Uncle R folds his hands around a short red coffee mug. His dog whines behind the sliding glass door, behind his back. Snow falls around the dog, collects in little piles on top of its nose and in-between its ears. The dog stares at me, his eyes hitting my eyes; the fur across its back shivers; it opens its mouth a little and squeals through it. Uncle R pulls himself, his chair, closer to the table and across from me, presses the mug between his lips, his facial hair. He looks like Dad, a little, in the beard, in the purple eye-bags, in the shaken brown hair: dark, like mud.
Does this boy love you? he asks.
Is he asking, Does he love you the way your dead father would have wanted him to love you? Is he asking, Does he love you the way other boys have loved you before: Does he carry you to bed when you fall asleep on the floor from too much painting or cleaning or drinking ? Does he know which way to pull your legs so that you don’t want to fuck anyone else, ever? Does he slap you into the plaster wall when you tell him you are too sick to drive him? Does he spit across your cheek and ear and leave you on the side of the highway because you won’t give him more and more and more money? Does he clean the bloody mess around your lips after you were mugged outside of your apartment?
Is he asking, does he love you more or less than you love him?
Uncle R says, Your father told me once, If a woman doesn’t worship you, then she isn’t the right woman for you.
Little rivers of toxins travel out of Dad's liver and down into his calves. They look like worms moving under his leg hairs, and I push them around for hours until they disappear. I imagine them curling back up into the blackened organ. I never imagine I am healing him; I am only helping us both return to a sense of normalcy defined by the stillness of the yellow skin around his legs.
We’ve never touched but the intentions of touch struggles, shakes between our conversations.
Jonathon stands outside my front door. I watch him through the peephole. He shifts from side to side, rubbing his elbows between his fingers. He looks down at his knees, his feet, leans back on his heels. He hasn’t knocked yet. I can see his breath like smoke punching the air in fast, short bursts. I flatten my hands against the door, and he presses a hand around his chin, scratching around his mouth, looks up, opens his mouth a little, pushes a finger against his lips, through them, scratches a tooth.
I press my forehead against the door, whisper, Just knock. Hit the fucking door.
I don’t know why he’s here, but I heard the car pull up, heard him moving up the sidewalk toward my door, heard him stop there, watched him almost knock.
I look out again: he’s kneeling, squatting, rubbing his arms with his palms; I’m thinking, You are cold. Hit the fucking door. I tap the pads of my fingers against the door, once, in a line: my smallest finger to the strongest two. His head snaps up, his eyes move across the door. So he heard. He stands, lays his fingers across the door, both hands, moves slowly, presses his ear on the cold wood.
We stand there, watching and listening.
I imagine the door is warming from the touch of his face.
He moves away, walking backwards, turns, walks away. I hear the scratch-noise of his car starting, the thick, rough sound of it backing away. I slap the door with both hands and sit down on the floor. Is this what it is to care—to touch him through walls, waiting on the edge for one of us to push through?
More than ten? I ask. Rhys touches his temple, presses it, rubs the skin around in a circle.
More, he says.
Twenty girls? More than that?
He looks at me and pulls a wind of hair out from behind his ear, looks at it, twists it between his fingers. Wind lifts the rest of his hair up and throws it across his face. He spits some out of his mouth, moves it behind his ears. He moves towards me across a scatter of dry leaves.
We left Florida to meet in Colorado in the fall, to see each other and the trees that turn colors and fall apart under the wind.
He came here to tell me that he loves me too much to touch me.
I came here to tell him the same thing.
He says, Dude, just stop asking. You don’t really want to know.
He tells me he does it because his mom was so abusive, that he’ll only fuck girls he doesn’t love. He tells me, That’s why I can’t have you.
I want to grab his yellow hair and press it against his cheeks and feel the spikes of his beard and push my nose against his nose and tell him, Stupid, I’m standing right here.
Instead I glare at him and say, Stupid. I’m standing right here.
A foot away, we stare at each other, quiet for a while. Then we tell each other: You’re perfect, no, You’re perfect. My favorite. And wouldn’t we be perfect together? Or at least, correct? When I move to Europe, you could come with me and drink wine at my apartment while I’d write all day and then we’d fight and fuck and comb each others’ hairs with our fingernails. There would be years of yelling: you asleep on the beach instead of in our bed too many nights in a row, your hair a mat of blond and sand; me curled against my bed sheets, wrapped up. There would be years of silence: you burying our kids in the yard-leaves, painting their faces with food; me touching their hair while they sleep, like touching your hair, only newer. Of course life slows down if we stare at each other long enough, and all the potentials and expectations circle us like carrion birds. The birds will go hungry: I took care of my dad as he slipped into death and your mom threw you against the wall again and again and blamed you for all the men she could never keep.
I’m too much like her, and you’re too much like him.
We drive past the Korean Market and an African mural painted across Enat Ethiopian and the the Christmas lights wrapped around Alfredo’s and Carnes! Carnes! Carnes! and a drycleaner, cash only $1.25 per item, and Subway and Tokyo and Lennox Square Marta Station; we roll behind a bike messenger who idles behind a cement truck. We park at Thomas Choi Law Firm; walk in. Maria greets us in Spanish; we shake our heads. In English then, she says, Hello. We introduce ourselves. Newlyweds! She says, Congratulations! She bites her lip and scrutinizes us, smiling, trying to hide that she’s scrutinizing us. We smile, trying to hide that we know she’s scrutinizing us. She leads us into her office, to go over fees.
Do you love each other? she asks.
We have had sex three times, once on the couch in San Diego, once on his loft bed, once in the car. When he kisses me, I feel like a man: my shoulders feel wider, my hands harder, my hands more prominent. When I kiss him, I try to make him feel like a man. He doesn’t know that I will jump into other boys arms and wrap my legs around their chests and let them hold me and hold me because we haven’t seen each other for years. I will let them pull my hair with their fingers and teeth and cup my jaws in their palms to keep my breath in.
We answer, Yes.
So you married for love?
Tatsu has been a friend for five years. If I didn’t do this for him, he would have to leave everyone he knows, a half decade of his life, to go back to Japan. It rained the day we pulled up to the courthouse; I wore the ring he gave me to avoid questions. No one noticed. We signed some documents and showed our ID’s. The attendant stared at our chests when she spoke to us, only lifting her eyes to check our drivers licenses. A few weeks later, we realized we were both single—and married— so why not. Why not.
Can you tell me each other’s phone numbers?
We tell her.
Can you tell me the color of each others’ toothbrushes?
We tell her.
She looks at Tatsu and asks, Have you met her parents?
He nods. She asks me the same thing.
Not yet, I say. We’re going to Japan next March.
She nods, says, This is an example of the interview process.
Todd sits with his legs bent, wrapped around me, my legs, bent, wrapped around him. We didn’t have sex this time, so we folded around each other and laid our heads on each others’ shoulders and breathed. I can feel Todd’s breath stop against the side of my neck when he says, You could move here. I tell him that if he had said that last year, two years ago, three, the piles of needles and trash and snow clogging the doorways of downtown Baltimore would sicken me, familiar, rather than existing as postcard images, coals for nostalgia.
I tell him, We’ve been doing this for too long. Too long.
Breath slides out of our noses and across our shoulders, disappears. I wonder if our breath will find the trees outside, will confront them, offer to them, “breathe back.” I’m looking at the dark blue walls and the peeling off-white paint on the window frame, feeling the October cold seeping in through the old glass. Todd is probably looking at the tall, heavy wooden door, the nails that crack the doorframe and our coats and scarves hanging from them. He asks, Are we ending this then?
He says, I want to have children with you, someday.
Not today, I say.
He says, Not today.
A puddle of blood clots, the size of two or three quarters, rests on his pillow:
The night before, he was alive. This morning, he is dead: This sort of bare fact takes years to filter through.
Months after I bent under his weight, moved him down to the carport, step to step to step, pushed him into the car, lifted his feet, shut the door, waited until the defrost cleared the windshield, backed up, bumped into the garbage can, said, “fucking god damn trashcan,” listened to him groaning, drove across town, under the graffiti bridge, over the three-mile-bridge, into the ER parking lot, parked, pulled him out, curled under his weight again, held his toxin-swollen hand, shifted him into the possession of the nurses, delicate, like a gift, watched him forget himself, watched hours move, watched him shake as the toxins ran through him, watched him still and shine yellow and swollen, dead and gone, attached to machines and when they asked me what I thought I said, of course, just let him go—months after that I stare, soulless, at a boy I love and tell him, Just leave.
To carry my father into death is to understand that caring is giving, is blowing out all of my breath and wondering where it goes when it floats away, is throwing every meaningful possession off the side of a mountain, into the ocean, giving them to the barnacles and the urchins and the whales, telling myself, telling myself, they still mean something rotting under the salt water and half-buried in sand.
-Asha Baisden (from Sweet: A Literary Confection)