to do.”

Twenty minutes and two big hugs later Marta leaves and D’Ora is alone with the almost dead dog. D’Ora sits with her for a minute but can’t bear to see her pain. She goes into Marta’s stash and lights up the half blunt that is in the box.

They won’t drop me today, she tells herself.

She sits on the floor in front of dog and lights up.

Still more than three hours until she has to leave for court. All she has to do is take a shower and get dressed. This pot is legal because Marta has a medical card.

D’Ora holds the smoke in her lungs as long as she can, then leans her face into the dog and exhales slowly. The dog is already struggling with her breath and D’Ora worries she’s going to get a coughing fit. At first the dog looks like she’s going to throw up and D’Ora pulls back. The little dog’s head bobs gently as though she’s following some imperceptible song somewhere but then her body seems to relax. D’Ora takes another hit, holds it, and again gently exhales in the dog’s face. This time the dog doesn’t struggle or try to turn away just looks her in the eye and nods.

*

D’Ora grabs one of the canvas bags that Marta’s hoarded from all the social service fairs she goes to and shoves in her paperwork and spiky blue shoes. She’s going to have to run for the bus and so she wears her little black sneakers that she got from a rich white lady’s yard sale for $2. They are black suede and sleek and beautiful and a size too big but it doesn’t matter. The laces are long and even though she’s in a hurry she takes her time to tie them up proper. She learned the hard way.

Wallet. Keys. Phone. Needs – shoes, jacket, papers. Boobs.

One of her case managers a couple of years ago taught her techniques for remembering what she needed. When you stand in front of a door about to leave, she had said, go through your list: wallet keys phone needs boobs. Boobs was a reminder to adjust her boobs and feel good about herself before she walked into the world. Needs was the catch-all for anything different. D’Ora is amazed at the number of times going through this list has saved her from trouble. Like now. No phone. She runs back into her room for the phone.

The dog has moved off the pile of towels and is stretched out. They look at each other.

D’Ora wants to lie down on the floor with the dog. Instead she whispers a prayer and grabs her phone.

Out the door.

1:02 and she is two bus rides and thirty-five minutes away from the courthouse if she’s lucky and doesn’t miss the first bus.

Court is always late.

So are the buses.

As soon as she closes the door behind her she sprints. Her bag tucked under her arm still going through her checklist wallet keys phone needs boobs. Papers. She has her shoes and she has her papers. She runs. Down two blocks and looks down the street to see if she sees the bus in either direction. Clear. Two people waiting at the bus stop. Good sign.

D’Ora won’t let herself think about where this day could take her. She’s all about the now. Right here. This moment.

In one of her mandated counseling sessions she had a class on how to deal with stress. The teacher had asked them what they thought would help.

“Get rid of the courts,” someone had said.

The teacher had been a big lady with a soft voice. She sat there in front of all these paroled women and talked about not stressing about everything, not thinking about every single problem and just to focus on the Now.

There had been an ornery woman in the class and she had laughed huge. “Lady, what do you think got us here in the first place? Right now I need a fix. Right now I want to slice my man up because he done me wrong. The Now is not the problem – most of us got that. It’s the planning that sinks us.”

D’Ora saw the teacher’s lip quiver and felt bad for her.

“Really?” the social work lady had said. “That’s great if you’ve got the Now, but I am going to challenge you anyway because I don’t think you’ve got it as much as you think you do.”

The other lady had leaned back in her chair. “Bring it on.”

The social work lady had started off by asking them all to breathe. Breathe into your bellies. Watch the breath. Be with the breath.

There were snorts and giggles, but most everyone tried.

The rest of class had been filled with breathing and closing eyes and imagining things.

At the end of the hour the lady had asked them how they felt. D’Ora felt like she wanted to take a nap, but she didn’t talk in situations like this so she kept that to herself. The teacher was looking at the ornery lady.

“I’m not going to lie; I do feel good. A little bit calmer. So maybe what you are talking about is being in the Now with your own damn self instead of losing that to someone else?”

The social worker lady’s face glowed.

“Exactly. You’ve got this.”

*

By the time D’Ora has run the three blocks from the bus stop to the courthouse she is sweaty and breathing hard. She’s carrying her blue jacket and is down to her tiny party dress and yard sale sneakers. Everything else is in the canvas bag that she has checked and rechecked countless times since she left the house.

There are four security guards just inside the door. Thankfully there is only one man in front of her as she puts her bag down to go through the x-ray machine.

“Please remove your phone.”

She sticks her hand in the bag and gropes around until her fingers find it. She hands it to the guard and walks through the metal detector.

“Don’t forget your items, Ma’am.” It takes her a minute to realize that he is talking to her. She grabs the phone from his hand and her bag from the belt. The nervousness is pounding inside her and her mind clouds over.

She stands in front of the marquis looking for her name or her son’s name but she doesn’t see anything and feels the panic fuel waves of nausea inside of her. She sticks her finger in her mouth forcing herself to calm.

Judges’ names and times are listed on a whiteboard in front of the marquis.

What was the judge’s name? Something to do with eyes.

The whiteboard could be written in math. Nothing makes sense. Her mind tries to hook on the numbers and letters and what they mean.

“Can I help you?” asks the security guard who told her to get her stuff.

D’Ora’s finger works its way out of her mouth.

“My son’s case. I can’t find it.” Panic rises up wide in her voice.

“Do you know the judge’s name?”

“I can’t remember. Something to do with eyes.”

The man smiles. “Fishburn.”

“Yes! Why did I think eyes?”

“Fisheye. You’re not the first person to make that connection. Judge Fishburn is out today so you’ve got Judge Matthews who is doubling up.” He points the whiteboard where it says Matthews (sitting in for Fishburn).

“I’m late. My dog died. I was late for the bus.” She looks up at the clock on the wall. 2:05.

“What time is your hearing?”

“1:20.”

“You may be lucky – probably are since they’re doubled up — they may be running late. 4D. Elevators are right there.”

She knows the elevators well.

Her thank you is on the move to the stairs. She squeezes the canvas bag tight under her arm and sprints up.

*

3:49. A fix right now would fix it all. Someone in jail had said that and while corny, it is a line that comes to her at the worst times.

Click click click of shoes on tile reminds her of her court shoes. Sit down and pull out hope in spiky blue shoes; she’s already wearing hope in an American blue jacket.

Too bad she didn’t have a matching white suit like the lady on TV this morning.

“We’re not allowed choice,” Phil had told her right around the time she started to realize things were not right with him.

“Everything is choice,” she had said.

“Nothing is choice. We are doomed and destined to succeed or fail. Nothing more, nothing less.”

The twist in her gut comes back and she gets up to go to the bathroom. It takes several steps to reacquaint herself with her shoes. Halfway down the hall she remembers the canvas bag and goes back for it in small click click steps.

In the bathroom she sits down on the toilet and collapses the full weight of her tiny self, feeling more alone than she can bear. The thought of the dying dog comes to mind and a sob escapes her. Not the beginning of crying, more the release of pain.

The doors on the toilet stalls are shiny, black, and heavy. They are the doors of a classier place and she wonders why they’ve bothered to put money into courthouse bathrooms.

For the lawyers, Marta would say.

She wishes Marta were here. The last time Marta came with her and asked more questions than D’Ora could keep track of. Your attorney is working for you and you need to make sure you are asking all the right questions. D’Ora went along but she had no idea what to ask or what to do. The worst part about coming to court was that she felt stupid and defenseless, like a little child.

She puts her hand up against the smooth black door, lets its cool and strong soak into her.

Marta had asked the lawyer how long the charge for random drug tests would be in place. She had asked what visitation would be like between then and now – supervised or not. Question after question. Each time D’Ora had thought, oh yeah, I would like to know that, but it never would have occurred to her to ask in the first place.

D’Ora steps out of the stall and looks at her tall self in the mirror. The jacket matches the shoes perfectly. You look professional. She tucks the canvas bag under her arm and heads out of the bathroom.

People fill the halls in seated clumps. She feels their eyes on her.

They are wondering whose lawyer I am. I even have the bag for it.

“Daddy why is she wearing those shoes?”

“Ssssh. There is no room for judgment in the Lord’s eyes.”

D’Ora looks down as she walks toward an empty bench.

You are shit. You cannot keep a child safe. You cannot even keep a dog alive.

Words swirl around her like a noose, pull tighter and tighter.

You have no business here.

D’Ora looks around her. Almost everyone is there with someone. Most of the benches are filled. People stand together and talk. She is an island. Her lawyer had come out just after she had arrived and checked in with the bailiff. She said the judge had already called her, but because of so many people, he would see her at the end. It would be a wait, but she was good. The lawyer had tried to be nice, but she heard the judgment. She knew she didn’t believe her about the dog dying.

D’Ora is done waiting. She doesn’t care that she is sitting in front of a courtroom. She opens her canvas bag and pulls out her tiny black sneakers. Takes off her beautiful blue shoes and places them inside the bag alongside her folders and phone and wallet. She slips her feet inside the sneakers, even though it means pulling up her leg and resting her foot on the bench in a short dress. She doesn’t care.

She takes off her jacket and shoves it in the bag so that it is fat and uncomfortable to carry. She puts it down on the bench next to her.

The young boy who noticed her shoes sits across the hall from her staring and she resists the urge to flash him. She smiles instead. He looks away.

You are just a ho.

You have nothing to offer.

Walk away, baby. Walk away. With your silly bag and your click click heels. Walk away. Worthless mama. Worthless ho. Walk away.

Two well-dressed young men walk by. The one with the tight-fitting pants makes a gesture with his arms. “A lot of justice happening in here today,” he says.

D’Ora gets up. She needs to get away from the voices before she starts yelling at them. Why do they want her to suffer? She starts walking, feeling the eyes on her. Just past the bathroom and she remembers the bag. Shit. She turns around and feels the stares. Puts her finger in her mouth. Gets back to the canvas bag, untouched in those few seconds. She peers in to makes sure everything is still there. Jacket shoes paper boobs wallet phone go. She gets up a second time and turns to leave.

“D’Ora.”

Her name is in a woman’s mouth.

“D’Ora, It’s time. The judge will see you now.”




Unmastered Desires

The novel I began in September of 2010 was supposed to help me rebound. After falling for someone for the first time in 2001, I’d gradually badgered him into blocking my calls. The novel was supposed to help me stop calling his voicemail. It was supposed to have been about some other gay black guy, not me, who’d fallen for his straight white friend. Projecting my hurt onto some other hapless snow queen was supposed to have helped me get over it. I worked on that novel until January of 2019, nine years later, much longer than it probably should have taken to finish my first. I try not to think the book took so long because I needed that much time to recover, but that could be the case. Having desired something that much shames me, is the bitter Anne Carson details in Eros, the Bittersweet.

In its nine years of making, the novel had sometimes justified itself, had sometimes convinced me it was worth my attention and long suffering. I’d known early in the process I was working to forge tools I felt I needed for surviving. I didn’t want to be a victim to my desire, to the legacies of white supremacy and internalized homophobia. I didn’t want to be so susceptible to the beauty of white boys, to their cruelty and blitheness and charm.

I always told people that I’d begun in 2010 (it was easier to log the years by starting at zero), but the themes of the project had already been with me for sometime by then, had germinated from reading I’d done as an undergrad in 2005, begun taking shape at least as far back as when I’d been safely ensconced enough within black community at Howard to acknowledge my desire for someone unattainable, peering directly at his whiteness, at his class status, trying to understand what that had to do with the straight white guys in the gay porn I was watching, the paramours of Bobby Garcia and David Hurles, those self-immolating gay neurotics profiled by John Waters in Role Models. And before that even, there’d been my pre-pubescent marathons of Disney’s The Mighty Ducks, too innocent to perceive much beyond a nascent guilt for the titillation I felt for the villainously privileged rival hockey team the Hawks, for the character Adam Banks, for the suburban Americana of Brett Kavanaugh or those boys from Covington Catholic High School. Beyond recovering from the rupture of my first unrequited love, in writing this novel, I’d set myself to excavating my entire life, all the things I’d felt as a working class gay black boy wanting access to whiteness and privilege and mobility and been unable to say.

At first I had thought it’s just their bodies, the disregard this society allows straight white men because they’re powerful enough to demand we avert our eyes from them, the casual neglect that makes catholic school boys appear as though they’re always bursting out of their clothes, their bodies developing so rapidly after the annual school shopping is done and so privileged they can be careless enough to do nothing about it. I liked their nonchalant pose, and I liked claiming my right to objectify them for a change.

But by year six or seven of working at the project, I’d begun to feel embarrassed about the duration of my efforts. I consoled myself by considering these years my apprenticeship, but privately I feared I’d erred in allowing the market to convince me to begin my writing career with a novel, that I’d undertaken a project that exceeded my ability in order to flatter my own ego. Maybe I’d mistakenly insisted on working with such myopic focus, at the exclusion of any other creative work, because I was unused to the necessary perishability of drafts. Maybe I’d treated my work too preciously. Maybe the novel was not the material’s natural form, as I’d begun defensively arguing in public. Maybe I was still trying to impress the boy I’d fallen for and could not have, to exhibit the depth of my ardour.

The rise of the short story in the years I worked at the novel only further pointed to egotism, that I’d too hastily disregarded the short form in order to satisfy my vanity. Literary success had meant submitting a novel first, and the love I was recovering from deserved success. Brevity had felt less serious, less rigorous. Now it appeared I’d shirked essential craft training and working ideas to their conclusion by only working to attract an agent’s notice or to establish myself as a writer. Or worse, I’d been over-indulging in reminiscence because I couldn’t let him go.

I’d been 25, and I was 34 all of a sudden. Whole years were now gone, as were some friends. I wasn’t young anymore, no longer possessed of whatever physical beauty might have been the particular provenance of my youth, could no longer hope to trade on that currency. It was as if Love, incarnate, the being Frank Bidart conjures in Desire, had been eating away at me.

“…anyone awaking to consciousness who finds himself incapable of obeying – or at least giving lip-service to – imposed conventions of behavior is forced into the labor of self-articulation through desire, experiencing painful torsions and painful results,” Helen Vender wrote of Bidart’s work in The New York Review of Books. “The young and intellectual Bidart … afraid to come out as gay until his parents died, and enthralled by art from his adolescence – had to invent a path of his own beyond the theological and social constraints of his family.” I’d had no idea how long this process would in fact take.

Instead, I’d reveled in this work of self-articulation, found a kind of happiness Bidart describes thusly: “you embrace one of the two species of / happiness, the sensation of / surrender, because at the same instant // you embrace the other, the sensation of power:–”. The pleasure of desiring these kids was excruciating, the surrender to all that privilege, the abnegation of offering my black body for a white guy’s consumption.

I wrote things like this:

“All the myths about the physical prowess of black men were just societal compensation, a way of granting black men some measure of dignity, not wanting to ever concede how vulnerable he actually was. It seemed distasteful to acknowledge his vulnerability, gratuitous somehow, even if that’s what he wanted, a way of signaling his frailty. No one ever granted him this, because the consensus was that he should never be seen this way, that the truth of it would somehow break him, defile his manhood in some irreparable way. They made him a warrior instead, a boogeyman, an athlete, everything but what he actually was, a simpering wound.

“For this reason bottoming, getting fucked, for him, was a political act. Taking it from a white guy was all the more potent. It was why he felt so righteously justified beseeching it from straight white guys, those who considered themselves friends or allies especially, why he pursued it so relentlessly, being prostrate before them. He did it to defy the compensation that had been offered him, all the glancing respect that was granted his hulking black male body. He wanted the truth instead, the lashes, the puncture, he wanted to see the knife plunged into his flesh, the enlivening gore of the slasher flick.

“That’s why he sometimes got too insistent, made a spectacle of being a ho, of wanting it so bad, to be banged, pounded out, bust open, to be held down and spread apart and riven by cock.”

The glee I took in writing passages like that–mannered and expository to escape the shame of the ideas, but with eruptions of foul-mouthed vernacular–felt almost as good as having had a white boy to desire. But parsing those sentences over and over, trying to find the lyricism in them, to make them both erudite and filthy, replaced pursuing new love interests in my real life, and I begin to fear that I’d grown too comfortable in this stasis, forever at work on the same ideas. Maybe that’s what I’d really wanted all along, to freeze myself in an ecstatic moment. Like Bidart’s Myrrha, I longed for this novel to, “Make me nothing / humannot alive, not dead.” 

“Man experiences his abandonment in anguish,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. “Fleeing his freedom and subjectivity, he would like to lose himself within the Whole: here is the origin of his cosmic and pantheistic reveries, of his desire for oblivion, sleep, ecstasy, and death. He never manages to abolish his separated self: at the least, he wishes to achieve the solidity of the in-itself, to be petrified in thing…”

Somewhere within those nine years, the gods, as Bidart wrote of Myrrha in Desire, had granted my request:

“…From her toes roots

sprout; the dirt rises to cover her
feet; her legs of which she never had been
ashamed grow thick and hard; bark like disease
covers, becomes her skin; with terror she
sees that she must
submit, lose her body to an alien
body not chosen, as the source of ecstasy is
not chosen—

suddenly she is eager to submit: as the change

rises and her blood becomes
sap, her long arms long branches, she cannot bear
the waiting: she bends her face
downward, plunging her face into the rising

tree, her tears new drops glistening everywhere on its surface:—”

By choosing to write what I knew, I’d indirectly begun making myself into something fixed, and I feared I might never be able to let go. I’d learned this process of mimesis as a child, sketching comic book characters with my big brother from 90s era Rob Liefield comic book cards. I never drew the characters as they were, combining them, or granting them some new super power, costume or hairstyle, in order to more fully possess them. By drawing them, I’d been making them mine. But the ecstatic feelings of longing I’d been working to cinch off, and also retain somehow, had begun turning me, like a tree, into an involuntarily celibate, an uncomfortable recognition I made while reading Amia Srinivasan’s essay for the London Review of Books “Does anyone have the right to sex?” Resigning myself to contemplating straight white bros rather than pushing myself to date gay men began to feel like a human failure, whether I would have to eventually face artistic failure or not.

The process of remaking myself or the object of my desire began to frighten me, learning the moral danger of objectification, a creeping horror Phillipa Snow describes from the film Vertigo. “Prior to his rendezvous with Judy, we see Scottie roam the streets of San Francisco looking for a girl who looks enough like a dead blonde mirage. The act of looking is the very thing in Vertigo, the source of all pleasure and pain, of sickness and joy… He looks, and looks, and looks. He fills himself with looking, like a drug, until the looking is disorienting. All the looking turns to wanting. Wanting, for a man who looks at women, often turns to taking.”

Fear drove me to complete the novel finally, if only to let it go. I took less joy in discovering some new insight about straight white masculinity, or finding some new way to say it. I zoomed out from the sentence level, only wanting to look at paragraphs and scenes. Searching for plot helped me escape those nine years.

Anne Carson wisely catalogues the effect of eros in Eros, the Bittersweet, in a chapter entitled “The Takeover.” “Eros comes out of nowhere, on wings, to invest the lover, to deprive his body of vital organs and material substance, to enfeeble his mind and distort its thinking, to replace normal conditions of health and sanity with disease and madness. The poets represent eros as an invasion, an illness, an insanity, a wild animal, a natural disaster.” I recognized this invasion, had prolonged it in fact, by working to record it once the thing itself had burnt out. 

But this impression she juxtaposes with Sokrates, who lauds eros as an enlivening force. “As Sokrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That intersection is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom, and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it you come into contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way. You perceive what you are, what you lack, what you could be… A mood of knowledge floats out over your life. You seem to know what is real and what is not. Something is lifting you toward an understanding so complete and clear it makes you jubilant. This mood is no delusion, in Sokrates’ belief. It is a glance into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.” This too I had come to know, despite having spent years broke and sexless, raving about my right to sex the way I wanted it.

By the time the novel was completed, I looked back over those nine years, and felt embittered by desire. I held to the urgency I’d felt at the outset of the project, wanting to honor the young man I’d been, who’d believed himself so illegible to the wider world, to the white guys he desired, even in a city as big as New York. But that consolation felt brittle. I had to repair it constantly. And I already felt so tired, from what desire had demanded of me.




Litro Desire Issue: Summer


Cover design Noa Gravesky

Table of Contents

Summer 2019

The Editor’s Letter
Eric Akoto

Guest Editor’s Introductory Note
Ira Silverberg

Nadia Owusu- “A Good Mask
Chika Onyenezi – “Complicated Blues
Lawrence Schimel – “Fresh Sheets and Five other short stories
Frederick McKindra – “Unmastered Desires
Ingrid Norton – “Into the Pleroma
Laila Halaby – “Court
Leah Dworkin – “The Little Mermaid
Hannah Seidlitz – “Homebound”




Fresh Sheets and 5 other short shorts

Picture Credits: Jon Jordan

Writing Exercise 

The exercise for our fourth class was to describe a tattoo. I chose one I have on my calf, an eagle with its wings extended, describing its shape, location, when I had it done, etc. After half an hour, we had to put our pencils down even if we hadn’t finished. The professor asked for volunteers to read what we’d written out loud. I felt proud of my description, but I was also too shy to talk in public. That’s why it was Nando who read his exercise: 

Thirsty. It made me thirsty to watch the drop of sweat that was balancing at the top of the hill formed by his biceps, as if the tribal tattoo encircling his arm were holding it in place. He lowered the hand holding the 20-pound weight and the droplet slipped free, sliding slowly down his skin until disappearing into the valley of his elbow. I wanted to follow that path with my tongue, attempting to trap those salty drops, sate my thirst with them.

Our gazes met in the mirror. I was holding a 2-pound weight in each hand, standing next to him, but without exercising. I was looking at him, and he realized it. My throat was dry. I wanted to say something to him. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. My mind could only formulate a single word: “Thirsty.”

He was the one who broke the ice: “Nice tattoo,” he said.

I’d never paid attention to him before that. It never even crossed my mind to wonder if he was gay or not. But now, I not only wanted to break my pencil and throw out what I’d written, I was dying to take him to bed. Or wherever. Because in spite of his normal, even boring, physical appearance, with that kind of imagination … it was sure to be something worth writing about afterwards.

*

Fresh Sheets 

Even though Juanjo was still brushing his teeth, I got undressed, leaving my clothes in the basket, and climbed in between the fresh sheets on the bed. I always changed the linens on Saturdays, even when I had to work second shift, like today, so I’d changed them that morning, while Juanjo was making fruit pancakes for breakfast. I turned the washing machine on first thing so I could hang everything up to dry before I left for work. And now, after a long day, I was finally stretched out in bed.

All of a sudden, I felt something scratchy on my side. I slid over and saw a white line that was already dry; it made its way across the cotton and disappeared beneath my body.

I started getting hard as soon as I saw it. I began stroking myself slowly with one hand while I waited for my husband to come to bed and told him: “Why don’t you tell me about your afternoon, mi amor.”

*

Cat-sitter 

You have to jiggle the key until you find the sweet spot, but I finally manage to open the door. One of the cats is waiting for me right on the other side of the landing, but when it sees that it’s me and not my friend, their owner, it turns around and disappears into the apartment. I go inside and close the door, setting my things on the hallway table.

I feel strange, as if I were doing something illicit.

I pour more dry food into their bowl, give them fresh water, clean the litter box that’s in the bathroom.

My friend asked me to give them some TLC as well—this is the part that makes me feel weird. I sit on her bed, imagining they’ll come. I assume it’ll take a while. While I wait, I look around the room. There’s a basket of dirty clothes, and on top, there’s a pair of boxer shorts. They’re her boyfriend’s. She went to Palencia with him, they’re spending Semana Santa with his parents. The cats don’t come. I stand up and go over to the basket. I take the boxers and bring them to my nose: yes, they still smell like him. That pleasant scent of the sweet sweat of his balls.

My dick’s hard. I inhale again, touching myself.

When I open my eyes, the cats are standing there, watching me.

Good thing they can’t tell my friend.

*

Barista

I was ordering a coffee when I got distracted.

He was tall and imposing, and he knew it.

I wasn’t the only one watching him make his way across the cafeteria to the door, we were all absorbing every detail: the biceps emphasized by the sleeve of his form-fitting t-shirt, his broad back and narrow waist forming a perfect triangle, his tight ass. An extraordinary specimen of masculinity.

When I looked back at the barista, he was watching me contemplate that super stud with a smile and waiting for me to finish ordering.

“Sorry,” I said, blushing so hard I was sure my face was the color of a beet.

“No worries,” the barista said. “He’s a sight for sore eyes, that’s for sure, but I bet he’s super boring in the sack.”

If possible, I blushed even harder.

“Why do you think?”

“I can figure out a lot about people by what they order and how they order. You just have to take a look at him to know that he spends his whole life rejecting pleasure: with his diet, the hours in the gym, the supplements and everything he takes to achieve and maintain that body. And he ordered a decaf cappuccino with skim milk and saccharine instead of sugar. Is that kind of artificial combination even worth ordering? In any case, it’s a clear sign of wanting everything but being afraid to enjoy it.”

On the one hand, I was paying attention to what he was telling me, but on the other, I was wondering what the drink I had begun to order said about me.

“But then, take a guy like that one over there as an example,” he pointed at a bear sitting all alone at a table. “He ordered a café con leche, totally normal. But he also ordered a chocolate brownie, and when I asked him if he wanted it with whipped cream, he said: ‘Why not?’ That’s the type of guy who’s not afraid of enjoying the pleasures of life. I’m sure he’d be fun in bed. He’d give himself over completely to whatever he was doing.”

I continued observing the guy. I wouldn’t have looked at him before then, but now that I was paying attention, the truth is that he was kind of attractive. He was dressed in a plaid shirt, his beard was well groomed and enhanced the lines of his face, framing his smile. He wasn’t fat, but he was heavy-set. What Yiddish grandmothers always call “zaftig,” which I had never understood until now. He was zaftig.

When I turned back to the barista, he was watching how I was examining that nicely husky guy.

I started blushing again.

“Did you want anything else with your cortado?”

“I changed my mind,” I said, trying to keep my voice under control, even though I couldn’t suppress a smile. “Give me a café con leche. And a chocolate brownie, por favor.”

Then I took the tray and, even though there were a lot of empty tables in the cafeteria, I approached the table where the bear was sitting and asked him: “Is this seat taken?”

*

Lost Cat

There was a xeroxed sign with a photo of a cat posted all over Chueca. The third time I saw it, I stopped to read it:

MISSING

BLACK AND WHITE CAT

HIS NAME IS METEORITE

HIS OWNER IS A TOP

WITH AN 8” DICK

I searched the whole neighborhood, but there wasn’t a single tear-off phone number for the cat’s owner left on any of the posters.

*

The Multiverse

There are philosophers who say that the world splits in two with every decision, like branching paths, and as a result there are millions and millions of parallel universes. I want to live in that other universe, the one where I kissed you instead of holding back out of fear it would destroy our friendship.




Complicated Blues

Picture Credits: capt_tain Tom

Dear John,

If you go to West Alabama Street in Houston, there is a bar called Ice House. Find it. Ask for the pretty brown girl that worked there in the summer of 2014. She was always smiling. If she is there, they will tell you. If not, they will tell you where to find her. If she is there, ask her if she still remembers me. If not, buy a drink and leave. I guess by now she must have graduated from college and moved to another city. She might still be there. Still serving drinks. Still smiling. Still curious. Her slender arms holding jugs of beer and walking from customer to costumer. The very first day I set my eyes on her, something in me was awakened. I became alive with a deep feeling down my soul.

I was always playing billiard and winning, and smoking, and laughing. Always with a bottle of beer in my hand. Damn me, always jolly, John. Always Jolly. I was always watching her instead of the game; the way she waved she arms in the air when the Russian soccer team scored a goal against their opponents, the way she smiled, made me look out for her all the time. Every record of her beauty is stored in the damp registers of my mind. She became my reason to wake up every day even without her knowing. Just the thought of her brought a certain kind of joy to me. You understand what I am talking about John, right? Have you ever felt something like this?

“You ever played soccer before?” I asked her one day.

“Yes, in High School. I love soccer,” she replied.

I wanted to ask her another question, but she got called by the manager. A few minutes later, I saw her again. She kept walking around, with an opener stuck in her back pocket. I watched her open beers for men that laughed hysterically. I watched her laugh with the manager. The way she smiled at him nearly made me jealous. Even though I didn’t know who she was, yet I was beginning to feel jealous. A part of me wanted her all for myself.

“Everything ok?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

John, if you know a thing about hippies and Houston, then you would know about this bar, it is rad. Even dogs came here for a beer. All the travelers looking for celestial sanctuary or twisted Nirvana came here too. For some reason, the feeling around this bar was out of this world. The Russians beat the Spanish soccer team that day. I played billiard with my roommate who always accompanied me to see games. I paid for my drinks. I tipped her. I smiled and she smiled back. I left.

I and my roommate came back home drunk and mused over her beauty. I know that was crazy, but we couldn’t help it. Ignoring it was like seeing a rose flower for the first time, smelling it, and saying it isn’t nice. I just can’t imagine forgetting it. I told him that she made me feel alive. My roommate said I couldn’t even talk to her. He laughed at me.

He sat there playing a video game, talking about fast cars, cards, and a rich dad in Pennsylvania. His spectacle perched on his nose. He was a rich and spoilt American boy with a trust fund. Dear lord, he never bothered to even find a job. For me, I struggled from month to month to pay my part of the rent and stay afloat. But then, he was a kind man, a very good man. Once in a while, he paid for the beers, bought groceries, or planned a trip, without asking me for a dime. Other times, he told me stories about rich America kids in Ivy League colleges like The University of Pennsylvania.

Rich Americans don’t talk too much about being rich Americans, they just be it. They rock it, silently. Rich Americans go for investments like real estates, buying stocks, buying gold bars, collecting rare coins, collecting rare art works, and whatever cliché that can solidify their place for generations to come. We spent some weekends gambling in the most expensive casinos in St. Charles, Louisiana, just by the beach. He had a sport car, and I swear, he never went gentle on the pedals.

“Man, I bet you can’t talk to that girl, man,” he said.

“Dude, you think I am scared of her or what?” I asked.

“Go get her, she is beautiful. If you get that girl, I will give five hundred dollars. I am saying it for the second time.”

“Man, she is too beautiful to be placed on a bet. I will get her because I like her, and you will see,” I said.

Down the road, along my street, you could taste the greatest burritos on four wheels ever made by human hands. I swear, people traveled double-digit miles just to taste the hand work of these chef goddesses – two Mexican woman dishing heavenly meals on wheel. If I ever make it back to Houston, I will find that truck. It was another evening of a great burritos savory. The sun was high and falling down the horizon. The air was humid, and hot. I walked across the street, made a left and found myself at the bar again. There she was bartending. I sat on the stool and smiled at her. She smiled back at me. She could tell that I liked her by the way I looked at her. I asked for a beer. I watched her grab a Heineken and opened it for me. I looked around, people were playing billiard, drinking, laughing, and having a good time. I bent my head and began to scribble nothing on a paper.

I got bored, went over to the billiard board to play. I played with a tall guy that had a deep southern accent. He kept drinking, playing, and chalking his pool cue. He talked as if his life depended on it, he hardly slowed down. Soon, I learnt that he had moved from Arkansas to start his internship here in Houston. I swear, in a few minutes, I knew about him. I watched her pass while I listened. I potted the black ball and walked away to smoke. I stood by at the corner of the bar and lit a cigarette. I felt open. I felt new. For some reason, I felt sickened at the same time. There was something sickening about smoking, yet I couldn’t stop doing it.

“Light,” she said.

“Sure,” I said, and removed my lighter and lit her cigarette.

“Are you on break?” I asked her. My words were a little disjointed. My mouth wobbly, almost. Like I was afraid of her beauty or something. I felt like what I wanted was now before me and yet I had nothing to say to her. She took the first drag and waved her hair back with her long fingers.

“So, where are you from? You are always here, and I can tell you are not from here,” she said.

“Ghana,” I said.

“The play good soccer, too,” she said.

“Yes we do. It’s something we grow up doing. Our game is tomorrow, will you be here?” I asked.

“Sure.”

“So, you like working here?” I asked.

“Yes, I do. It pays the bills and helps with college, too,” she said, her eyebrows lifted up rhythmically.

“Which college do you go to?” I asked.

“Rice University.”

“I always hang out there with my friends. There is a great bar there, Valhalla. I go there almost every Saturday. I think it will be great to meet you there,” I said.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she said.

“The great thing about the place is that you will meet the coolest people in Houston. Travelers meet there, too. We talk about the beauty of the world, and all that existence stuff. There is something in you that is looking for the outside world. A beautiful curiosity. Trust me, we have all the good stories there,” I said, looking into her eyes as if I was sure of her curiosity. I was sure. I could smell curiosity from miles away.

“Cool, then I will come. I am not promising anything though,” she said.

“No problem, I will be expecting you. Take my phone number, and text me.”

I called my phone number out for her and she sent me a text message immediately. I saved her number.

“My name is Ken,” I said.

“Chloë.”

“Nice to meet you Chloë.”

She wasn’t the kind of girl who laughed all the time. She was the kind that knew exactly what she wanted. It was in her eyes, right there. The way she smiled wasn’t to attract or please any one, it was filled with self-sufficiency and a lot of confidence. She was the kind of girl that enjoyed her own company. Her character wasn’t veiled, she was plain. I could tell certain things about her just by watching her walk away. The strangeness of our conversations stayed with me even minutes after she left. Her words roamed in the soft parts of my heart. Dear John, I still feel her in my heart.

That day, I left the bar punching my fist into the air. I was happy. I felt like I had conquered myself. She was worth it. When I got home, I told my roommate about our conversation. I told him that she would join us in our meeting at Valhalla.

*

Valhalla was Funky, and surreal. The trees bent slightly across the veranda and towards us. Squirrels followed the branches to take a nut our fingers. Jake was there. Steve was there. Then my roommate, Andrew, came with his girls, Anna. Jake owned a fine art studio in Houston. Very smart guy. He was also an investor and had business online making money for him. Steve was from Pakistan and wore all the expensive designers he could lay his hands on. He looked like Elvis Presley, and wore the same hairstyle like Elvis Presley. He played the guitar and hosted us at his place sometimes. At Valhalla, we talked about everything: race, life, death, space, matter, mundane, solitude, dance, sex, wild parties, catholic, guns, and whatever. Sometimes, college girls often charmed by our conversations joined in. We were open to talk about whatever came to our head. Valhalla taught us that we belonged to something bigger without being part of it. College students flanked us. Big academic departments flanked us. The heaven flanked us. Mowed lawns flanked us. Beer, cigarette, and good time with the smartest minds in Houston. While we talked, I constantly looked out for Chloë, hoping that by some miracle she would appear. I was really expecting her.

My roommate and John talked about their day’s college. They laughed loudly and drank ale.

“Man, I wrestled when I was in college,” Andrew said.

“That’s a gay sport,” Jake said.

“I was thinking that too,” Andrew said, and looked at his girlfriend. We all laughed.

“Why is it that only Americans see extraterrestrial life?” Steve said while patting his hair. He pats that hair almost every three minutes.

“Men that’s true. Honestly, growing up in Ghana, we never talked about that shit or thought about it,” I said, and we laughed.

“In Paki too. That shit is like an American thing,” Steve said.

“If you really want to critically look at it, maybe they do visit Africa. Maybe they are called something else. I don’t know if I believe in it either, but I know that Americans are too deep into that shit,” Andrew said.

“You know that biggest research to find out if anyone is out there is on the way. Stephen Hawkins is leading the team,” Jake said.

“Man, I am tired of this world. I just want to go to Mars or somewhere, and stop bothering myself about Andrew,” his girlfriend said, smiling at him.

They were deeply in love. She kissed him, and we laughed.

“You will go to Mars without me?” Andrew asked.

“I would definitely take you there. But, don’t you get bored with being on earth sometimes?” she asked.

Andrew’s girlfriend was the only girl hanging out with us all the time. She had gotten used to our frequent existential debates and cross-examination of life kind-of-talk. She once camped with us in the middle of a desert in Arizona. She knew all the corners of Houston, even at night. Houston was better viewed at night, the lights shining gallantly into the sky, and the light rail buzzing through the heart of the city.

“How real is real, how true is true. How do you know that what you feel right now is real?” John asked. John was a slower talker. He always asked difficult questions about reality and the nature of reality. Most of these reflected in his works as an artist. Mostly paintings and carvings.

Chloë appeared from Valhalla bar with a glass of beer in her hand. She smiled and walked towards us. I stood up and hugged her.

“Friends, this is Chloë,” I said and looked at them, “Chloë, this is Stan. John. My roommate, Andrew and his girlfriend, Mercy,” I said.

She shook their hands and said “hi” to them. She joined us. We stole glances at each other from time to time.

“Chloë, what do you think about multiple dimensions?” Jake asked.

First, she was puzzled to hear that. It was the least question she expected anyone to ask her.

“Hmmm, you guys are way too deep into science,” she said.

“Man, she might not be interested in the kind of topic we are used to here,” I said, trying to defend her.

“Dimension to me is like an alternate reality…what we see might be a repetition, a sequence…” she said. She talked about all the beautiful things on dimension and even told us about her interest in astrophysics. She was a good fit for our world. Not just intellectually, she matched us beer to beer.

She was her own self, her own world, her own mind, her own decisions. I swear that that made me want her more. We all got drunk and talked trashed until the moon came out and we left. We all drove to my place. Chloë agreed to come with us. When we got home, we talked about heavens, and cherubim, and seraphim, and all the holy angels of heaven. We got high on weed, and shared a smoking pipe among us. We laughed and told personal stories about ourselves. Chloë and I sat together, by the window. We looked at each other more often. We could tell that there was more to us than just ordinary friendship.

When everyone left, she stayed back. We smoked a bit more and got higher than the statue of liberty. We began to kiss, gently. Soon, we fell on my bed and began to make love. When we finished, I watched her. She looked more beautiful than ever. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting things to come together this fast. But, I was in my kind of Nirvana, loving her. We lay on the bed, tired. We looked at each other with great admiration and respect. We smiled at nothing but our hands touching each other’s hair.

“I didn’t know it was going to end like this. I have never done this kind of thing before,” she said.

“I believe you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or not done. What matters is the why? Why did we do it? Because you love me. I love you, and I want you in my life,” I said.

“I am a complicated woman,” she said.

“I am complicated man, too,” I said.

We laughed.

“I love how minimal everything in your room is. Almost empty, just exactly what you need to live and survive. Even when you speak, your choice of words is minimal. You like space. The subject of space is big for you. Everything is spaced out, evenly, almost mathematically. Then the blue jar, what’s in it?” she asked. Her eyes caught the small blue jar by my window.

“Let’s see,” I said.

We walked naked to the blue jar. She touched it. She gently ran her fingers across the white lines across it. She lifted it up and examined it carefully. Each line. Each shade of age. She placed it back again.

“My grandfather sculpted this with his own hands. He did all the designs himself,” I said.

She ran her beautiful finger around it again, but this time, she was gentler. The art was profound and represented the existential values of my people. The jar stored sand. Sand passed across centuries to which each son of my father leaving home must carry with him. Sand to remind me of home. She dipped her hands in it and raised sand. Brown fine sand. She poured them back.

“This is earth, my grandfather gave me earth. To carry earth with me is to carry my home with me. Home is always with me,” I said.

She stood there, watching the sand. She admired it. I went to the fridge and brought two bottles of beer for the both of us. We drank and started having sex again. Home stood before us in the blue jar, watching.

After that day, we saw each other almost every day. She would often drop by my place before going home at night. Sometimes, she spent the night. She also became part of our Valhalla crew, and joined our weekend conversations. I swear that everything about her was lovely, and near perfect. I can still hear the sound of her voice deep down my heart. The way she says my name, like calypso beckoning on sailors.

*

Today, it was just the two of us at Valhalla. It was just the two of us staring at each other in disbelief. She was a special kind of girl, and wasn’t the type to compromise what she believed in. She told me that she would never go into long-distance relationship. I looked around. Everything was against me. The city I made home didn’t feel like home anymore. Home was with me, in a jar.

“I am leaving,” I said.

“I never saw you as the type of man that would stay,” she said.

Even though her heart was heavy, she saw it coming from the very first day we met. I wasn’t the type of man that would stay.

“I have always wanted to live by the sea. This is an opportunity for me to do that now,” I said.

“Yes, it is. But you know where I stand,” she said.

“Yes I do. Where you stand is beautiful and complicated too. But I believe that you understand everything there is to understand. I can’t be here forever. The urge to see something new is something I can’t stop having. I need to see all there is to see in this world. If I come back and find you, I will marry,” I said.

“No, you will not. But write to me nonetheless, traveler. Your kind never visits the same place twice unless there is earth,” she said.

“Then I will give you earth,” I said.

“The earth is a lot of price for you to pay,” she said.

“I will pay it, even if I don’t come back, let it be that I loved you this much and if there is ever another reality apart from this, we will share it together,” I said.

That night, we walked together to the park across the street and made love by the pond while watching goldfishes swim. There, time became a lacuna and made us live in bliss. As empty as we were, we kept staring into each other’s eyes. She went home because she didn’t want to be there to see me leave. She cried on her doorway. I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t. I needed the new job offer, and I needed to go.

The next morning, I was ready to go start a new life. I was ready to drive away from the city. I was ready to feel something new. I lifted the jar and looked at it again. Chloë gave me home. She gave me love. She gave me something greater than sand and art. I drove to her apartment and dropped the blue jar at her doorstep. I heard her sobbing inside and it killed me. I quickly ran out, got into the car and drove away and out of Houston. If you find her, tell her that I still care. Tell that I never wrote again because I wasn’t sure if it was for the best. I’ve never been sure of most things in my life. Tell her, that I still love her.

Thank you, John.
Peace.




A Good Mask by Nadia Owusu

Picture Credits: John Vasilopoulos

It is four in the morning and I must prepare to recede. My weekdays begin with self-exorcism. Name, shame, secrete, wash, wipe clean, wring dry, sanitize. What I can’t expunge, I conceal. I blur and disguise.

My name is Adwoa Nyamekye Stella Darko. Adwoa, in Twi, means girl child born on Monday. Nyamekye means God’s gift. Stella was my half-white grandmother: my father’s mother. I remember her cold palms on my cheeks, her green eyes staring into mine, her London accent: “Well, you’re a naughty girl, aren’t you? Good. Better naughty than boring. But you mustn’t be naughty in public.” To her friends, she introduced me as her American granddaughter. My father, at eighteen, had moved to New York for university, had met my American mother, had me, became an American citizen. Americans, my grandmother said, are loud and obvious. She told me to always sit properly, like a lady, at school and at birthday parties, and to sit how I bloody well pleased at home with my family and closest girlfriends. She never left the house without a full face of makeup.

“We all need a good mask, we black women” my grandmother warned me. When I was a little girl and my father and I visited her in Kingsbury, in the council flat where my father grew up, she let me sip from her gin and tonics. The bitter cocktail, she said, was our reward for surviving another day in a white man’s world. She was a secretary in a law office. All the lawyers were white men. Once, she took me to work with her and I heard one lawyer call her pet and another call her poppet. It confused me that she made their tea, fetched their files, smiled at them sweetly. At home, she was boss. At home, her smile was cheeky and knowing. I was eleven when she died. She left me her wedding ring: a single pearl on a gold band. I wear it, always, on my index finger, never take it off. Her husband, my grandfather, died a year after my father was born. He was from Ghana, had moved to London for medical school.

“I was supposed to be a surgeon’s wife,” my grandmother often told me. “Wasn’t supposed to work another day in my life once my husband graduated. It just goes to show.” She never said what it went to show.

My grandmother gave me my crooked bottom teeth, the dent in my chin, her name. At work, I am just Stella. Stella is easy to pronounce, untroublesome.

The first thing I do in the morning is take two Advil for my hangover. My nightly reward of choice is red wine. Most nights, I drink half a bottle.

I drink in the tub and on the couch as I watch, first the white housewives, and then the black ones, tear each other apart. They behave horribly in public. They pull off each other’s wigs and flip tables in restaurants, their faces ugly with rage and jealousy. Their fame and wealth shields them, even the black ones. They shop at Louis Vuitton.

I drink in bed while reading Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Octavia Butler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Cusk. I drink until the words blur. Then, I brush my teeth, turn on the crickets or the tropical storm, and go to sleep.

The second thing I do in the morning is make coffee: just instant Bustello with a splash of almond milk. Today, I add a dollop of coconut oil. Outside, the streetlamps and the moon are still lit. The lights are on in the school across the street, but there are no students yet, no teachers, at least none that I can see in the windows. I aspire to that sort of fluorescent emptiness.

With my coffee, I return to my bed. Every morning, I allow myself an hour of thick, concentrated feeling. Sometimes I cry into my cup. Sometimes I gulp, let the coffee burn my tongue and throat. Sometimes I lie down, pinch and stroke my nipples until I get wet, slide my fingers into my cotton panties, into myself, shudder, shake. On those days, I drink my coffee cold. Sometimes I punch pillows, kick air until I lose my breath. If I rage, I must do so silently. The walls of my studio apartment in Brooklyn are thin and there is an elderly woman asleep next door. She usually wakes at six, as I am leaving. Most days, I hear her alarm go off, her toilet flush, her muttered prayers. At least I assume that she prays. I cannot make out the words but the rhythm is always the same. It sounds like hunger, like begging to be fed. I do not pray. Hunger is my desired state. Coffee is my only breakfast. At lunch, I have an arugula salad with sliced cherry tomatoes and olive oil. Dinner is grilled chicken and steamed vegetables.

This morning, I decide to confess my sins and mentally catalogue my regrets. From my cup, steam rises.

My original sin is also my origin story. I killed my mother. On my way out of her body and into the world, I ruptured her uterus, trespassed into her abdomen, caused a sanguine flood. From swallowing her blood, I almost drowned. The surgeons cut her open, pulled me out. My first breath required suction, resuscitation, my mother’s ruin. My father has told me, at least once a year, that I am not to blame. I was an infant, he insists, an innocent. That may well be, but it does not change that my mother died so I could live. My birth was a breach. Always, as an adult, as a precaution, I avoid intruding. In public, I wear my mask. I keep my body meager, my voice muted.

My father sued the New York hospital where I was born. His lawyer was an old friend of his: a classmate in undergrad at Yale. After college, they both got jobs at nonprofits serving black youth, but eventually they wanted to make a living. My father went back to school, got a PhD in economics at MIT. His friend went to Harvard Law. Had my mother been white, they argued in the lawsuit, the doctor would have believed her, would have saved her. Before my mother started pushing, she had insisted that something was wrong, had screamed for help. My father had squeezed her hand, had shouted at the doctor, at the nurses, that my mother was always right, that they had to listen to her. He had been ordered to calm down or leave. The doctor had wagged his finger in my father’s face. Even his nice suites and English accent, my father said, had not curtailed the doctor’s racism. I was born in 1982. Things are not better now. Still, black women die from childbirth. Still, black babies are born dead.

Black people’s pain, my father told me, is often disbelieved, dismissed, by white people. From her pain – from gritting her teeth to bear it – my mother broke an incisor. My father kept her tooth – put it in a little box in his sock drawer with my baby teeth. He lost the lawsuit against the hospital. My mother, the hospital’s lawyers successfully argued, was to blame for her own death. She had worked until her eighth month. She didn’t exercise enough, ate fried food, did nothing to manage her stress and anxiety, waited too long to have a child, had a child after having surgery to remove twenty uterine fibroid tumors. That surgery put her at risk of uterine rupture. Her job and her diet put her at risk of hypertension and diabetes. I was the risk realized. I killed her.

“The doctor knew about her fibroid surgery,” my father says. “They knew her age. They should have believed her. And, a Black woman can’t just quit her job, can’t avoid anxiety, can’t avoid stress, not in America. Your mother grew up poor. She financially supported half of her family. She always had to be excellent. America did that to her. Racism did that to her. But, they said she died because she like fried chicken.”

Half of my mother’s ashes, my father buried in a hole in the ground, under a tree on his uncle’s land in Ghana. The other half of my mother is in an urn in a columbarium in Queens, near where my mother was born and raised. Every year on her birthday, I go there and sit surrounded by the walls of remains. I never cry. I don’t know why I go, but I know I must go. Afterwards, I allow myself a milkshake. Then, at home, I stick my finger in my throat and retch myself vacant.

Another sin: I am my father’s refuge but I treat him like a burden. Being born, I killed his wife, the only woman he has ever loved. He cheated on both his second and third wives, but he claims that, to my mother, he was faithful. I choose to believe him. I am told that my mother’s love was boundless. She once gave her shoes and socks to a homeless woman and walked home barefoot in the rain. Her work was, officially, prison reform. In her journal that my father gave me when I turned eighteen, she wrote that it was not reform she was after. She wanted abolition. She believed in a world where no one was caged, where everyone was free.

When it comes to love, I am a miser. On my phone, from my father: six missed calls and three text messages, all unanswered. From his divorce from his third wife, from his drinking, from his unending grief, from his affairs with his students, I hide.

Sin: I resent my half-sister and half-brother. They are twelve and fourteen years old, respectively. I resent them their rich white mother who is alive. I resent them their beauty, their trust funds. A part of me is glad that my father cheated on their mother, that he moved out of her house in Brooklyn Heights. A part of me is glad that they too were denied the perfect family. Some weekends, I take them to the movies or to lunch. Mostly, they stare at their phones, but they tell me they love me when we say goodbye. I say it back but I’m not certain that I mean it.

Regret: When I was fourteen, a friend of my father’s stole my body from me. His tongue in my mouth, his tongue between my legs. His saliva tasted like stale cigarettes. The beat of his heart menaced my thigh. When he came up for air, unzipped his pants, slipped inside me, the look in his eye was a command: Don’t fight. Against me, his eyes said, you will not win. I did not fight to save my own body – my body that cost my mother her life. I let him take it. When my father’s friend pulled out and burst on my belly, I felt myself drained of who I was before and filled with something heavy and opaque. I carry, still, that heaviness. I carry it inside me with my fibroid tumors. Sometimes, I see my father’s friend at dinner parties. I call him uncle. He calls me sweetheart and I let him. I regret this cowardice, this complicity.

Sin: The man who stole my body has a granddaughter now. I have watched her climb into his lap. I have watched him stroke her hair. I have said nothing.

I am not finished with my confession and cataloguing when my second alarm goes off, signaling that it is time to stop feeling, time to go numb. I reach down, touch my toes, rise and inhale, flutter my lips. I shake my whole body, then I stand still until the energy settles. I survey my room to ensure that it is still spotless from last night’s cleaning. I keep my belongings to a minimum. I sweep and dust daily. It is just after five A.M.

From my head, I remove the silk scarf I sleep in and pull my hair up. I put on my shorts, sports bra, sneakers. I run four miles. The point of running is depletion and sweat. I want to lose my breath. I want to ache.

When I return, I shower in scalding water with scentless soap. After drying, I snatch my hair back into a very tight bun, gel my edges. My dark circles, my hyperpigmentation, I cover with concealer. I layer on full-coverage foundation and pressed powder. In the mirror, I make sure that I can still count my ribs through my skin. I clothe myself in all black: dress pants, button-down shirt, knee-high socks, Chelsea boots. I apply cherry Chapstick. My affirmation before I leave the apartment: I am calm and relaxed in every situation. I embrace quiet. I let go of emotions so I can see clearly. I wear my mask in public.

At work, my voice is soft and cheerful, my laughter easy. For my paycheck, and as penance for my original sin, I write reports about inequities in America’s healthcare system. I analyze data. I have the same title as my mother: Senior Policy Analyst. All day, I read about, talk about, write about black bodies: bullets in black bodies, tumors in black bodies, AIDS in black bodies, cardiac diseases in black bodies, black limbs severed from diabetic black bodies, sleepless black bodies, asthmatic black bodies, stillborn black bodies. Currently, I am writing a report about disproportionate maternal death rates among black women.

At a sixty-person organization that advocates for better health outcomes for black and brown people, I am one of only five black employees. I am one of only two black women. I am friendly with all of my colleagues; friends with none of them. We are PhDs, experts. This is a think tank. The walls are bare and the light is harsh. Here, emotions are destructive and irrational. Emotions must never affect our analysis or our decisions. This is good for me. Here, I am a mind, not a body. My role is to document and recommend. In my reports, the bodies are numbers. The bodies do not have names. When I see my mother in the data – black women dead from childbirth – I close my eyes and count to ten. When I see my body in the data – the fibroid tumors growing in my uterus, my panic attacks – I close my eyes and count to ten.

“What we need,” says one of my white male colleagues in the morning meeting, after I give an update on the report I am writing, “is more education in the black community about the dangers of obesity for pregnant women.”

“We must highlight,” says my white woman boss, “the importance, for black women, of postpartum care. So many black women don’t see their doctors for postpartum visits.”

Across the conference room table from me, the other black woman – Jennifer – is shaking. Sweat glistens on her forehead. Her cheeks are red. I look away from her imprudent body. Her mask is coming off. I look out the window where the sky is clear and blue, where the sun is bright.

“Especially for women with risk factors, postpartum visits are—” my boss continues. Before she can finish her sentence, Jennifer pounds her fist into the table.

“They don’t go because doctors are racist,” she hisses. “It isn’t the black women who need educating. It’s the doctors! I almost died having my daughter last year.” Now, Jennifer is crying. Snot dribbles onto her upper lip. “I told the nurse I didn’t feel right and she did nothing. My husband went to find a doctor when we saw blood in my catheter. We waited three hours for a fucking CT scan. I was freezing. I was in pain. I was hemorrhaging. I almost died. My PhD in public health didn’t help me. The only reason I’m alive is because my husband finally lost it, threatened to call the NAACP.”

Jennifer is gasping for air. The room is silent but for the white noise of the floor fan. Then, my boss clears her throat. Someone coughs. Jennifer walks out of the room, slams the door. My body wants to follow her. Tears threaten to rise in my eyes. I take a deep breath and start to count to ten.

“Stella,” my boss says, “can you go check on her?”

I nod, smile, and rise. I am the other black woman so I must go. In the office, in the hall, in the bathroom, there is no sign of Jennifer. I wonder if she will be back tomorrow. I could call her but I know that I will not. I go back to my desk and reapply powder to my face. I sit like a lady – legs crossed, hands in lap, mask on. I count to ten and open the report on my desktop. I breathe. I let go of emotions so I can see clearly.




Introduction by Ira Silverberg

If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. — Bayard Rustin

Wanting something, the essence of desire is, for many, the thing that is hardest to express. Bayard Rustin, the gay, black, socialist labor and civil rights leader desired to live in a peaceful democracy where the labels that defined him might slowly fade into oblivion as his country embraced a new understanding of what the post-war US could and should be.

You know what fucked him up? The desire to have sex with another man. He doesn’t speak of that particular desire above. He didn’t speak of it for a long time after he got caught in the back of a car with a couple of guys in 1953. He was punished for that by the law. He was marginalized by the very people he fought alongside in his effort to drag this country kicking and screaming into a new age.

Desire is complicated in that as much as it burns inside of you and demands an outlet as is it born of heart, of love, of wanting something that is so essential, that will make life so good once you tell the world, once you manifest it in your life, it can also fuck you up.

Litro launches in the US at an extraordinary time. Just as we thought we were entering the 21stCentury with the hope that our collective desire to live in the kind of world Rustin desired, we were trumped. But writers can help us to mitigate our fears, their work can push us toward action, toward embracing our essential values in the face of being cast down, being made menial by the forces of those in power. Writers can give us hope and stoke our desires.

In this issue a group of emerging writers including BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow Frederick McKindra; Whiting Award winner Nadia Owusu; PEN Beyond Margins Award winner Laila Halaby; one of the Hay Festival’s Africa 39 Chika Unigwe; and Best American Experimental Writing of 2020’s s Leah Sophia Dworkin give voice to desire in a range of stories and essays that embrace the 21st Century with the empathy, anger, and poetry that makes for a portfolio of exceptional literary expressions of our time. Oh, and there’s sex too. And fear. And fun.

Some of these writers speak of the desires of the body, of the flesh. Some speak more to a body politic or “real” politic. They all, including the poetic writer and translator Lawrence Schimel whose prose sparkles and sears with the heat of eroticism; Chika Onyenezi who brings us nostalgic longings; Hannah Seidlitz whose melancholic desire sings; and Ingrid Norton who offers us dreamy prose, contribute dutifully and beautifully to this exploration of this most basic and complicated thing we all share: desire. 

Remember their names as, over time, you’ll want to grab more of their work. And remember Bayard Rustin who I think of as the godfather of this section. Litro’s US launch is a tribute to what he fought for.




Litro Desire: Editor’s Letter

There’s a sense of release about writing this Editor’s Letter because it means the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle is now in place. It means our hard work of putting together the whole magazine has paid off. It means the final checks are done, the end of countless rounds; it means we’re about to push the button and send it to the printers, it means we can pour ourselves a large glass of wine – a lot of wine and finally exhale! This has been the hardest, the most fun yet challenging edition we’ve ever produced. But in the end it has been worth it. This summer, after all the blood, sweat and tears, having clocked up more transatlantic air miles than I care to count, we’re delighted to launch our US edition, the sibling to the fourteen-years-old, but still going strong London, UK original. Litro US may be American accented but like its European original, it will aim to provide a platform for many and richly diverse voices, to be a vehicle I hope for ideas and truth and at least a bit of light, in what are from any outlook dark times.

The speaker for the 2019 Harvard Commencement ceremony Angela Merkel, who has been the chancellor of Germany for nearly fourteen years, recalled how as a young woman in what was then East Berlin, she walked toward the Wall each day on her way home from work. “At the last moment” she had to “turn away from freedom.” Though the Wall had fallen, Merkel said new ones were being built within societies and between nations. Democracy should not be “taken for granted,” but neither, she told the graduates, should people assume that they were powerless: “Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible.”

Bad times of course on either side of the pond. In the old country the fumbling attempt at economic and social suicide they call Brexit is a seemingly endless national humiliation, while here in the States there’s that erratic liar of an “extremely stable genius” and his “wall”, rising far-right nationalism and white supremacism, the opioid crisis, a fresh assault on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights … but it doesn’t all need rehearsing here. And so Litro USA’s opening theme is Desire, with a focus naturally on Desire as love – as romantic longing, sexual whether straight or LGBTQ+ – rather than Desire as greed, as the lust only for money or power that’s so corrupting our society right now. Love not hate, bridges not walls, hope not fear. So these stories – even the more out-there ones – and essays and art reflect that attitude, and reflect on and engage with these fraught times we live in.

We’ve increased the size of the magazine to give our contributors’ words more room to breathe and, especially, allow our art and photography – in this issue Noa Grayevsky’s cover and photo sequence, beautiful images of black faces, bodies, lives – the space they deserve and your eye needs to drink them in.

It would be impossible in this space to thank all those from over the past fourteen years who have turned a hobby and desire into what is now not only a full-time job but a transatlantic publication that would itself need its own edition – but for now I’d like to thank the Litro Media Inc board members: Robert J Reicher, Maria Salvatierra, Fiona Balch, Andre Des Rochers, Tess O’Dwyer, The whole of the Litro Team, Jim James DIT, Somerset House Trust, George Cox, Christine Bave, Brigita Butvila, Mark Moody Stuart, Nikki Barrow, Ocean Akoto, Elizabeth Serwah, Ajay Kumar, Sanjoy Roy, Carole Warren, Isabelle Dupuy, Alice Burnett.




Into the Pleroma

Picture Credits: Chräcker Heller

I dreamt I was back in our old apartment in the grove, and everything was as it once was. You took my hand, and we walked out into the lush streets. A small green lizard ran across the pavement. The air was a deep indigo, edged with lightness, and I couldn’t tell if it was dusk or sunrise.

I woke with such a strong sense of you, as though your arms had been wrapped around me in the night.

*

The rains and tides have gotten worse. There’s nothing left of the beach, and we’ve moved several miles inland of what used to be the bay. Devlin, with typical asperity, said that it’s hard to tell if this neighborhood became a shanty town after the floods or was already one. Almost everyone else has taken their buy-out and gone to the settlements. Even the enforcement officers are gone except for the outpost on the golf course, seven miles north of us. Most of the emergency LEDs have gone out too, though a few still flicker – limp, white, and mildewed – at the edges of the districts. I’m tempted to fall back on pleasantries – “We have the place to ourselves” – but that’s laughable, human-centric as one shouldn’t dare to be these days. There’s the implacable hum of insects at night, always seeming to get louder. And the river merged with the ill, tepid ocean so there’s also the stink of freshwater animals who wandered out into the roads and died there – otters and gators, turtles and snakes. (Some of the stink must be residual, and human.) Vultures with red and gray heads clump around the carcasses. The other day, I saw a hawk flying towards downtown at nightfall with a limp blue heron grasped in its beak. I like to imagine the hawk was taking its tribute to a penthouse to disembowel it while surveying the wreckage from on high.

*

The thermostat reached 130 degrees today. Every day when he comes back from checking it, Devlin says, “A new record.”

It’s tricky, if I want to go out, to choose between utter darkness and testing whether, under this sun, my blood would literally come to a boil.

At first I only had flashback dreams. I woke with my back seizing up like it did those nights on the cot.

The agreement we made – that a life sealed off in the settlements would be no life at all – seems almost comical now. A conclusion reached from wildly different premises: your “glimpses” of something higher and my stubborn love of what is. I’ve heard the reports about a few other “hold outs” on the peninsula. Largely depicted as ill, elderly refusers, they are discovered sunburned, malnourished, and belligerent in their warped homes. So in theory I’ll stay to tend to them (the enforcement notices – that Dev and I must also leave – have almost stopped). I like to imagine an old woman emerging perfectly intact from a storm cellar somewhere, wanting to know what happened.

As the effects get stranger – rust-red mold on the pavements like a carpet, sweat permanently congealed on my skin, finding that a street ends in a chasm or sinisterly iridescent lake – I’m beginning to think you were right. Loving this earth and wanting to live in it is like loving a corpse.

*

Sometimes I do still dream about it: not about the night itself, but about how I felt. My subconscious connives fresh disasters: a subway tunnel during a bombing, platform shaking; the hold of a ship as it fills with water, exits sealed; calling your name in a stairwell and the crack of a building coming down. Each dream replicates my clarity, almost elation when the storm broke over us: the world is about to end, minutes to go, and the only thing that matters is to be near you.

What does it mean to outlive such a revelation?

You told me you didn’t know whether a disaster destroys the world or points beyond it.

I sometimes imagine you swimming out into the ocean, thinking you’ll reach land on the other side.

*

You might be glad to hear I’ve been sleeping through the night. I’ve weaned myself off Devlin’s capsules so my sleep is deeper. The bad dreams have mostly stopped, perhaps because real memories outstrip them. As I lie down, submerged in the humidity, I think of the two us on your cot. The rains slamming against the windows for days and days, and your hoarse whisper when the wind stopped: here comes the real disaster.

Now I find myself wishing those winds would come again, that the weather would show a pulse.

*

Devlin says I’m staying here to prove something to you. I wish that were true. Instead I feel restive, hounded. I’ve already proved that I love my life more than I love you.

But what, exactly, is it that I love? I’ve lost my city, lost you, am losing the ocean and the air.

I won’t choose death but neither will I choose self-preservation in some climate-terrained tin can on the mainland. And I won’t – can’t – choose life as it was.

So I choose dreams.

*

A few nights ago, I dreamt of paddling a standing canoe downtown and passing the flayed pink bodies of three porpoises. They floated alongside me, pickled in a mixture of grease and alkalized water. I was the only living thing for miles. The pocked, silvery high-rises gleamed in the waters and there were no clouds.

It’s true that, as my subconscious assimilates more of this new world, my dream life becomes less comforting.

*

Devlin won’t call himself a biologist anymore. Bios means life. Instead he calls himself a marine mortician.

He says it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to study a dying ocean. But I think it’s because, no matter what horrors the sea casts up, he can’t part with it.

*

At first I stayed because of the clinic. Then I stayed because I was waiting for you. Finding your shoes near the water line doesn’t prove anything.

But my reasoning has fallen apart.

*

It took a couple weeks for Devlin to find you. You had washed up near Summit Park, covered with the gelatinized remains of fishes and other things. You didn’t look much better than those porpoises, darling.

When Devlin brought me out to where he’d dragged you, I touched your face but immediately wished I hadn’t. Your flesh felt spongey and hot, as though it was running a fever. I didn’t even recognize you at first, just that your body was less bloated than the others.

I thought, it’s not looking so good for your emanations, for your “going beyond” – you didn’t even get beyond the harbor. (But every day since you left I’ve wished I’d listened more carefully to what you said.)

*

We no longer bury people in the spit of beach by Venetian Way: it also receded. We did try to get you on Devlin’s boat but you were too heavy and it started to sink. So, you see, the only thing we could do was push your body back out into the water.

After Devlin dropped me off back at the shelter, I used up an entire week’s water supply trying to get your stink off me. My forehead feels convulsed and heavy.

I’m sorry.

*

You would say, that body isn’t you. There would be no closure in honoring it. Vessel, husk, lump of meat: mourning rituals are based on a fallacy, the sticky, primal intuition that a soul remains linked to its corpse.

That body isn’t you.

You’ve gone somewhere else. Closer to my dream world, the night ether. But you’re receding there, too. When you speak to me, I can’t always understand your words. The other night you came to me – another dream in our old apartment, with the windows intact and the sky outside a healthy blue. But you were different. Please please speak slowly I can’t understand say it again.

You just shook your head, and ran your hand down my arm, from my shoulder to my palm.

When I woke, I felt as though I had spent the whole time sobbing not sleeping. I’ve sweated out all my tears but my head’s still trying to cry them.

When I think about your body, my whole mind recoils. Instead I seize on what I can grasp. The weather. How you looked alive. An oil-black lizard scuttling out from one of the cracks that startles when I stamp my feet.

*

I dreamt that Devlin and I made a fire on one of the dry streaks of pavement, the way we used to when we first moved out here. I was talking about a Viking funeral. Devlin’s objections (there’s no body) only agitated me. But then he agreed. He began to seem like someone else, not Dev at all. We decided to sacrifice the raft for you. We thought about setting the barge on fire, but – carryover from waking – Dev thought the oil on the water’s surface might catch fire, too.

I laid your shoes and one of your books and something else on it and we pushed it out into the low, dark waters. I watched the barge drift out as the moon’s ashy, occluded light mingled with the pale flickers of Dev’s LED lantern. We knew our pyre would capsize or sink or get caught in the bank of dead grasses, but that didn’t matter.

It was the most beautiful thing. When I woke up, I rolled back over, wanting to fall back and find that moment, watching your barge under the moon. 

Later on, when I got up, I knew what I needed to do. No, not hold a proxy funeral. I needed to go back to the shore where we’d left you. Where does recklessness meet despair, you might ask. But I didn’t think of Devlin’s warnings. I was full of the most pure exaltation, the happiest feeling I’d had in weeks. The dream’s gift to me.

*

That afternoon, Dev came into my room. Usually, we don’t speak to each other during these stultifying hours of high daylight; we avert our eyes, pretend we aren’t aware of the other’s fidgety presence, and try to rest.

I’d wanted to tell him about my dream, but instead he spoke. He told me he was going to leave for the outpost. He asked if I would come. I shook my head. “No, Dev.”

He made me promise I would think about it. The contrast between his skin and the turbid light that comes from behind the curtains made his face look ghoulish. I told him I would think, and he left.

I was furious at him. I lay back on my pallet and turned on my lantern. Its thick plastic is opaque with moisture; the battery is almost dead, leaving the barest flicker of light.

I reread one of those old, enigmatic passages you loved:

As darkness recedes when light appears, so lack recedes into perfection … form and image vanish in the fragrance of Unity… In time, multiplicity will vanish into Unity … in time, Unity consumes darkness into life…

When the blue, lowering glow of dusk started creeping in at the windows, I fell asleep. When I woke, my room was full of the cooler light of the moon and my sticky wrist was over my eyes. I could hear Devlin in the other room, packing or moving things around. I shut my eyes and, in time, fell asleep again, more deeply this time.

*

Some time after sunset, I woke and found that Dev was away, and knew I should take my chance. I turned on my lantern. Its thick plastic is opaque with moisture; the battery is almost dead, leaving the barest flicker of light. I unhooked the spare raft from the wall and dragged it into the water. At first I didn’t get very far. I’m not used to steering – Dev’s paddle was a broom handle fused with plastic chopped off a refrigerator door, and proportioned like a gondolier’s. I ran aground in some of the muck that settles wherever it’s shallow. (The water evaporates a bit further from our building every day.)

Then I got the hang of it. As the water deepened, it became easier to steer.

I had a feeling of peacefulness as I passed rows of water-stained concrete homes, mostly intact, though missing their roofs. The fact that there was no one didn’t alleviate the feeling that there might be people in them – the dark, blown-out windows almost stared back.

I had the sense that I might learn to navigate the city again, that, without Dev, I might learn to commune with this world just as I did with the old one. The moon was almost full and I watched it, big on the horizon. Its light seemed like a faint, beneficent illumination.

Part of me was also aware that the full moon, when the tides are high, is a bad evening to set out.

When I got to the interstate underpass, I hit something hard just beneath the waters and almost capsized. The lantern did fall off the raft. It floated for a moment and I tried to grab it with the paddle, but then it sank, the waters devouring its little pallid spark. The water had become very deep. The puddle stillness of the area around our house had vanished. I was nearing the influence of the tides. For a moment, I thought that beyond the battered concrete of the underpass, I would be sucked straight into the open ocean. I paddled hard against the water, which suddenly felt slow and viscous, until I hulled against one of the undergirding slabs of concrete.

I could just make out something on the other side of the highway. It took me a minute to realize it was the top of a barbed wire fence, barely protruding above the water. Beyond, I could see the emaciated forms of downtown, darker than the by-now roiling night. Seen from our house in real life, the skyline looks like a mildly pocked version of its old self but up close, its decomposition was clear. Ragged glass and plaster ligament hanging from the windows. Upper floors torn off. Crushed, slant concrete and rebar protruding from the waters. Everything very, very dark.

I remembered how Devlin goes the longer way, just to avoid downtown. I thought I would do anything just to get back safely.

I had made it less than a mile.

*

I don’t really remember how I turned around: just a frantic scramble over turgid water, afraid I’d fall. My pants soaked with the oily water lapping at the raft’s sides. I’d totally lost the composure I’d had on the way out – but you know me, love. I’ll get it back.

*

As I dragged the raft back onto the pavement, I saw that Devlin’s boat was back. Then Dev came out to watch me. The gray smudge of dawn had appeared on the horizon. Dev didn’t help me pull the raft in. He just looked on: must have known impassivity would rattle me more than a display of fear or anger. Part of me wanted to apologize. Part of me exulted in my shame and stupidity. I withdrew my eyes from him. As I walked by him to the shelter, he tried to catch me, laying a hand on my ankle. He said my name in a low voice. I didn’t even look at him, just kept walking, like he was a beggar trying to get my attention.

He followed me inside. “Don’t stay here, come with me, try it. You can always come back.”

But we both know that’s a lie.

By then I’d reached the entrance to my room. I turned and looked at him. He had this awful stricken expression, a beseeching look in his eyes. Quite unlike the Dev we used to know. It’s sad to see someone so proud and stubborn crack up and give in.

Back in my room, I took one of the last capsules I’d squirreled away. I lay down, marinating in the daylight that was spreading through the windows. I fell into a sweat-drenched, shallow sleep, as though I was just below sleep’s surface with my real life on the other side. My arms will ache from my little journey downtown, but it’s good to think that, in a few days, the muscles will be stronger.

When I woke, I found a note from Devlin telling me he’s left for the outpost. Next to it, he’d left two of the thick plastic water drums. His last rations, sweet man.

*

So I’m alone. At sunrise I stand in the doorway, watching the first rays of daylight strafe the rotting blacktop and waters beyond it. When the day arises, I go inside.

Sometimes I think that some strange inverse is at work by which the land’s decline and your death restore me to sleep. Call it solipsism; call it a busted coping mechanism – I’m done trying to stave off my bereaved illogic. The kingdom where I’ve taken refuge is an uncertain one in any case. I go to sleep without knowing whether we’ll be reunited or if nightmares will toss me back. But yesterday I dreamt that you came and held me. We were in a new place, different than the old one but bearing no trace of the hellscape our city’s become. It was very foggy all around us and it was that blue hour, dusk or daybreak. But even with all the fog I had the sense that there was mud and grass beneath us. I knew that we were in a shady verdant place. I felt as though we weren’t in the place so much as inside it, and I told you that. You nodded; you understood.

This is what I want to tell you now. I won’t wake up in the middle of the day anymore, missing the weight and solidity of your chest. Instead, I’ll fall back deeper, and try to follow your scent to that place where it’s warm, not scorching, and dappled with shade.




Homebound

The two men who approached us in Grand Central must have smelled it on us – the tension of coming apart. We tracked the spoor of fissure. Erik and I were standing in the lower-level dining concourse, a few paces from the fried chicken kiosk, allowing mouth-watering wafts of buttermilk batter, gravy-soaked biscuits, and cloying maple syrup to fill the vacancy between us. I reached for Erik’s hand. Limply, he surrendered it.

Hundreds of strangers swept through the station. Peak hours, midtown’s Friday evening hum sped across Park Avenue on the backs of taxis and commuters sprinting to catch their shuttles. In the main hall beneath the celestial ceiling, men with briefcases wheeled past gaggles of tourists, eliciting protective glares from petite mothers guarding their broods. A team of baseball players in pinstripe uniforms idled single-file against the ticket machines. Schlepping her chihuahua in a magenta duffle an elderly woman nearly tripped over a pair of weary teen boys seated on the floor. The communal air sagged stale with congestion.

For Columbus Day weekend, a “holiday” I was loath to celebrate, we were returning home. Essential to the maintenance of our sanity, the Metro-North was our getaway car, equipped to flee every half hour from the overwhelming metropolis we, and everyone else we knew, loved only sometimes. Whenever our schedules – my rigorous university course load and his lamentable post-grad office job – permitted, we stayed at my father’s place upstate. All five thousand square feet of echoey space, the open floor plan, though presumably oppressive for its permanent residents, my brother and father trapped in expectant silence after my mother’s death and my relocation, offered Erik and me coveted breathing space. We’d been suffocating in Erik’s East Village shoebox.

Upstate meant home for both of us. We’d grown up in the same town, though we knew each other only peripherally until much later, until a mutual friend’s Koreatown karaoke party early in college. Across the DUET 35 VIP room Max’s venture capitalist parents had booked for his twenty-first, whose linoleum floors shone slick with something (congealing tequila?) beneath the discotheque strobe lights, Erik lounged alone in the corner booth. His torn Dickies exposed a scraped knee. He nursed a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, tipping the blue tonic between his full lips. Insatiable but bored. With his free hand he idly tucked and untucked his long hair behind his ears, a black bob which accented his razor jawline, greasy and androgynous in that way that rich Lower East Side skaters put on. His aloofness sparkled amid the jubilee. Liquid-confident, haloed by a nebula of champagne, I gravitated toward him. His bedroom eyes, dark and huge and round like the moon rose with an expectant brow to meet me. Even when staring straight ahead a sliver of white always cradled his irises from below.

The condition is called sanpaku, he and I would learn almost a year later. We were researching the anomaly to bolster his modeling portfolio in preparation for a fashion week casting. “It’s the only thing that makes me special,” he said, typing furiously into Google: whites under eyes always visible? I disagreed with him, as I always did, dismissing insecurities I found preposterous: he was the most beautiful person I had ever known. “Everything about you is special, Erik,” I murmured. We found a dictionary of Japanese loanwords.

For thousands of years, people of the Far East have been looking into each other’s eyes for signs of this dreaded condition. Any sign of sanpaku meant that a man’s entire system — physical, physiological and spiritual — was out of balance. He had committed sins against the order of the universe and he was therefore sick, unhappy, insane, what the West has come to call “accident prone.” The condition of sanpaku is a warning, a sign from nature, that one’s life is threatened by an early and tragic end. 

Erik quit the webpage with a violent click. Anything prophetic triggered his anxiety. He eschewed horoscopes, fortune cookies, even refused to consult the weather app, believing that regardless of the forecast, the act of inquiring alone would anger the universe and summon unrelenting rains. “It doesn’t mean anything,” I whispered.

In the karaoke joint the night we met I strode past our carousing friends, their faces blurring into neon-lit bacchanalia, and outstretched my hand, offering Erik the other microphone as Frank Ocean’s seminal “Thinkin Bout You” pushed its way to the top of the queue. In exchange he handed me the bottle and we downed fiery gulps in succession. A lubricant. In moments we were singing and spinning about the event space, climbing atop the furniture and sweating from the fever of our revelry.

Or do you not think so far ahead? I sang with the tang of his gin fizzing on my tongue, the rush of temptation in my belly. He answered: ’Cause I been thinkin’ ’bout forever… 

He was so different from me. Neither of us, not for lack of trying, could earnestly care about the other’s patent raisons d’êtres. An English student and aspiring writer, I read him passages from my favorite essays, novels, poems, praying something would ignite in him an intellectual interest. Halfway through the first page of “The Blue of Distance,” with a gruff snore, he fell asleep in my lap. Everywhere he went he carried around his Fujifilm point-and-shoot. At first I believed his photography connected us as artists, but what he captured – naked girls, his SoundCloud rapper friends – did not inspire me. He was obsessed with fame and wealth, the products his idols put out to achieve that success he found far less consequential. He prized celebrity culture. Though part of my studies hinged on aesthetics, we could not find missing ground in Keats.

Nevertheless, our shared stop on the train bound us together. Shared landmarks supplanted missing commonality: an egg sandwich from Cameron’s 24-hour deli, insider knowledge of which local gas station was cheapest (the Mount Kisco Speedway), late-night drive-in hookup spots, adolescent summers cradling Lake Waccabuc’s rope swing. Without effort on either of our parts, intimacy preexisted. We found in each other the comfort of home.

Upstate we would drive around in my gray Subaru for hours, pointing out the cornerstones of our parallel but separate childhoods. The sprawling nature reservation down the road from my house relieved our lungs, black from Manhattan smog and secondhand smoke, with ripe gulps of oxygen. The trees in whose shade we had as teenagers smoked shitty joints with our respective friend groups revived us. In his elementary school parking lot where I had played youth basketball we made love at dawn.

When Erik’s parents moved to South Carolina my Westchester refuge became his. My queen-size bed forced neither of us over the edge, an alleged habit of mine he often bemoaned. I only ever wanted to be closer to him. Even without the addition of my body, he scarcely fit on his own full mattress. The four inches below his ankle bones spilled out unblanketed onto the hardwood. “You squish yourself unwieldingly against me!” he’d complain the morning after a fitful night’s sleep. Unyieldingly, I never corrected him. “The air conditioning was too high,” I’d demur. Low blood sugar and waning anorexia, my body ran cold. Incompatible with his claustrophobia and predisposed clamminess – all six feet of him lusted for space. He never understood that it was his warmth I sought.

We weren’t speaking as we waited for the train. Even if we were, there wouldn’t have been much to say. Probably I told him I was tired. I had been doing that often. Scapegoating exhaustion for disconnect, unhappiness. If my weariness were physiological, or otherwise an imperious plight of quarter-life weltschmerz, the relationship itself obliged no second thought. Probably I apologized. (For what – the tiredness? – I was never sure.) He would have said, in his way that he always did, “It’s okay,” in spite of the fact that I did not want my apology validated, only dismissed – you have nothing to be sorry for. As I try now to recall the way he spoke the boilerplate his voice eludes me. I do not remember whether his tenor raised an octave or dropped, which iambs he enunciated. I cannot conjure his voice at all. It’s only silence now.

The two men must have approached us then.

A round-faced yuppie strode toward us with confident step despite his stubby stature, his Ferragamos clacking against the tile floor. He was trailed by a taller gentleman, probably twice his age, who wore a less nice, looser fitting version of the same professional suit. They were complements, Showalter and Grimsrud, perfect foils. “Hello,” the shorter man spoke first. “I don’t mean to disturb you,” he began with telemarketer buoyancy.

I’d been a New Yorker long enough to be suspect of chatty strangers. Both Erik and I armed our guards. I drew my hand from his and brought it to the wallet bulge in my jeans pocket, I’m sorry but I don’t have any cash on me. The increasing tightness in Erik’s jaw indicated a similar wariness.

“My buddy and I,” he smiled at his lanky companion, “are conducting an experiment.” The tall man spread his lips in a closed-mouth grin.

“I’m Aleksander,” the tall man finally spoke, revealing an unplaceable eastern European accent.

“And I’m Jason! We’ve been workplace associates for a little while now. I was hired to his department just six months ago but we’ve been fast friends… isn’t that right Aleks?” The Soviet offered a dumb, puerile nod. “Anyway, we decided to try something a little different when we got off work this afternoon. Our office is just a few blocks away, so we came here to play a—” His smirk turned sinister. “A sort of game.”

Erik’s anxiety bubbled over beside me. He never was one for surprises.

“I love games,” I said. “Go on!”

I could feel Erik’s scowl, boiling with pique, searing into my profile.

“We’ve been going around to different pairs of people and guessing how long they’ve known each other and what the nature of their relationship is. If we’re right, and you agree to it, you each have to give us a dollar. If we’re wrong, we pay you.”

Erik’s dark eyes narrowed. Still, the white Cheshire grin undergirded his irises. This was far worse than any magic eight ball or tarot reading. To Erik, the speculative became manifest. Psychosomatic divination. Anything could be willed into being just by conjecture.

“Okay!” I consented for us both. “Give us your best shot.”

The two men stepped back and analyzed us. Scrutinizing our faces, our body language, the proximity of our hips. Suddenly the fluorescent bulbs overhead felt too hot, too bright like the x-ray light dangling above a dentist’s chair. Would they think we were married? I supposed Erik’s burnout added a few years to his complexion; adult union wouldn’t have been unfathomable.

Their faces contorted in cogitation. They turned their backs to us and whispered. Finally, they wheeled back.

“Okay,” said Jason. “We’ve come to a consensus.”

I nodded him on emphatically.

“After rigorous deliberation, we surmise—”

“The two of you just met!” Aleks barked.

Heat shot through my body. I felt naked. Erik said nothing. I forced a laugh to circumvent the dreadful silence, Haha! No! We’re a couple! We’ve been dating pretty seriously for two years!

Jason and Aleksander exchanged looks of pity.

“Ah,” Jason spoke at last. “Our apologies.” Clapping his hands together, then pointing both forefingers like pistols, “Well, let me grab your cash then…” he began to fumble through his bag.

“No, no. That’s okay. We appreciated the fun. Keep your money. We’ve got our train to catch anyway,” I forced through my teeth.

“Oh, are you sure?” I nodded solemnly. “Goodbye then.”

“Bye,” I said, seizing Erik’s hand and dragging him toward the platform.

Neither of us spoke as we descended the steps. We boarded the train without a word. He turned into a two-seater, plopping next to the window, and I floated in beside him. The stiff plasticky cushions provided no comfort, pressing unforgivingly into my back. The train began to move, homebound.

Nearly two months later when I arrive at the Van Leeuwen on 7th Street the toasty interior teems with Sunday afternoon verve. Yuppies paw at laptop keyboards and slurp down $6 lattes while teenage babysitters purchase vegan ice cream for pairs of schoolchildren. As I burst through the entryway a gust of heat from the overhead radiator wafts the salty sweet ambrosia of fresh-baked waffle cones against my frozen face. My stomach jolts. Erik is not here. It’s been three weeks since we last spoke.

After ordering myself a chamomile tea – caffeine would only exacerbate my precarious mania; if anything I needed beta blockers – I park at a high table beside the floor-to-ceiling windows. After a few minutes of idly inhaling the floral steam, the liquid still so hot I scald my tongue from several diffident attempts to sip it, I hear through the door, muscled ajar as a family of four escapes the unbearable November tundra, the unmissable, nauseating tread of skateboard wheels on sidewalk. A figure in black materializes on the stoop. Erik’s stygian eyes meet mine through the glass – foggy from the temperature asymmetry. He is wearing an outfit I know well: a miniature beanie of the sort which distinguishes his ilk (dubiously artistic cigarette smokers of Alphabet City), his beloved Thrasher sweatshirt, dark work pants, cuffed, bearing tears from repetitious falls, Old Skool Vans. Familiarity seizes my chest. He lets in the blustering chill. As he slinks through the buzzing crowd nearer and nearer to my perch I take inventory of what is different. The darkness which characteristically hollows his face, carving his cheekbones and underscoring his heavy, deep-set eyes has metastasized. He, already underweight as a matter of style or else idiosyncrasy, looks fifteen pounds lighter. He pulls out the opposite chair. For a moment he stands there, his hand clutching the cross rail, as if unsure whether to bother sitting at all. Fatigue drags his stare straight through me.

“Hi,” I manage. He attempts something like a smile and finally floats around to the aluminum seat. At first we say nothing as I twirl a coffee stirrer through my cup, spilling loose dried herbs from the teabag. The tiny black leaves float to the surface of the water. Tasseography.

When I muster the courage to return to his face he is trembling. His furrowed brow quivers. His corneas, reddening, glisten. I wonder if he will cry. He cries rarely, once every few months, if that – far more frequently once we’d started dating than he ever had before. I regarded it auspiciously, a step toward emotional awareness. More in touch with his feelings. Maybe I was just hurting him.

“It’s good to see you,” I say. He snorts. He removes his thawing hands from his sweatshirt pocket and places them on the table inches from mine, compulsively running his fingertips over his cuticles, a mannerism I’d always found irksome and distracting. I clutch my cup a little tighter.

“I’m going to get something to drink,” he says and thrusts backward. The chair feet shriek against the tile, attracting glares from adjacent patrons.

He returns with an Americano, black, no sugar.

“Careful!” I sputter as he lifts it to his lips. “It might burn you.”

He draws a long breath and places the cup down in front of him.

I say finally, “I’ve missed you.”