The first glimpse was always the sweetest.
Her car’s transmission died and would never be fixed. Her daughter had a hypodermic needle in her sweater drawer. Her meatloaf was horrible—even though she’d made it exactly the same as every other meatloaf in her life—and Joselito yelled at her. Maybe things were a little tough, and Lourdes had wanted to cry on the bus with her forehead pressed against the sweaty, cold window.
But instead, she’d wondered about the first glimpse she’d have of him that day, and she smiled. Some mornings, it would be a little more difficult than usual, and she’d have trouble believing that he’d really visit her that afternoon, too. So she’d pull out the other first glimpses, which felt framed to her, like little paintings, icons, and review them for their actuality and their joy. Today, she had faith.
Always, always, Lourdes was baffled by what she’d done in her small life to deserve his presence within it, yet she denied herself the questions that could spoil, those signs of faithlessness that destroyed miracles because they offended the divine. Thinking of him was a prayer whispered, catching sight of him a prayer answered.
When it finally arrived, it was over Rodney’s shoulder, right between Niqua at the register and Alfonso at the fry station. Donald was looking down at his phone, as usual, but she knew he’d seen her because he was smiling. His hair fell across his forehead toward the floor.
“Lourdes?” Rodney was breathing down at her.
“No, I’m not looking for apologies.”
She returned her attention to the monitor and worked a little faster than usual.
“I’m starting to wonder about that extra forty-five cents I’m paying you.”
Lourdes focused on the smooth surface of the cheese slice on her fingers and replayed the first glimpse, between Niqua and Alfonso, over Rodney’s shoulder. This time, his hair was a curtain.
The restaurant was a bit busier than usual, and it took an extra ten minutes before she could head out the door, certain Donald’s eyes were trained on her. The sharp smell of winter would always and only ever mean New Jersey to her, and it smelled the most like New Jersey just after the layered stinks of the December Burger King. Today, the parking lot was humid with salted snow and laden with exhaust.
Situated at the back of the lot, his car was as far away from the camera as possible. Lourdes had taught Donald to park there. Of course, she knew they watched her; she’d watched them, too, smoking or making out. Everyone made fun of her out there, just as they did with each other, and she just smiled. If they really knew, they’d be silenced by the purity of it, only able to giggle as they cut their eyes at one another.
Now she stood by his car, and when he joined her, she was glad that she’d learned just kind things to say in English. Of course, she knew the other words because they had been directed at her so many times in the past thirty years. But seeing his face, knowing that his grin was all for her, she understood the uselessness of learning the bad things because they could never help in determining Donald.
“Lourdes.” A gift.
She only blushed. Donald didn’t speak Spanish, and when she thought about their time together while she was at home or at work, she cursed her handicap in English, an inability to say things exactly the way they should be said to him, about him, for him. There was so much to say. But now, when he was near and his gaze melted the space between them, she remembered that there were no languages, no barriers. There was only this one thing.
They entered the car, which was still a bit warm. As he moved his hand into her big coat, Lourdes stared effortlessly into Donald’s eyes, a way to consume him and offer herself back. Helping him undo her pants, she allowed herself to moan as he encouraged her. In fact, it was the only time and place that she had ever allowed herself to moan—even with Jose, it had been too private. This was what she gave back to him, and she knew that it meant so much more to Donald than anything she could ever accept from him. But was it enough?
Right from the beginning, Donald had understood that Lourdes’s whole life had been conducted in service to others, so she and Donald had immediately fallen into this particular way of appreciating one another, a way in which she was welcome to receive and never expected to give. It had never varied since, at first because Lourdes mistrusted her English, and then because neither of them seemed to want it to. But now, although fully clothed, she laid herself bare, and it was this act, so profound for Lourdes, that also worried her. Did he sense the loop that formed in her mind during their communion, the round of doubt that she regretted and was fighting against? Did he want more? Was he hoping desperately that she snake her way under his puffy jacket? She so wanted to return his kindness, and in fact it was this act that she thought about—if she thought about anything—as he drove her on, down in her lap. But as always, Lourdes’s hands lay firmly on Donald’s arm. She’d never betray her desire because she feared that any change could end her miracle, and she climaxed, and Donald smiled into her, deeply, and her worry was pushed out of their union for another day.
After seeping in his rapt attention for a few minutes, Lourdes touched his cheek. “You look so sad today.”
“I have to leave you now.”
“No! I have to leave you.” Had any of them watched this time, and had they seen the faces she must have made? But she didn’t care; let them see something pure.
Zaïda wanted them to see something when she was fourteen. The Pacific’s breeze was colder than usual that day, and she’d spent the whole afternoon constructing her sand sculpture for her Aunt and Uncle in Punta Sal. Having spent all of her attention on the flourishes and details, she only realized how astounding the whole thing was when she waded out into the sea, the sun now at her back, throwing her work into sharp relief. It wasn’t a few grains of sand shifted around—the thing was Zaïda. Her father had died having never seen a single thing from her, and her mother had never looked before, but now, finally, Zaïda had something for her loved ones to recognize.
Running up to the house, she quickly determined that no matter what she said or did, no one would ever come down to the beach to see the only thing that would ever come close to expressing everything in her soul. So she ate her shrimp that night silently, knowing that only their brothers and sisters had seen what she’d done, as the tide dragged her revelation out to sea. After that, she didn’t bother to be seen, and she wasn’t.
Donald turned his attention to the steering wheel, naked conflict at his eyes and his mouth. Lourdes never knew, she never asked, worried that her untrustworthy comprehension would only make things worse. But to witness his pain was unbearable, and to do nothing a crime she grappled with during quiet times, washing dishes, waiting for sleep to come.
He never asked for anything.
“I’m going to learn Spanish.”
“No.” She said it as gently as possible.
But how could she truly explain that she suspected these waves of sadness that periodically overtook him were due to the endless selflessness he showed her? That somehow, doing only one thing more for her would make his life even more miserable? That she didn’t understand, but she wanted desperately to, and she’d be honored to do whatever she could to make Donald’s life easier for him to bear?
“No, Donald.” She said only this and prayed that he read the rest in her eyes.
The sun was out, and it steamed patches of brown grass near Donald’s car. Lourdes felt more uncomfortable being there with the sun so strong at the windows, but the innocence of the whole thing was so fundamental that anyone who came upon them would have to feel the same way. People weren’t always nice, anymore, and they needed to be reminded, sometimes. Donald and her orgasm were both gifts from God. She wished the kids in the restaurant would someday be able to appreciate all the gifts that are already there, right inside of them.
She watched Donald eat the mistake chicken sandwich she’d saved for him, glad he’d finally told her that some of the other workers were doing things to his food. She’d been at Burger King for two months, now, and she just couldn’t understand how people could care so little about others, about life. Nothing was important; nothing was serious; everything was gay or cool. Lourdes had been brought up to believe that most things were important and serious and floated on the waves somewhere in between. Your little opinion depended mostly on which coast you stood and how the waves moved that day, but all was tiny against the ocean.
Still, she laughed. “You have—on your—mayo.” She pointed to the corner of his mouth, enjoying the lack of tension in her shoulder that his tenderness had brought but that would return soon enough because of all the tomatoes and lettuce and Rodney, always over her.
Donald laughed, too, as he wiped it off. But he looked so much more tired than even Monday. “This is just what I needed, Lourdes. Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
She stroked his face; his eyes were bruised from stress. “I think of you always. You know, I call you my angel in my head.” She didn’t know much, but she knew she could do this, at least.
Donald stopped chewing to tear up.
“Oh, no! I make you cry every time. I’m sorry.”
“Please. Don’t apologize to me, Lourdes. There isn’t anything… You’re the angel.”
“No. Sometimes everything seems so bad, but then I think of you. Everybody should have an angel.”
His crying changed a little; with four grown children, Lourdes knew crying. “Oh, what is it?”
A strong intake of air steadied his breathing. “Would you come to my New Year’s party?” Donald gazed into her, laying wide an exposed panorama of hope and pain and need. His intensity was a constant shock to her, but this was more so. “Please.”
Lourdes averted her face and inspected the back of the restaurant. She thought of the bus to Newark that late at night, then the vomit and drunks. Then she thought of the other guests and how different she was bound to be. Then she thought of the private relationship that she and Donald had created, how she cherished it as it was and how it would have to change when put into words for others. Then she thought of the truth about Donald, which she knew he held close for her until he felt she was ready, experience obviously informing his actions and also at the core of the truth itself. This was in the car, too, somewhere.
She thought of her mortifying limitations and of losing her one and only angel.
Then she thought of herself, aged five, back in San Juan, when a neighbor boy the same age attempted to rape her, based on the relationship his father had established with him. Lourdes understood this, and also understood why the boy sold cheap wallets to tourists for ten years so he could finish college and become the executive director of a food bank in Schenectady. All the apologies, all the sacrifices—she knew it was easier than the other way, the hardening and dismissing and forgetting.
To see his joy was to see a raw, beating heart, and Lourdes knew that she’d never regret her decision. But a New Year’s Party?!
Then the tears returned. “You’re so wonderful to me, Lourdes, and I’m—” Donald trailed off into a slow shake of the head. “I am going to learn Spanish for you. I’m not going to let things continue like this. I promise.”
Lourdes cursed her limited English and railed against her fear, but still she wouldn’t ask what he meant by ‘letting things continue like this.’ They were honest with each other in so many other, gratifying ways. That alone was more than she’d ever asked for from her life, and she was determined to avoid anything that might alter her special gift for as long as she could. Things always change, she knew that, but in a way, she was barricading against old age now, collecting as many memories as possible that might save her when things got worse.
It was so strange: her favorite car in the world, something with which she was so achingly intimate, parked in a street that was intimate for her in all the other ways. It was the first thing she saw, down at the curb, and Lourdes felt her heart spasm, not sure if she was thrilled or terrified by the situation. Or both.
Then she noticed the expressionless Asian man, a little older than she was, in her seat, staring through the windshield out into the heavy snowfall, into the night. Things were changing.
The man looked like he’d had a comfortable life, and Lourdes couldn’t help but feel a little silly in her Wal-Mart sweat pants and old jacket with the stain on the back. She understood Donald wouldn’t care, and right now she didn’t really have time to care, herself, but she knew she would be reworking this moment over and over again over the next days and weeks, wondering how they discussed her poverty afterwards. Probably gently and charitably, if at all, but there would also be the mental echo of the shameful jacket, the boarded window on the second floor, the tennis shoes hanging from the wire above the car. These men couldn’t help but retain those things, coming from Montclair, and a flush of embarrassment quickly crossed her forehead.
And just like the Burger King, there were youngsters behind her, watching her. Here, they peered down from the windows, wondering who on earth would ever want to associate with their mother. She felt their exhausting presence sixty feet above her, and prayed that the snow was thick enough to obscure the street below.
As if stung, Lourdes sucked air through her teeth: Donald was standing a few feet away from her in the shadow of the porch. Her heart misfired. Meeting him at night, finding him almost lurking, being asked to contend with a third person—so much was suddenly changing. It was the panic of slipping to the cliff’s edge, so she took a deep breath and resolved to change as little as possible, herself.
But her eyes were adjusting to the light, and she saw that Donald was different. He looked drained and frail and his expression, in her experience an epic battleground where love quickly and easily triumphed, now just looked haunted and vacant, a dispassionate evaluation of her, somehow.
It was the one look her angel was never supposed to give her, and Newark the one place in the world he was never supposed to be.
“Donald, you look so… What’s wrong?”
Relief at this flooded past the grayness around his eyes, and she felt a little better.
“I really want to hug you, Lourdes.”
“Joselito’s watching. Nobody comes to visit me. I said you were from work.”
“I guess I am.”
“You don’t have to come here to say you’re sorry about today.” She glanced at the man in the car. “I know how busy you are.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Lourdes knew that look; she’d been giving it to herself in the mirror for the past twenty years. Back then, she’d let out the cat by mistake, a misshapen, confused tom, and hadn’t bothered to look for him right away. She’d been nursing Carina, so she only moved the blinds and looked down around the dumpster, but the cat had run out into the street and been immediately hit by a car. He’d dragged himself to the gutter, twisted, and panted for an hour before she’d found him, only to die, staring up into the sky as she lifted him. It was the worst anger, the kind that could only be directed at herself, and it still felt the same, all these years later. Some things she had no right to forgive.
But she didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else ever feeling that way. Especially poor Donald, who looked to be wearing right through his life. She wasn’t a mute animal with only heaven ahead of her. She understood.
A weak wind blew snow into the alcove, wetting the outside of Lourdes’s hands. The two of them couldn’t even find shelter there.
“This is not right!” Taking one final look at the car, Lourdes turned back to the light and steam heat of her building. “I’ll be right back.”
* * *
The snow had muffled Lourdes’s return, and she stood, a few feet behind Donald, clutching her two plastic bags and worrying that the men would notice that she’d changed her clothing. He was on his knees, leaned up against the passenger door of his car. The window was down and his head rested awkwardly on the seat before him as he stared down her street into the flurries. The other man was right next to Donald, in her seat.
His hesitation was too long. “Oh, Lourdes! I’m just—”
The man removed his seatbelt carefully, so as not to hit Donald with it, and said, “Why don’t we get you into my seat, and then I’ll just drive you home.” He smiled apologetically at Lourdes, and she came up to the car, instinctively aware of her role, rubbing Donald’s shoulder before helping him stand up as steadily as possible. The man quickly vacated his seat, and the two of them got Donald strapped in.
As they backed away, the stranger quietly thanked Lourdes, who made no attempt to hide her distress.
“He’s tired. Maybe he has a cold. He’s been so busy today.”
Lourdes finally looked the man in the eye. “He has?”
But when she returned her attention to Donald, she found him staring at her, studying her and begging her all at once. She didn’t understand what he wanted and was too disturbed to ask, so she turned to the man and tried to smile.
“Oh. Lourdes, this is Joseph. Joseph, Lourdes.”
She shook the man’s gloved hand, aware that snowflakes were catching on her eyelashes and glad at least that was still the same. But she felt Donald’s gaze burning into her and understood only that it had something to do with this introduction.
“How are you?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Lourdes.” The man pitied, apologized with his eyes: she must’ve been failing at hiding her distress.
Signs of Donald’s illness were even more pronounced once he was in the car, and his head lolled against the seat. He turned away from her, defeated, disappointed, and massaged the gear shift. Lourdes had always been so thankful that his face was a window, a slave; this was the first time she had wished it wasn’t so.
Deciding to focus on the one thing that still made sense to her, Lourdes peered down at him, poring over his appearance as mothers do for clues, and therefore, for possible remedies. All this craziness was probably just due to his sickness. “You should go home, Donald. We can talk later. Oh—” She looked down at the bags in her hands and then back to Donald, and in attempting to reconcile the two things, finally became overwhelmed. Her eyes welled up. “I don’t know—I made brownies and thought—”
The man smiled politely when she handed her bags to him. “That’s very kind of you.”
Neither Donald nor Joseph acknowledged her tears, so she was certain, then, that her reaction must have been appropriate for the situation. Fear gripped her more tightly.
Without looking up: “Lourdes, my party on Sunday. Rascal’s, you know the place?”
“Okay. You should go and get some rest now. Please.”
“You’re going to be there?”
Donald reached his hand out the window, and Lourdes took it deliberately, no longer concerned with what her children might think.
“Joseph will be there.”
“At the party.”
Lourdes looked up at the apartment buildings that loomed all around them, their lights and sounds so far away now, almost gone in the heavy snowing.
“Angels have hearts for everyone, Donald.”
A note of harshness crept into Donald’s voice that Lourdes had never heard before, but there was also the familiar self-effacement and contrition: “I’m not an angel.”
“Then there are no angels.” Lourdes shook her head at Joseph and backed away from the car, unable to experience any more. “I’m sorry. Go, go!”
She moved out of their decreasing sphere quickly, feeling already the frustration burning at her throat. He was leaving her now, and she’d failed in so many ways. She’d somehow even managed to make his life more painful. Lourdes didn’t know what was wrong; she didn’t know how to help him; she didn’t know what she’d done to hurt him; she didn’t have the capacity to understand.
Donald was still there, though, right in front of her! She still had time to make things right. She’d try until they understood each other. But she moved toward the car just as it pulled away. Lourdes could only vow to herself, then, as she watched the taillights dissolve into the silent, rapid snow flakes, that she would make things right when she saw him next. At his party.
The morning was warmer, the dripping water reducing snow to clear, hard lacework. Its sudden humidity made Donald’s hair limp, made him look like a bashful little kid. At this, Eric’s mind stretched out electrically in several directions: naughty schoolboy; fevered recess; innocence stripped away. But he tucked these back and refocused on the goal at hand, the anticipation radiating from his solar plexus and warming his extremities.
Eric stepped aside, and Donald entered the apartment. One of the canvases was in the corner, covered by a cloth, and Donald turned away from it as quickly as possible. The many other images, displayed around the old, echoey loft, he avoided, too. Instead, he stood squarely in the center of the space, motionless, and faced the floor as he should.
Eric put Mindy down and inspected. Besides the hair, Donald looked thinner, sapped. This might work for the session, or it might work against it. His face was as plastic as ever. Even when it was supposedly controlled to the point of impassivity, Donald’s expression was like the surface of a lake, rippled by any and every stone that broke the surface. It was still as round, as dimpled, but the cheeks were closer now, the brown, bottomless eyes correspondingly farther apart. Eric felt his breath catch: the legs, short in proportion, and the thickness of the body in general gave the impression of a giant baby, which never failed to delight Eric. He still couldn’t believe his luck.
Donald literally gave no thought to what he wore, another facet of his gormless persona that invigorated Eric’s creativity. Today, he had thrown on a Shetland sweater and old, brown corduroys that stretched across his backside.
Eric loved the middle-class ass, and he came up alongside it to scrutinize its form, which really did inspire memories of white bread, doughy and soft. Since Eric had known him, Donald’s butt had grown and shrunk regularly over his naturally generous dimensions. Now, it was looking smaller, forgotten.
“You’re losing weight again. Pull down your pants.”
Donald immediately did so, the sweater drooping, the shirttails parting. Eric felt the thrill as forcefully as always: the unreality of a self-gratifying dream experienced over and over. It was the kind of perfection that had to include the phrase “once in a lifetime.” It was the kind of perfection that could only come from gross, dismal imperfection. It was the kind of perfection that Eric was bound and determined to continue to exploit to its absolute extent.
But then he noticed new shoes peeking out from under the crumpled corduroy, a definite element of hip style about the red leather. They were clearly not a purchase Donald had made.
“I hate those shoes. Lift your leg.” Eric pulled them off and walked to his sink. There, he opened a drawer that wailed into the cobwebbed, remote rafters of the space and removed his sharpest knife. For a moment, Eric considered keeping them for himself, as they would compliment his clubbing wardrobe quite nicely, but that felt as if it belonged to a different drama, so he simply hacked them up and threw them away.
“Next time, wear those old boat shoes. Take off your sweater and shirt.”
Once again, Donald did as he was told, keeping his eyes down but unable to control his quickened breathing. The pale nakedness seemed to melt into the flesh-colored walls and soft, round shapes of the furniture, a coordinated element of the tableau. Eric liked that.
“Now I want you to answer me. Would you like to be thrown into a bath full of ice water right now?”
Donald always struggled with the questions; Eric feasted on this.
“I would like an answer to my question: would you like to be thrust into freezing water?”
Although he almost tripped on Mindy, Eric quickly recovered. He rushed up to Donald and pushed him into his bathroom, where a bath full of ice awaited them both. Eric forcefully handed him into the tub, squeezing harder on the tightening muscles, and Donald’s eyes widened in what must have been profound shock. He was unable to stifle an eloquent groan, and Eric suddenly wished he’d had his audio recorder. He could’ve worked that in. But then, as he held Donald under the water, Eric saw black, spreading mildew at the corner of his bath tub, and it annoyed him. This wasn’t about seediness, but then again, it did feel more authentic that way. Nonetheless, he’d have to re-caulk.
“I want to see how low I can bring your body temperature.”
Almost immediately, Donald began shivering.
“Relax into it.” Eric watched the skin turn pink, then white, then a light gray with purple undertones. “That’s it.” He watched all the involuntary movements in the toes, the skin across the neck tightening. Eric added all of this to the many wonderful things he’d seen the human body do over the past six months.
Bringing to mind steeping tea, Eric realized after a few minutes that he had reached perfection, and he pulled his camera off of the nearby basin. He’d already loaded it, the batteries were new. Wondering if black-and-white wouldn’t better communicate the subtle, clinical changes in skin tone, Eric considered changing film as Donald held his arms stiffly at his sides, the thumbs gouging his hips.
“Put your head under the water.”
Drawing a deep breath with much difficulty, Donald did the best he could and submerged fully. Eric then went to work, captured several images that promised to be arresting, the eyes searching to recall meaning under the bobbing ice cubes and the face seeming to bloat in protest.
Reasonably satisfied, Eric plunged his hand into the water and grabbed Donald’s arm. He pulled him up, and then over spittle and gasping: “Okay, that’s enough.”
Donald struggled to stand, the shivering making voluntary movement difficult. Finally, Eric had him wrapped in a huge, nutmeg towel that he’d preheated. Mindy licked at the drops of water on the floor, purring unevenly, which made Eric wonder about her as an ironic element in the scene and if this were a popular motivation for pet ownership. When he’d first gotten her, he’d dressed her as a clown, with red-and-white striped satin and a jingle-bell in her hat, but it was too deliberate, too art-school, and he’d ceremoniously burned the whole sketch pad.
She might be in a couple of shots; he’d decide then.
Making sure to wrap the towel around Donald’s shoulders, Eric gently led his subject into the adjoining bedroom. The room was dominated by a huge image over the bed: Donald’s face barely recognizable under dried mud. Eric helped him lie on the unmade bed, then pulled the sheets over his ashen feet and calves. A space heater whirred nearby, and Eric adjusted it for optimal efficiency.
“How was that?” Eric lay next to Donald, carefully rubbing and patting, noting that the body hair was standing straight up, and that the scrotum had completely disappeared.
“Intense. You’ve outdone yourself. And this is great, Eric.” Donald looked up into Eric’s face, awed. “Thank you.”
The shivering had become worse, interestingly, but the session was over. “Here. Get closer.”
Donald pressed as much of his flesh against Eric as he could, and gradually, the spasms became sporadic. Considering a bright red ear, Eric wondered to himself if he’d managed to slow the heart rate, if he’d had the power to have such a profound effect on another human. Controlling a heart. “It’s all over now.”
Donald’s body slowly flushed pink as Mindy observed the action from the dresser opposite.
“God.” Eric pushed Donald away and got up, keeping his back to what had just formed between them both.
“Just another natural reaction, Eric.”
Eric relived a certain hesitation, a delicacy during a diaper change at his sister’s house the year before. Throwing a pillow on Donald’s crotch, he swallowed his curiosity at the bald urgency he’d caught a glimpse of, a little annoyed that at that moment, the hard-on might have more power in the room than he did. At first, he wondered how he could control that, too, with contraptions or perhaps psychological tactics of some kind that might prove to be pleasantly confrontative, in a triptych or video loop, maybe. Then he thought about other ways to conquer the renegade organ. He’d wanted to avoid any salaciousness, but there might be a need to take hundreds of close-ups of Donald’s physical, blunt craving, to reduce it to the helpless flesh it really was.
Eric frowned at Donald’s chest. “But it’s not entirely involuntary.”
Holding the pillow against his crotch, Donald moved off the bed. “More of a surrender. I’m sorry, Eric.” There, at the foot of the bed, he looked down. “Hey, you better throw this thing in the washing machine the second I’m out of here!”
Donald smiled at the dry chuckle he’d extracted from Eric, but it faded too fast. He threw the pillow over Eric’s feet; he was flaccid. “Crisis over! Listen, if I’m late again to work, I’m really going to get fired, so. But I wanted to know if you have any plans for New Year’s Eve.” Donald had been unable to keep his tone natural, and the last sentence hung in the air, a pathetic act.
Eric was instantly disturbed by the breach. This hadn’t been designed to be domestic, social. No matter how his art appeared to others, it was Eric who had truly embraced his own vulnerability in this situation. And he’d come to trust Donald with it completely, as he’d learned that there was no greater trustworthiness than one based on the kind of desperate inequality that fueled their partnership. Just like dressing cats as clowns, pure manipulation was at the heart of this work; and a contamination of insipid familiarity would destroy everything. If Donald’s feelings were as deep as he professed, surely he should appreciate that. But now, penises and parties made Eric almost regret for the first time an experiment that he felt had been clearly prescribed.
Donald spoke first, quicker with nervousness. “I’m sorry. Never mind. Just give me a call if you need me again. This was really inspired. Really.”
He passed into the next room, and Eric realized for the first time that his clothes were slightly damp.
“Eric? Do you have any shoes I can borrow?” No causticity, not even impatience.
Eric remained at the foot of his bed, arms limp at his side. Despite the lurking, unnerving undertones of his own, jack-in-the-box psyche and the occasional, tender window into Donald’s, this was too productive, too ideal to end yet. He hadn’t explored it fully.
Eric picked up the pillow at his feet and pulled its case off. Why, after half a year of fruitful collaboration, would Donald suddenly decide to risk everything on some Doritos-and-canned-salsa party? After all, he knew they were nearing the completion. If anything, Donald should’ve been thanking him for the opportunity to be documented in such an arresting, groundbreaking way, rather than potentially destroying the whole thing with his defect.
Eric smoothed down the old, gray business suit, vaguely annoyed that it fit him so well. He’d even gone so far as to purchase cufflinks and throw on some trendy cologne he’d found at T.J. Maxx, which still couldn’t drown out the Salvation Army smell of the worsted wool. How could people willingly constrict themselves like this? Why did they want to resemble each other to this extent? After catching a glimpse in his ancient mirror of the shiny tie constricting his neck, Eric decided that this had to be the subtlest form of torture: self-inflicted. He’d even gone so far as to carefully part his hair for the first time in fifteen years. It was all too bourgeois. His mother would have been proud.
Having just used her litter box, Mindy followed Eric to the door.
Donald looked more abject than usual on the doorstep. Eric’s stomach tightened; it was going to be a good session.
“Come in. You look like complete shit, which is absolutely perfect. What the fuck have you done to yourself since yesterday? Actually, don’t answer that. It’s part of the mystery. I don’t want to inform my work to that extent.”
Mindy rubbed against Donald’s ankles while Donald stood at the center of the room and looked at the floor. Eric was once again struck by what a perfect specimen he was for this series. The schlub. Eric’s luck had really turned around in the last year, and some days, he could almost feel fame lapping at his door while he planned the installation at his desk, rearranging the experience for different spaces he had in mind.
And discovering the schlub was at the center of it all.
He handed Donald the costume. “Put this on.” Then as Donald silently did as he was told: “How would you like to be trussed up and hung up-side-down today? And as a special treat, I’m going to be part of the session. I’ll be playing the role of a worker bee from Stamford or New Rochelle or something. A commuter who’s baffled by his existence, yet who continues on, following the rules, doing what’s expected of him, until he dies at fifty-three of a heart attack. You should be flattered; I don’t usually include myself in my own work.”
Donald finished stretching the spangly women’s shorts and tank top with “porn star” on it tautly over his body.
“Oh, and here.”
Donald pulled on the Uggs Eric handed him and became still again.
Eric giggled. “My god, this is absolutely perfect! Totally what I’m looking for. You look horrendous. So, you feel like hanging up-side-down and squirming until your face turns bright red? Answer—”
Eric froze. Donald’s response was different than usual, plaintive. Every other time, he’d sounded eager to please; now, he sounded eager for mercy. Eric considered the change and was delighted to predict that Donald would be doing even more desperate squirming than he’d dared hope for.
But then Donald did something else he’d never done before. He lifted his eyes and looked at the images of himself crowded into the apartment: the huge painting of his torso covered in crickets; the pictures of his forehead before and after Eric had shaved off his left eyebrow; the mannequin carefully papier-mâchéd over with the giant photo of his nude body.
Now Eric was annoyed. “Well, my dear sir, that’s your—as they say—tough shit. Get in here.”
Donald followed him into his study, which had been cleared of the furniture and the tipping stacks of Donald artwork. In their place was a rusting children’s swing set, although heavy chains hung where the swings used to. Opposite, Eric’s best camera and lights were trained on the scene.
Donald gave the set-up only a cursory glance. Where was the usual awe, the keenness?
Eric refused to acknowledge the shift: “I’m going to be a pedophile at the park, feeling my young victim up while I push her on the swing set. You’re going to be up-side-down for a while. You may pass out, I don’t know. Does that frighten you?”
Donald lifted his face to Eric, beseeching, and Eric’s ogle passed away. He crossed his arms, willing himself to breathe. The room was suddenly stuffy and smelled of cat piss.
“Get over there.” But Eric sounded squeaky.
Donald moved in front of the chains. The shorts were so tight that a testicle was now visible, but instead of delighting in this detail, Eric found himself wanting to look away. Things were quickly unraveling.
He’d carefully designed the swing set contraption and even tried it on himself, but Donald was much bigger and heavier, so that when Eric trussed him up and pulled the chains that would invert him, they bound at the top of the now creaking frame, leaving Donald only horizontal.
“God damn it! Don’t move.” As Donald swayed randomly with his breathing, Eric did his best to free the chains. He’d spent too much of his time on this project to let it beat him, even if it suddenly felt as if its artistic validity had been completely drained.
“If I don’t get this fucking thing working, I might just shoot you with your balls hanging out like that. You look idiotic!” The harder he pulled on the chain now, the more Eric tittered, the muscles in his chest and throat contracting, the air being rhythmically pushed up and choked down.
“Fuck this! You’re too fucking fat!”
The swing set’s top beam collapsed, and Donald landed heavily on top of the pile of chains beneath him. His legs immediately started scrambling like an injured animal’s, but the Uggs wouldn’t cooperate, so it took him a moment to shift his position. His grunting finally caused Eric to tear himself away from the camera and approach him, but not before he’d gotten a couple of potential keepers of Donald struggling and grimacing. After all, Eric had been an artist long enough to know that sometimes, one has to surrender one’s plans to the will of art and just roll with the bitch. The whole thing might still be salvageable.
He pulled Donald up, who had clearly injured his chest, and although he wanted to punish him, Eric mildly remarked, “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Donald’s face was now animated with pain, his teeth bared above the “porn star” t-shirt in such a way that Eric was tempted to take a few more shots. But something about Donald’s flashing manner warned him not to.
“Why don’t we get you onto the bed, and I’ll take a look.”
Donald held himself farther away from Eric than seemed Donald-like as they shuffled out, and Eric told himself that it was the pain. As he helped Donald gently pull off the t-shirt, a series of bright pink welts presented themselves—something that he would never have gone for, exactly, but something he couldn’t pass up now that it was right in front of him.
“Wow. Do you think you broke any ribs?”
“I don’t know.”
Eric could feel Donald’s eyes on him and was suddenly enraged when he felt his face flush. “Listen, if you’re going to start breaking the rules with this whole deal, then we’re ending it! We’re both getting something out of this, capiche?”
Donald looked away and lay quietly down.
“Now, hold still. I’m sorry, but this is too good not to get on film. Okay?”
Donald’s breathing slowed down as he rearranged the shorts.
Eric found that after he left to retrieve his camera, there was a dread that now clung to their situation, their “partnership,” and he didn’t want to return to his own bedroom. Something fundamental had changed between this session and the one just a day earlier, and his mind rushed through ways to make sense of the situation, hopefully to salvage it. Donald had never wanted anything before, never expected anything. But this was a betrayal, and the one thing that Eric never excused was a betrayal.
When he was eleven years old and just before his mother moved out, it was the same thing with the dining room. The three of them always had dinner together, and even though it was clear that his parents were trying so hard for him, the time he spent in that room was like a lie he told to himself. He could still feel the strain on his facial muscles, forcing pleasant expressions that originated in shame, his eyes manically trained on some of the world’s most boring foods: gray pork chops, burnt chili, stringy chicken. Nothing was ever prepared with enough salt, and their crystals coating everything was usually the only thing he could remember about those meals after leaving the table and retreating to his video games upstairs. The salt, catching the light at crystalline edges one moment and dissolving into coagulated gravy the next. His parents had done that to him.
Twenty years later, Eric had a lot of unusual items in his apartment: dozens of internet-sex-catalog oddities; exquisite, handmade, ethnic plunder; friends’ shocking, brilliant artwork. He had a six-foot, foam-core pickle that recited a Hitler speech when you plugged it in.
But he didn’t have a salt shaker.
As Eric stared at the door to his bedroom, refusing to allow Donald the upper hand, he began to wonder if maybe the whole project wasn’t a bit too derivative, predictable in its desire to shock by figuratively raping the middle class. The whole thing suddenly seemed pretentious, over-reaching, and it was only the building, clenching rage at his subject that drove him back in.
Donald’s chest was worse, but the bruising now looked to Eric like something private, something suffered alone and modestly. Even his bedroom felt like it didn’t belong to him, anymore.
He put the camera down on his dresser and closed his eyes on the scene. The violated schoolgirl concept was at the center of his installation.
“All right. What the fuck happened? You know, I can sense that you’re not participating. And none of this shit works for me if you’re not participating.”
“Why me, Eric?”
Now Eric found himself avoiding Donald’s pleading gaze, and his anger at this new subversion screamed up from his guts, joining all the other causes of his fury that re-emerged and multiplied whenever he was thrust into this kind of shit. He could feel his face contorting uncontrollably, the same ugliness of a grown man about to cry, but without the possibility of inspiring pity. Nonetheless, he wanted Donald to see this; he could be naked, too.
“Because you’re free and you’re utterly nothing! And because you’ve always begged for it, at least up to now. So maybe the real question is: why me, Donald? Really, do you even have a clue how to answer that? Do you have a clue how important this is to me? Have you ever really given a shit about it? Because I’m not the one who approached you. I’m not the one that worked out this whole deal. That was all you, buddy. So now, to find you all of a sudden looking at me like I’m some kind of freak is not only unfair, it’s also proof that you don’t know the first fucking thing about what you call love! And I can’t fucking stand hypocrites—you should have at least worked that one out by now.”
Donald almost sounded surprised by it himself: “I still love you.”
“And I don’t love you. So I don’t have to put up with any of this shit. I just don’t! I don’t even know you, and I don’t want to. I already know too much. And you don’t know me, so don’t presume that just because you say I’m so important to you and that my success with this project is, too, that it has any impact on me, whatsoever.”
The detached evaluation Donald performed on Eric was the worst affront yet, but Eric declined to rise to the bait.
Once again, the aching supplication: “So what do you think I feel for you? Eric, please, I—”
“I want you to leave now.”
Donald got slowly up, the comforter gathering in his clenched hands. Eric had never dared attempt to inflict this particular kind of pain on his subject because he’d been worried he’d walk, but now that it was here, he had to capture it, Uggs and all. It was also a suitably brutal response to Donald’s questions, his shift in attitude, and Eric reveled in the rawness of his power. The camera flicked away, documenting Donald’s winces, his eyes slightly crossed from the effort to move. He held his torso so stiffly that the tortured sculptures on and around Eric’s bureau were an eloquent echo of Donald’s suffering. As he photographed, Eric realized that this suffering could never have reached the level it had without Donald’s sudden emotional turmoil, and he found himself relaxing into a gladness of it. Even if he never saw Donald again, he had this, and this was new, a nice addition. In fact, the submissive, desperate nature present in all of Donald’s other images, Eric was now beginning to realize, limited their impact. Willing victim was suddenly too one-note. He began to wonder if the project wasn’t worth the effort after all.
“How would you feel about me coming to your party and humiliating you there? Bringing all our work—a trial run of the show? For all your people to see? I wonder what they’d think about you, then. Capturing their reactions would finish off my project nicely. Do you love me enough to let me do that to you?”
Donald continued toward his pile of clothing silently. He removed the shorts with his back to Eric, but Eric grabbed his shoulder and turned him around, the graphic injuries a nice contrast to the paleness of the thighs and bound to look fantastic in black-and-white.
Finally, after getting most of his clothing on, Donald posed his own question, the tone of his voice better suited to the subject of chess or microbiology. “What do you feel about me?”
“I don’t answer questions, buddy, I ask them. I’m going to humiliate you at your party. Look at the camera lens and tell me how that will make you feel.”
A sentiment Eric never thought he’d see flower on Donald’s face: the smooth brow and pressed lips of an academic detachment.
“I’ll see you then.”
Austin remembered the very second he stopped caring. He’d seen his cellmate beaten up for what had to be the twentieth time that month, and he actually felt a physical shift inside of himself, two monolithic stones scraping by one another, one coming and one going. The one going was the one that cared, and the one inside him now was blissfully hollow, free of needless, and therefore dangerous, things. It struck him now that they were both just stones, and one worked just as well as the other to mill things into dust.
His next concern was just dinner, and after that, just rec time and then just lights out. Just a single line of duties to manage, one at a time; just one, single life to live.
Brad waited the full twenty minutes before going next door to their stuffy office: 9:22 to 9:42. He wasn’t planning on going the exact moment the clock hit 9:42, but he finished reformatting the spreadsheet he was working on at the same time and didn’t see a point in starting on the next step. It didn’t have to be twenty minutes, either, because that might be a pattern people would start to notice if they became suspicious at all.
In the corridor, Brad considered alternatives: first fifteen minutes, then the next day maybe twenty minutes, then fourteen and nineteen, then thirteen and eighteen. But he’d lose track too quickly of the waiting period that way, even though he didn’t really even need a waiting period, as such. Maybe he could tie it to a random event, like the first phone call after Donald arrived, or the first bird he saw in the tree near his window. Or maybe not the first, but the fifth. But there were a lot of birds, so maybe the first time he saw two birds together. Actually in the tree.
Stacy had her back turned when Brad entered, so he could smile at the top of Donald’s head. The bright sunlight that was reflected off the snow outside passed under Donald’s thin patch and glowed on his shiny scalp.
“You really have to start showing up on time, Donald.”
Stacy turned back and took a pencil out of her mouth. “An old guy slipped and fell.”
“Of course, he did. Can I—? For a second—?” Brad motioned to the door.
Donald rose and smiled broadly. “Okay, Brad.”
Brad led, his mind focused exclusively on his ears, on noises that might determine what he’d do next. There was nothing else to think about. Everyone remained in their workspaces behind closed doors, so he continued down the short hall to the men’s room, and Donald followed. They’d just remodeled the bathroom, and it was all black tile now, with strange, indirect fluorescent lighting that always reminded Brad of somewhere. Maybe the morgue, only with more vertical shadows. Designed to draw attention away from unsightly stains.
The room was empty, so Brad backed into a corner behind the door near the paper towel dispenser. They had time to separate and recover back there if someone came in.
Closing his eyes, Brad soon had his face buried in Donald’s shoulder, his hands grasping at Donald’s shoulder blades. Perfectly silent, they hugged until footsteps echoed in the hall, and Brad quickly disengaged. He didn’t look at Donald; rather, he kept his left arm pressed against Donald’s right until the footsteps moved into an office.
He didn’t want to say it. Donald didn’t want to hear it. But there was only so much weirdness a guy could take: “So I guess maybe we should head, you know, back to the slog, as it were.”
Donald shrugged, nodding, but then faltered, the shadows of the room taking over more of his face. “You know, Brad, if you ever want to ask me about anything at all, I’ll be totally honest—”
“Shh, shh, shh! No, no, no! Go. Go! It’s echoey in here. People don’t have conversations in the bathroom.”
“So you do want to have a conversation?”
“Just go, go, go!”
Donald frowned and left the bathroom first, as was the custom. Brad could only concentrate on counting to thirty-five because everything else in his brain was melted, and then he passed into the hall, flushed and loose. Back in the white space of everyone else, he could manage only to promise himself that he would reconsider the usefulness of the thirty-five-second rule later, once the real world seemed important again.
* * *
Brad hadn’t thought about Donald’s question when he returned to his desk, and he hadn’t thought about it when he took a break and had a granola bar. He hadn’t thought about it when he really did go to the bathroom—even though he’d been in the very room where the question was asked—and he hadn’t thought about it when he went to lunch and had a burger with a huge red onion that lingered on his breath and hands and made him wonder why anyone would care enough about somebody like him to ever ask a question like that in the first place. He had fat, stubby fingers that almost wanted to reek of onion.
In fact, he hadn’t thought about anything except the new contracts for the hourly workers until Elizabeth dropped the kids off at the office that afternoon. She was going to spend the night with her sister in Secaucus, who had just had a miscarriage, and the last thing she’d want around, Elizabeth had said, was the kids.
Only then had Brad had his first thought since Donald’s question that wasn’t work-related: the last thing he wanted around was the kids at work. And he only realized why when the kids had run into Donald and Stacy’s office. Brad had raced in after them, his lips pressed against each other by the force of his furrowed forehead.
“Hey, guys. Come on now. Come back to my office, okay?”
“It’s no biggie, Brad!” Stacy shook her perm in dismissal.
But Donald had frozen, his eyes glazed over and glowing from the light of his monitor. He looked terrified of Cooper and Emma’s presence.
If Brad had instinctively felt that it wasn’t a good idea to mix his work life and his home life together, Donald’s disturbing reaction cemented the conviction.
Brad moved aggressively toward his children, who responded by staring, confused, up into his eyes. “Come on. Let’s let them work. Sorry, guys.”
He grabbed their hands and swiftly left Stacy and Donald’s office, disturbed by what he’d witnessed there, yet relieved to have the kids’ hyperactive antics to occupy his mind for the rest of the day.
Of course, Brad knew the gentle knock. He swallowed down a little stomach acid that had suddenly sprung up as he reviewed all the tumultuous consideration he’d given the question, mostly the night before, staring at the digital clock on his bed stand. Every time a number changed, and especially when two—or even three—numbers changed, he felt his resolve click, stronger and stronger: too much knowledge about Donald would destroy what they had. On no account would he ask questions of any kind.
“Who is it?” Brad tried to relax his forehead as Donald entered. “Oh, hi, Donald. Close the door, would you?”
Donald did as he was told and sat down. “I’m so sorry I’m late, Brad.”
Brad was suddenly up. “‘I’m sorry I’m late again,’ maybe?”
“You’re really upset. And that’s the last thing I ever want to do.”
Brad paced behind his desk, rubbing his chair, touching the window blinds. “Donald! Look, I know that you always have legitimate reasons, somehow—”
“And that’s what I wanted to talk with you about—”
“I’m not asking!” Brad sputtered out a humorless laugh. “All that, or whatever, is all your business. This is a work environment. So I’m sure you can see where I’m coming from.”
“Of course, I do. Would it make it easier for you if I quit? We could still—”
“Easier?! Of course, it would! I don’t think you’ve ever even worked a forty-hour week the whole time you’ve been here!” Brad stroked the back of his chair, almost tenderly, as he finally noticed that Donald’s eyes were red, as if he’d been crying and might soon again. Brad never thought that in his life, he’d want to embrace someone and punch them so much at the same time. It was insane. Then he noticed that he more or less wanted to do the same thing to himself. And when Brad added these two reactions up, the result was his relationship with this situation, which he’d been concurrently needing and hating for almost a year.
He used to think of himself as a great manager. That was gone. But he also had begun to think of himself as ultimately alone, and that was gone, too. Because the last few years with Elizabeth had been like gradually losing sight of land.
If anything, the big news for Brad was that nothing worth anything is ever easy.
“Of course, it wouldn’t be easier.” Brad sat back down and studied Donald’s broad, sweater-clad chest. “Elizabeth wants to go back to school for her MBA because ‘I’m not really moving ahead here.’ Not like she was expecting, anyway. And I was, too, I guess.” The wool was gray-green and reminded Brad of his grandfather. “I know I’ll feel even more of a failure if the kids are stuck with some babysitter. Someone who only wants to be around them because they’re getting paid. Kids sense those kinds of things. And I know they only have one childhood. It’s such a weight on my mind.”
“Of course, it is.”
Brad shrugged. “And I know that if I told Elizabeth my feelings, she’d just tell me to pick a nanny who could teach the kids piano.”
Donald squirmed in his chair now, his face contorting with one of his shades of pain. “I’ll just stay late every night. Maybe I can stay on top of things that way. Will that make things easier for you?”
Brad imagined the sweater vibrating along with Donald’s deep voice. The wool would be scratchy and cool against his cheek.
“I appreciate that, Donald, I really do. But your job really requires you to be around when the rest of us are. You know that.”
“What can I do?” Donald leaned forward, his right hand strangling his left wrist.
Brad wanted to strangle that wrist, too. Where had it come from? Why wasn’t it like every other wrist on the planet? And why had it landed here, in the middle of this particular office in Montclair, New Jersey?
“What am I supposed to do if you’re not here? Come in every day and what? What?!” Brad pulled a sheet of paper out of his top drawer. He’d filled it out a month ago, and it was a replacement for one he’d filled out four months earlier. “I need you to sign this written warning. Too many people know that this should have been done a long time ago. The next time, you’ll be let go.”
Donald sat back, nodded and shrugged. “You’re doing the right thing. You always do the right thing.”
Brad looked down at his desk. The useless paperwork that dominated his existence only exacerbated the sudden frustration. “I never do the right thing.”
“You do, and someday you’ll appreciate it. I just wish you did, now.”
“Donald! Don’t. Please!”
Donald quickly signed the document without looking at it. “And we could still—”
“No, we can’t! What, meet up once every couple of weeks when Elizabeth lets me out of the house?!”
Now Donald did start to cry. It seemed like such a common process to him that he didn’t even notice it, and this caused Brad to take a deep breath in an effort to regroup, which merely caught on a sob of his own. He attempted to control it by holding his breath.
This was a workplace, not a talk show.
“Brad. You deserve more than this. I know that. You deserve someone who’s there for you twenty-four hours a day and can appreciate everything about you. Because it is everything. All of you. But I can’t—”
“Please! Donald, please.”
Donald ducked his head then looked expectantly at Brad, his face glistening and ravaged.
But there was a seam that ran along the shoulder of his sweater. Brad quickly walked around his desk and embraced his friend, lining the seam up with his jawbone and gently rubbing back and forth over it. Its hardness was just as comforting as Brad predicted.
The worry that was to come—the replay of the meeting, with two grown men hugging and crying about something that wasn’t even clear to Brad, at least not in his brain—all of that dropped and became still for the insignificant future as he stood so, so close to Donald.
“You don’t deserve this.”
Brad was sketching a unicorn on the corner of his desk blotter, which he had long and silently considered his signature creature. When he was ten, he had seen a horse outside of Lexington who appeared to have some sort of light brown horn, and he looked away before the mirage was torn apart. The horse was far away, at the edge of a stand of trees and had a bandage on its right rear knee. His father had driven by on the way to the Sears Tire Center. The bandage made Brad wonder how people could know about a unicorn and not share it with the world. It was the kind of question that he was now sad to realize was exterminated by adulthood.
Brad had been sketching unicorns ever since. His wife had noticed early on and made a wry comment, never verbalizing again but only turning her face away each time she saw another one. He wasn’t ashamed exactly, but over the years, his desire to doodle at home retreated. This had been replaced by coping mechanisms, conciliatory gestures and unspoken resentments that never exactly went away, but instead stacked up in neat categories, providing each other with structure and support so that when a new one was laid atop, it was nearer the surface, closer to popping. Sometimes Brad imagined lancing them all at once and forcing his wife to swallow their contents, but then he thought of how she looked when she was sleeping, demanding nothing, relaxed and defenseless, and he became ashamed of himself.
Today, he was sketching a white unicorn with a black mane and tail when there was the knock on his door.
Donald entered, closed the door behind him and stood expectantly next to the desk. Brad immediately noticed he was wearing a pair of hi-tech sneakers and swallowed a snicker.
“Who gave you those?”
“My other shoes were damaged. These are actually really comfortable.”
“And two sizes too small, I bet.”
“You don’t miss anything, do you.” As he said this, Donald lifted his arm in Brad’s direction, but let it fall back. Brad moved his hands to his lap away from his unicorn, and Donald’s eyes welled up as he stared at the blotter.
In a way, Brad was glad for whatever was about to happen because he just couldn’t do this, anymore.
“How’s your family?”
“Good. Fine.” Brad felt his own eyes stinging.
“So I have two things I wanted to talk with you about, if you have time.”
“First, I’d like to invite you to a New Year’s party I’m having on Sunday night.” Donald froze in expectance.
“Stacy is even helping me set it up at Rascal’s.”
“Rascal’s?” Brad was glad that the conversation was so unexpected because his dread subsided immediately.
“It would mean so much to me if you could meet my other friends, Brad.”
A different kind of dread sunk into Brad’s chest. Other. With no thoughts to speak of, Brad picked up his ruler and used it to surgically remove the unicorn from its corner of the blotter. “We’re actually going to our friends’ house, the Kriegs. We already, you know, set it up.” He threw the unicorn into the trash next to an empty bag of Bugles. They almost looked like fat unicorn horns, and he wondered if that’s why he liked them so much.
“Oh, that’s sounds great.” Donald’s voice was cracking, and Brad continued to consider snack shapes in his wastepaper basket.
“God, I’m so stupid about things! I’m sorry. Of course you’ve got plans. It’s just that I really need—”
“So. So, others. Is it the same?”
“Do you talk about me?”
“Am I… well. That’s all right.”
“That’s okay. That’s all right. That’s really okay.”
Donald sighed unevenly. His hand was vacantly stroking the edge of the desk.
“Donald, what was the other thing.”
“I was wondering.” Donald paused in an attempt to even his voice out. “I was wondering if I could get out of here a little early today.”
It was like breaking a dowel in his hand, the exact same painful shock of vibration. And with it, Brad could no longer ignore that he wasn’t built for this. If there were tools or rules that he’d grown up with, but there was nothing. Twenty-first Century America offered a lot of maps, but not for whatever it was they shared. At least this wasn’t his fault, and it was actually a relief that he would no longer feel that it would have to be, somehow.
Still, Brad couldn’t keep the frustration from being the first emotion he expressed. “You can’t do that.”
Donald remained still, sniffling back his tears.
“Donald, please. Not for me, but for the job. I mean, what on earth is so important?”
“No, don’t tell me. You don’t have to tell me.”
“You know, I’m thinking that maybe working from home might be a better way for all of this.”
Perhaps it wasn’t that strange that Brad had only recently started wondering about Donald’s life outside of work—after all, they’d both avoided discussing anything remotely personal about him. Of course, Brad had told Donald all about Elizabeth, all about the snowball of refusals, so light and inconsequential at the beginning, that had become so grievous and momentous lately. Only the day before, he’d realized that she consistently seated the kids between them at the movie theater.
Brad’s chest ached: he’d never be able to tell this to someone who would understand now, someone who’d shared in the gradual accretion of his marriage—and who was so remarkably concerned with it.
“Brad, we can still—”
“Still what? We work together. It’s not on purpose. It’s just the way we are, here. Outside of here, I mean, maybe you want more—”
“No! You know I only want what we have.”
Brad found himself smiling, nodding. “I know. Me, too! It’s just a little weird, you know? And I’m not a weird guy. I’m sorry, but I guess it couldn’t just stay the same.”
This was going to be the last time. It had to be. Brad was surprised at how good the hug felt, considering the circumstances. It must be electric; it felt just like they were swapping electrons. Brad knew that when he’d pull away, much, much later, he’d smell Donald on his clothing, that this must be atoms from Donald’s warm body, and perhaps some of these atoms would slip into his pores and might be with him when he lost their originator for good.
But Brad was the one who was going to be lost. He had no others. He hadn’t swapped electrons with anyone besides Donald for a long while, and he may never again. The shock of this made him start to fiercely rework things in his mind to try and concoct a formula that might work, even while Donald rubbed a small circle on the back side of his heart. Brad knew he should just be focused on experiencing, but he couldn’t help himself. And now, his desperation was going to ruin the last time.
His heart. The back side of his heart. And then Brad became aware of Donald’s heart beating. Donald was a broad, thick man, and beside the considerable mass of his chest, there were several layers of clothing, too, between them. But there it was, and this was the first time that Brad had ever felt it. It was fast and strong, almost explosive between them, and probably only noticeable because of all the weight Donald had been losing lately. He was definitely bonier. As Brad wondered if his heart felt the same to Donald, he completely understood for the first time that this man was just as invested in the situation as he was, maybe even more so.
Their shoulders were damp now, but Brad didn’t care. “How can you feel more than I do?” This was it; this was the end.
Donald hugged more tightly, tremor-ridden. “I don’t know.”
Brad imagined what it must look like: the split-level at the end of the street. Small but surrounded by an expanse of what would soon again be a lush lawn, Christmas decorations rustling in the morning wind, a terribly elegant wreath that Elizabeth had picked out six months earlier on the bright red front door.
When he opened it, Brad could feel the artificially developed pine odor rushing out into the sun. He hadn’t even been able to make it for a full twenty-four hours: “Donald.”
Now that Donald was finally here, Brad felt his house bearing down on him, the sky pressing the air out of his lungs. He looked over Donald’s shoulder at a car pulling away, Shara Delvecchio driving her mother to adult day care. “Why don’t you come on in.”
As soon as the door was closed, the room was plunged into stifling murkiness, the only really clear items being the white felt beneath the Christmas tree in the corner and the white spray snow that had been over-applied at its base. Glass hutch doors shuddered in response to the men’s movement, the delicate sound echoing off shiny laminate floors. Now that the door was closed on Brad’s neighborhood, the whole thing seemed a little more hopeful.
“Thanks for coming.” No one was in the house. “I mean, is this all right?”
“Of course, it’s all right! It’s great. It’s great to see you again, Brad.”
The men stood in the small foyer, Brad aware of the new mahogany table behind Donald and the proximity of his coat zipper to its reflective surface. Then Brad sunk into the thought of what was underneath the jacket, the quiet, enduring humanity.
“Can I take your coat?”
Donald smiled as he removed his muffler and rustled his Gortex off. He seemed smaller here, somehow. Underneath everything was another one of his expansive sweaters, beige with rust flecks. Brad became aware of his own heartbeat at his neck and wrists as he hung the coat up in the closet, his mind beginning to swim and to drain.
When he turned back to his guest, Donald had moved a little closer. Brad plunged himself into the man’s chest and buried his nose in his neck, searching for Donald’s smell of pumpkin and motor oil and quickly detecting it. He savored the heartbeat, felt their undulations of breath, which moved closer, became one, moved apart. He became aware of their feet, their shoes, which were pressed up against each other, too. He resented the fact that this was taking place in the center of his home, but he had to do this. Over the course of his life, he’d learned how to compromise, and he’d come to accept that compromise was just one of the consequences for the uncreative. He was fine with that, now. He was fine with everything.
Uncharacteristically, Donald was the first to loosen his hold. Brad dropped his arms in surprise.
“I’m a little… Can I sit down for a second? Sorry.”
“Oh, god. Sure.” Brad walked into the kitchen and indicated the nearest, backless stool at the counter. The things were uncomfortable after a few minutes, and Brad wanted Donald upright again soon.
“Would you like something to eat or drink?” Donald’s eyelids were gray, the lines around his nose and mouth deeper, unless it was the passionless northern light from the nearby window.
“That would be wonderful, thanks! Whatever you’ve got is fine with me. I’ve just been feeling, you know—”
“You look tired.” The refrigerator was empty of most everything but condiments. And thank god of it, because shopping would keep Elizabeth and the kids away for a long time. “I don’t have a lot, right now.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll grab something later.”
“Maybe there’s some soup.” Brad knew there wasn’t, but he needed some time to think about the next few minutes. It was just them, now. No immediate reason to part, no work issues to fill in the cracks of awkwardness that constantly shot through this thing, whatever it was.
Brad shut the pantry door and swung around at Donald, who was in his private space, now, who was from this moment a much bigger part of his life. “So what is this? I mean, what do we do?” He laughed in spite of himself. “You know? I feel like I’m cheating on my wife, for Christ’s sake! I am cheating, in a way! I’m supposed to be doing this with her. I guess. Or maybe not this, exactly, but you know. It was one thing at work. I could tell myself that it was like some kind of weird work relationship or something. But the thing is, she can’t do it! We never—it’s always been something different. She’s a regular person; she only cares about me so much. I mean, why are you here?”
“I know how difficult things have been for you, Brad, and I want to make things better however I can.”
“But why?” Brad felt behind him on the counter, eventually grabbing the little air purifier. “What’s so bad in my life? You know?” He had the pack in his pocket, and he lit a cigarette on the stove, bending over so that all the smoke was immediately processed by the tiny, whirring fan. “It’s not that bad.”
“I guess I don’t know.”
“And why are you even bothering? I mean, do you actually know what the reason is? Because I don’t.”
“There are lots of reasons.” Donald seemed to hold his breath.
“But you hardly know me! I mean, work and everything. But not really. They can’t be, you know, particularly realistic, these reasons. Accurate.”
“Well, you might not want to hear all of them.”
Brad inhaled a great wave of nicotine. “Try me.”
“You’re funny, but the kind of funny that most people aren’t. You don’t even know you’re being funny, or if you do, I can’t tell.”
“I’m not funny.” Brad put his face right up to the purifier and felt the smoke being pulled out of his nose. It was more pleasurable than he would have thought. He may have purred a little.
Donald chuckled behind him. “You see? That’s funny. And you’re so helpless, sometimes. How else would someone feel about a person who’s so thoughtful and caring, but who just needs a little break, once in a while? And I know you don’t want to hear this, but your wavy hair—”
“You’re right; I don’t want to hear this.” Brad turned on the faucet and carefully dumped a load of ash into the sewer system.
Then he looked frankly into Donald’s eyes. He wasn’t lying, and there was more there, too. It was precisely why the situation was so uncomfortable: Donald couldn’t or didn’t hide things.
If it hadn’t have been for that, the two men wouldn’t be facing one another in Brad’s kitchen. But Brad still had no idea if that was a good thing or a bad one.
“So, these others. What’s that all about?”
Donald looked out the kitchen window. For the first time ever, he didn’t seem as if he wanted to give Brad what he needed, and Brad was immediately glad that he wasn’t going to get an answer. He didn’t really want to know, it was just that he couldn’t go on without asking the question that had always been there, waiting. Not if they were going to move it outside the office, this whole strange thing.
But then, Donald stretched out his arm toward Brad on the counter. He looked terrified, and Brad’s stomach plunged from the possibilities.
“Brad. I’m different from most people.”
Brad had to turn away, so he filled the purifier with another lungful.
“I fall in love with everyone I see.”
There. It was only a surprise in that he’d finally said it, the words settling in the kitchen like ash. Brad wasn’t special at all.
“And once I have, it never goes away.”
Brad was an accident; their whole thing was just one of hundreds of things. Hundreds of strangers got the same treatment, or maybe better.
“No wonder you can’t hold down a job!” Brad fumbled with his cigarette, his face hot. He was determined not to let Donald know how hurt he was. Probably everyone else made a scene; he didn’t want to be more like them than he was, already. Just one of the crowd of pathetic, desperate losers, that they would let this happen to themselves, let Donald add them to his list.
“I haven’t been telling people because all it does is make them feel bad. Or maybe they think that I don’t really love them. But I do.”
“Well, don’t worry about me! I’m relieved, to be honest. Takes a lot of the pressure off! And now, you know, we can end this thing, which has gotten way too weird for me now, and I’ll know that, you know, you’ve got a bunch of other people, so it won’t be such a big deal for you.”
Donald looked at his lap, clearly working up one of his crying fits again. But it was all his own fault! Brad didn’t go around hugging his employees; he hadn’t started it! And he didn’t love Donald! He’d never said that he loved him!
“It would be a big deal for me, Brad.”
“And the New Year’s party…”
“I wanted everyone to meet you.”
“But really… Really you wanted everyone to meet everyone. You wanted me to meet everyone. Wow. You’re a little crazy, aren’t you.”
Donald lifted his face to Brad, to the window behind him, and revealed a massive wound. Brad needed him out of the house, needed time to process all of this, but he mostly needed a hug more than he’d ever needed one before.
Sergei promised himself it would be the last time, the night literally falling on the city, the kind of winter night that blows hell right into your bones. This would be the last time he would look for her. His mother had probably wandered down into the park, but there was always the slight possibility that she’d shuffled over to the much more dangerous Chaykovskogo, and he struggled with the same problem he always did: which first? Greater chance and less danger? Greater danger but less chance? No matter; this would be the last time he would ask himself this question because it forced him to admit that luck had such a stranglehold on his life. He hated this admission as much as he did his heart beat, which only ever reminded him how simply it could cease.
So next time, it would be his mother’s luck that would matter, not his. Next time, he’d stay by the stove and drink tea while he did his crossword, and fate could take the blame.
Then Brad heard the extremely distinct, raspy sound of Elizabeth’s brakes.
“Holy shit.” Brad threw the cigarette down the sink and turned on the garbage disposal, pouring a large amount of dishwashing liquid in after it. He then looked at the expensive bottle in his hand, which had been mostly emptied. “Shit!”
Grabbing Donald’s soft sweater, he pulled him to the French doors behind Elizabeth’s grandmother’s dining room set. “Wait out here for a second. And, you know, hide. Move away from the door a little. Just for a minute.”
Brad raced back to the kitchen and turned the faucet on. Remarkably quickly, the sink filled up with bubbles, and the more he tried to wash them down the drain, the more were produced. Through the window, he couldn’t see Donald at all, but Roberta Sachow and her ten-year-old son, Eli, were waltzing in their family room across the back yards, their mouths counting out the steps. They actually weren’t that bad.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth was right behind him.
“Oh, hey. I just, I guess I used too much and it went wild on me!”
She looked at the nearly empty bottle but said nothing. “The kids forgot to bring their recycling.”
“I smell cigarette smoke.”
“Is it a stupid rule? Do you think it’s a stupid rule?”
“No! It’s just that I had a friend over, and I forgot to mention it to him.”
“You had a friend over. We’ve been gone ten minutes. What friend.”
“Not a friend. A guy from work.”
“He came and left in ten minutes.”
“It was a work thing.”
“And he had time to smoke.”
“I had to fire him.”
“What, like a firing squad? Did you blindfold him, too?”
Now, Elizabeth laughed, and it was a hard laugh, but it still seemed like maybe there was a bit of affection underneath. Brad wasn’t sure.
As soon as he joined her, she stopped. She was staring over his shoulder.
Brad turned. Donald was waltzing by himself across the deck, smiling at the mother and boy in the other house. He was counting, too, like some kind of dashing clown. As soon as Roberta saw him, she stopped, waved awkwardly and slowly closed her curtains. He looked drunk and was even stumbling a bit, his horizontal plane tilting.
Elizabeth approached the French doors, determined, while Brad trailed her, wondering how it could have happened so fast for Donald. Roberta was awkward and a bore. But did that even matter?
When Elizabeth stepped out on the deck, Donald turned, his face drained of most of its color, and lurched forward, sitting hard on the deck and smiling apologetically.
* * *
Brad stood over the kitchen sink, watching water run down the drain. Nothing was ever going to be the same, but if he told Elizabeth about it, maybe she’d understand. Maybe she hadn’t understood for years because he hadn’t told her anything for years. Basically because he hadn’t had anything to tell her for years. And after all, it wasn’t an affair because he never loved Donald—or anything else like that. Brad hugged his own mother, for Christ’s sake. There wasn’t anything wrong with that.
“What are you doing?”
He turned off the faucet and faced his wife. She only looked resentful. “Oh. How is he doing?”
“How could you leave him out there? Without a coat? Am I really that much of a bitch?”
“I don’t know. I panicked.”
“So I am that much of a bitch. Nice to know.” She came up closer to him. “Well, I guess since I’m such a bitch, I should ask why, if he was the one who was smoking, why he doesn’t smell like smoke, and you do.”
“Well. We both were.”
“But you felt like you had to blame him?” She dropped her voice. “I know I’m not that bad.” She searched his face for a better explanation, and in response, he picked up the air purifier.
“It’s like I’m in prison in my own house, Elizabeth.”
She never altered her glare for an instant. “I don’t want to get into it. The kids are going to be coming down in a minute.”
* * *
The china tinkled with Brad’s entrance into the living room, and Elizabeth rose placidly from her chair. She pulled some hand cream from the table behind her, and expertly worked it into her skin and over her subtle manicure. “So Donald seems like he’s doing a bit better, Brad.”
Donald was lying on the couch, smiling vaguely at the ceiling. He didn’t look better.
Brad nodded awkwardly and stood as far as the room would allow from Elizabeth and Donald. He was never going to see Donald again—certainly never with his other people at some party—and he was never, ever going to explain any of this to Elizabeth. Let her go crazy wondering.
“Oh, that’s great. Yeah, you know, I’m really sorry about all this, Donald.” He pulled a cigarette packet out of the front pocket of his pants and fished for his next one. “Sometimes I get a little crazy with this one!” He pointed the cigarette at Elizabeth. “It’s not her, though, it’s—”
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth put the hand lotion away, now that the entire room smelled overwhelmingly of rose petals.
Brad looked down at the cigarette in his hand and laughed. “You see what I’m saying? You see?!”
“Kids?!” Elizabeth’s raised voice caused Brad’s smile to falter. “We have to go. It was nice meeting you, Donald.” She looked down an instant at the cigarette in Brad’s hand. “Maybe next time we’ll talk more about yoga.” She turned her head toward the stairs to her left, and Brad understood just how much she wished she was out of this situation. “You know, I’m at my class every weekday at ten at The New Day Studios. They’ve got some great instructors over there.”
Brad carefully replaced his cigarette as Elizabeth passed from the room, her quick, purposeful stride an open contrast to the prone guest and slouching husband. “Kids!”
Brad dropped into the chair next to Donald and rubbed his face. Now, he was even whispering: “What the hell were you doing, dancing out there? I told you to hide! She can tell that something weird was going on.”
Donald inspected the empty space where Elizabeth had been standing. “She’s really something.”
Brad’s chest bounced up and down, but his humorless laugh was silent. “Yeah.”
“I’ll be able to stand up again in a second. I feel a lot better.”
Brad watched as Elizabeth, Cooper and Emma passed through the hall and out of the house, fighting the squeaky storm door. Neither of his kids had bothered to look his way, let alone come to him.
“That’s good.” Brad coughed, noticing for the first time that his throat was scratchy. “I think I’m coming down with something.”
As soon as Donald was feeling up to it, Brad was going to get him the hell out of the house. And no hugging. The whole morning had been a nightmare, and he was going to be utterly destroyed by Elizabeth when she got home—or worse, she’d never mention any of it again. His father had always said that you had to harden yourself to make it in the world, and today was the day that Brad would finally take that advice seriously. He found his mind drifting for the thousandth time back over the general unease he felt about all the moments he’d been weak, and all the times people found out about it. The time when he refused to dissect the pig fetus in biology, the black one who had a white spot over his left eye, and everyone tried to treat him the same at school but never did again. Then the time he refused to fire Dominic Carter at K-Mart, even though his speech impediment made it impossible to understand him, and then Dominic had a heart attack and no one understood what was going on until he passed out from the pain. Then the time Brad got mugged behind the CVS, and he didn’t chase after the guy—even though he was so slow that Brad could have easily tackled him and bashed his head repeatedly on the side walk—just because the guy had on a t-shirt advertising an Aerosmith concert from 1976.
It never ended well, and it wasn’t ending well now, so this was it. At the exact minute that Donald crossed the doorstep on his way to all his other people, Brad was going to be a changed man. At that exact minute.
“You know, you have to harden yourself to make it in the world, Donald.”
Donald didn’t seem at all surprised by the comment: “I know.”
Brad watched Elizabeth’s car move down the street. Somehow, she managed to keep it clean, even in the winter. Its chrome flashed in the sun.
Maybe one more hug, but it would definitely be the last.