Moment Thirty-Two (Service)

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Akin to street vendors, the men aligned. They were stacked rather, according to their spatial nearness.  The whole thing resembled the universe before the Big Bang. Some of them had to elbow their way out of the crowd. Each of the users had chosen their best picture, for sure, and each of those pictures recreated a moment stolen out of their lives. An instant of happiness perhaps? Some of them were faceless, a glimpse of red underwear here, a patch of brownish skin over there, next to the guy who chose to show the picture of a sunset over Central Park instead of his face. And yet, a sense of security exuded from each of those instances displayed on the screen of his phone, the kind of security he craved for and hoped to have attained on that same dating app.

Sunday mornings were always like that: smell of unwashed sheets and sweat, the radiators hissing as if about to start moving, hellish creatures, the desperate sense that showering was necessary and that it was the only day of the week when he could have cake. Then the hand moving downwards, sliding in between his legs to caress morning erections. Just one look at those pictures was enough to unleash waves and waves of fantasies and pleasure. He wouldn’t touch the skin, no, he would merely rub his erection through his boxers and then smell his fingers when he stopped to prolong the sensation. There was some sort of pleasure to be taken out of it, in detecting that smell of urine on his fingers, one that mixed with the smell of tobacco stubbornly refusing to be washed away.

Then he would fall asleep again only to be awakened by the expectancy of that final relief. The cycle would be repeated a couple of times. There had been a time, a very long time before that, when he still believed in some sort of divine retribution and refused to masturbate on Sunday mornings when supposedly the Sunday mass would be happening. He would wait until the afternoon to do it. Those were the times when he had a laundry basket in the bathroom next to the washing machine. Those were the times when he used to clean the house on Saturday afternoon in preparation for the holiness of the next day. Those were indeed the times when he had a nightstand and a bedside lamp. He no longer did that. His dirty underwear was simply hidden from view in a plastic grocery bag under the bed. It wasn’t really a bed, it was merely a mattress placed over a metallic structure, one that resembled a beach chaise longue. The nightstand was a cardboard box that had originally housed a desk lamp. He was aware of the dust settling on his books, which were stacked not on shelves but on a make-believe fireplace, but could not find the energy or the will to do it.

Then the innocent glare of the phone.

The page refreshed automatically to reveal the newcomers, people who had logged on or created new profiles in the meantime. And there he was, the man with the beard and the round glasses staring at him from a selfie taken on what appeared to be a leather sofa. He had seen him before, but never had the courage to write to him. Because why would he be interested anyway? Nobody had ever been interested in him, except maybe for those who had no other choice and imagined themselves next to him. Never contact those who have the better looks. Contact the underdogs, those whose sense of security was often undermined by the way they looked and the way they subsequently saw themselves. He considered himself one of them, living on the outskirts of those dating apps, in the shadow of perfect abs, beautiful eyes and symmetrical faces that had just the right amount of facial hair to give them structure.

At times rage would come and turn him into a renegade. In those moments he promised it to himself not to go there anymore.

But then the man with the beard and the round glasses moved upwards, closer, and a message landed in his inbox. The man with the beard demanded to know how he was doing. Courteously, he replied that he had just woken up but he was still sleeping on his feet. That was a lie. He wasn’t on his feet; the coffee had not been brewed yet. The self-loathing that came with breakfast had not yet been served. But it was already late and so he thought he should just throw in the idea that he wasn’t one of those lazy guys who slept till noon because they had nothing better to do.

‘I woke up a long time ago,’ the man with the beard replied, ‘but still in bed lazy, under the covers, where it’s warm and cozy and nobody can see me.’ And then that ambiguous laugh. Hehe. ‘Go back to bed!’

He said it was okay. The man with the beard smiled. That man was no fun, he thought.

‘I noticed you before,’ he wrote to the man with the beard, ‘and thought you were very nice, but I never had the courage to write to you.’

‘That is very sweet of you,’ the reply came seconds after, ‘I am just an ordinary guy. I noticed you too.’

Liar.

‘I like ordinary guys,’ he told the man with the beard, ‘and I just love the fact that you are so much taller than me.’ The man with the beard and the round glasses was also older, more than ten years older, and had an air of rough maturity about him. He liked that. He was tired of all those little boys who didn’t even know how to have sex. Not that he was a master of sex, but still, a man has to have his dignity.

After they exchanged pictures and told each other how handsome they were, there came the silly question. The question wasn’t silly in itself. He had been expecting it. After all, the man’s intentions were specified in his profile. The man with the beard was looking for “clean and respectful guys, professional, no drama, quiet”, and considered himself average, more of a top, if it came to that. He was also “relationship oriented” and, more than anything, urged his fellow hunters to be polite and engage in conversation only if they were interested in having one. Honesty was also appreciated. “Cuddling?”, said the name of his profile.

‘I apologize if it’s premature’, the man with the beard said.

‘Sure, why not’, he told the man with the beard and the round glasses. He needed to get out of bed, had to get out and do something. He wanted to appear adventurous. He wanted to seem disillusioned and raw.

‘I do sleep in boxers’, the man said, ‘but I will change in pajamas. Where do you live?’

In outer space he wanted to say because where he lived was just that, a room in which he slept, a place where he simply found himself, a hiding place. He told the man an approximate address.

‘You want to come over? Or want me to come to you?’

He told the man with the beard that he had roommates, even though they were long gone to work that morning. He wanted the man to imagine these faceless roommates that wouldn’t appreciate a stranger coming into their home to cuddle with the other stranger.

‘That’s fine’, the man with the beard replied, ‘you come here then.’

The sudden materiality of the situation made him cringe. The man was serious but there was still time to back down and offer some sort of excuse. Maybe he should go back to sleep. Maybe some other day.

‘I don’t know whether I want to come out of bed right now.’

‘I know’, the tall man replied, ‘it’s a tough call.’

The man’s location popped up on the screen. It wasn’t far, but the idea of having to get up, taking a shower, and going out was simply too unappealing. He was also afraid. He had always been afraid of them. Feared their gaze and silent judgments, imagined them hating him, scorning his awkwardness. That is why excuses always had to be invented.

‘It’s alright’, the man said probably noting his hesitance, ‘maybe some other time.’ And he appreciated that. Everything sounded better when it was out there somewhere, about to happen, lost between the folds of a future tense. Beautiful things might happen in the meantime. A beautiful relationship maybe, the man of his dreams might be just around the corner.

‘Don’t sound so sad,’ he told the man with the beard, ‘it breaks my heart.’

‘I understand,’ the man replied, ‘you are all cozy in your bed, me too, and just want to sneak in and cuddle, feel the warmth of the body and relax…’

And suddenly the warmth was so real he could smell it, feel the rigidness of the body breathing next to him.

‘Isn’t that the most amazing feeling in the world?’

There was a long pause. He closed the app and returned to his erection, thinking of the warmth that the man with the beard had planted in his mind. He imagined the roughness of the man’s beard on his face and the red sores it would leave behind. He felt the numbness of the sores that would form around his mouth, that mute reminder, imagined his grunts.

Minutes later the reply came. ‘I feel it now in my mind’, the message said, ‘holding you tight.’

‘It’s like when you hear somebody else’s breath so close to you it becomes a mantra and you wish your breathing could be in sync with it.’

The tall man with the beard and the glasses agreed, it was just like that. ‘Or if you are on top of my chest, hearing my heart beat, your leg slightly over my leg, your arm over my shoulder.’

He told the man with the beard and the glasses that he needed to take a shower first and the man thought it was cool. Then, under the shower he thought of everything that had been said, and he thought he was so weak, so fucking weak.

Moment Twenty-Seven (Mind Cancer)

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I craved to make you see your eyes not by reflection but by themselves, so I broke all of our mirrors and locked all the doors to keep you inside. The neighbors rushed to our door because you were screaming and they threatened us. They said they were going to call the police. Then they went away when I smiled at them and reassured them there was nothing wrong. You weren’t exactly screaming. What kept coming out of your mouth was more like an accusatory howl, and you were telling me I had taken away all of our eyes. Somehow I believed that by blinding all of our mirrors your beauty would finally go away.

I pushed you against the bathroom mirror until it broke and pieces from it flew all over the place. Water ran over the shards of glass and I told you look, darling, it’s raining sadly. I kept you in there because I wanted to see your blood. At least one drop of it: to make sure it was still crimson with passion. I wanted to suffocate you because I was feverish.

Let this fury blind the both of us until we can’t see each other again.

That’s the reason why I had been doing all of our daily chores. For the both of us. I went to work in your stead. Your boss did not notice the difference. Your colleagues did not look up from their computer screens when I went into the office. They did not react in any way when I put all of your things into a box and exited the building. Your manager did not say anything when I placed your resignation letter on his desk. When I got into his office he merely extended his arm and pointed to the stack of unopened envelopes. He did not look up from his computer screen. I needed you to stay inside the house, away from everybody else.

What can you write about when you feel as if your life is being lived by somebody else under your very nose? You write about the mind. And all I wanted was to suffocate you. Tie you to a chair and wrap you in plastic foil until you resembled Barbie’s boyfriend. I had no intention of preserving you. I wanted you to disappear. I was furious, I’m sorry. It was the only way to make your beauty go away. It was the only way to turn it into silence.

So I split open my head and did not use the plastic gloves mother used to clean the toilet. I did not wash my hands beforehand. In the splinters of the bathroom mirror I looked at my open head and dug with my fingernails deep into the layers of tissue. I took out the mind and my body felt like an empty tube that amplified the remains of the rest of the world. Against these remains I threw my mind as in a pillow fight. Or like an empty highway turned upside down, that’s how it felt.

Then it had all seemed like a waste of time because I couldn’t find you there.

I told you my mind is a terrible place because you aren’t there.

So I swept it along with the broken bathroom mirror under the linoleum floor of the kitchen.

I was furious because I had wasted all that time for nothing. I couldn’t find you there.

The evening then turned green with nausea so I took the garbage out on the balcony, and watched as the steam rose from my dying mind, shards of mirror sticking out of it like thorns on a pink and grey rose, while I smoked a cigarette, taste of chemicals blooming on my tongue. I couldn’t decide whether to have coffee or not because I couldn’t remember, for the universe’s sake, when was the last time I had one.

Sleep (Adam the Second)

 

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Night comes crawling, pulling itself along, sweat on its brow, supplication on scorched lips, begging on its knees. Our night comes not like perpetrators do but laden with guilt, and we can’t help but do the same, kneel by its side and call it a day, call it a night, adorn it with achievement. As you fumble between the sheets, I can sense the despair inching closer to your bones. I feel you moving and my body wants to move along yours. Then breathing and doing nothing else, then moving again.

All I want to do is ask you what’s wrong because I know that’s what good lovers do even though they already know the answer. For a very long while I have known what’s been bothering you.

But I wonder, if I skip the questioning and abandon fully to the knowledge of the answer will I still be the good lover?

Because I do, I know the answer already, I know what’s bothering you. It’s buried deep inside of you. I know this because I’ve felt it too, I’ve been there too, I’ve been working with those demons my entire life.

I have broken you in the process of conquering you, not following the old adage of divide and conquer, but thinking that were I to prove myself incapable of loving the whole of you, I could be capable of loving at least one part of you.

Grandfather talked about similar demons, similar but entirely different somehow, mainly because he’d not been introduced to these new ones we’ve been acquainted with ever since we came out of our mothers’ wombs.

Grandfather held his right hand on the Bible and talked about Adam and Eve and about how we’ve been carrying their sins ever since, and how could you not hate Adam and Eve? They left us with nothing but the sweat and pain of labor. The life we could have had there in Paradise. Grandfather would sigh at the end of this parable, stand up, and continue working.

Grandfather then ate and slept as if Adam and Eve never existed.

But Adam, he was a man, the man, he lost no sleep over the whole forbidden fruit conundrum, he slept, he ate, and fucked, and lived the rest of his life not only as a man but also as a reminder, until he stopped being a man and remained forever a reminder.

You stir again between the sheets and I almost speak to you except that I’m afraid I’ll startle you and my voice won’t be heard over the sound of your moving limbs.

I know what’s bothering you, trust me on this one, because as opposed to grandfather we’ve had another ancestor, one that our grandfather doesn’t know about. Unfortunately, this, our ancestor doesn’t have a name or a face for that matter. He hasn’t fought wars and though he was there, in the background, all the time, he never had the courage to come out. Our ancestors were closeted as well. We don’t need to know his name, at least for now, we only need to assure ourselves of his existence.

Who was the man that first dared to yearn for another man?

Not grandfather’s Adam, because Adam had to be Adam.

We ran back to the origins while playing hide-and-seek, literally, we hid from those who were not necessarily our enemies but rather from those we considered enemies because of the simple fact that they were looking for us. The secrecy that stems from hiding and from being searched for always verged on the illegal, and somehow we felt illegal.

But, conceptually, I thought while you were sleeping, that first man who longed for another man had to be told about that yearning, had to be taught. Somebody had to explain things to him. How could he have known otherwise?

Wake up, please wake up and explain this to me.

You would wake up and look at me, then you would close your eyes again as if mentally preparing for a long explanation. Then you would open them again, swallow in vain, stand up, lean against the railing of the bed, swallow in vain again, and then set on explaining, gesticulating, moving your lips, sometimes arching them as if in disgust. You’d start with banal matters, you’d start with the controversial discussions about the origins of their universe and then move on to our universe. You’d start with that particular distinction even though I would’ve never thought of you as a methodical person.

Yes, you would say, the origins of their universe is controversial, but ours is not. Our universe is simple, there was no Big Bang, no sudden revelation. Wait, yes, revelation might have been involved, but it wasn’t sudden for sure. Ours was gradual revelation.

Imagine Adam the Second, our Adam, Adam from our team, monstrously beautiful Adam the Second who descended from the most noble bloodline, our very own bloodline, so much cooler than their bloodline.

Imagine Adam the Second descending the stairs of Heaven down into the world. No, he wasn’t being expelled from Heaven. He had been ceremoniously asked to go into the world and discover the world by discovering himself. And he’s going down, pretty happy and excited thinking about the things he is about to discover down there, or up there, depends which point of view you adopt in this story. He’s pretty psyched about the entire experience.

He was happy because he had also been told that down there he is going to be immortal and live for thousands and thousands of years. I mean, he’s still alive today. Wait for it, you’ll get to the point eventually. So he’s immortal, still roaming the world in search for his ultimate love and the meaning of life, a difficult task if you ask me.

On his way through the world he encounters another man. In fact, he encounters many many other men, and women, too, and he discovers friendship, then, after thousands of years, he discovers affection, and so on and so forth. Basically, with every thousand years that pass he discovers new sentiments and does his best to explore them to their fullest potential only to discover that they are not what he was looking for. And with every emotion that he discovers and explores he feels as if each and every one of them is just another step toward that ultimate love he is in search of. And he goes on doing that, but he is unable to forget any of the previous experiences.

They are never lost, they hang in there forever and he can’t do anything at all to get rid of them. Whatever he does, he can’t.

Then, at one point, he discovers this thing we have, this thing the two of us have. And he registers it, he stores it, and once he does that it cannot be forgotten.

And so on, you know the rest.

You go back to sleep.

I know what’s bothering you.

Our imaginary talks feel like small betrayals.

Moment Thirty-One (Trade)

 

I told the tall man with the beard and the round glasses that made him resemble a teacher that I knew my way back home. I was already out of the bathroom when he asked me that. I had washed my hands in the sink by the green shower curtain, and used the fancy-looking liquid soap whose dark green plastic bottle reminded me of avocadoes for no apparent reason. I had dried my hands with the pink bath towel hanging from the wall by the mirror. It might have been his towel or his roommate’s. I had not met the roommate. The roommate was but an immaculate white door at the end of the hallway.

When I came out of the bathroom the man with the beard and the glasses, whose name I did not know how to spell, was wearing a different pair of underwear. It was the first thing I noticed when I came out of the bathroom and went into his bedroom, where he was moving around, supposedly arranging things. It was then that I told him I was going to take my coat and go because I didn’t know what else to say or do. It felt weird to come out of the bathroom and go straight to the hanger by the entrance door. That’s why I went into the bedroom one last time.

His eyes were suddenly so big that I couldn’t look at him.

I was so embarrassed I could only look at the high mattress bed with the white sheets and the white covers, their whiteness so blinding in the light coming from the windows. Those unforgivable rays of light coming through the shutters and the naked windows overlooking a parking lot. The light in which I had watched him fall asleep and heard him snore, felt his muscles twitching under me. In that same light I saw his face gradually relax, his lips parting. In that same light I saw a string of saliva extend between his teeth as his mouth opened to take in gulps of air. In that same light I saw dust motes dancing and his face catch fire when I was desperately trying to fall asleep but couldn’t. I tried everything except counting sheep. I tried measuring the symmetry of the white closets closed neatly, tried mentally silencing the whirring of the radiator. I looked at the laundry baskets stacked on the closets. I tried not to think about the fact that I had wiped my hands clean in his pajama top. I tried to ignore the smell of cum that mingled innocently with the smell of his eau de toilette whose name he couldn’t remember.

His body was unresponsive. I knew it when his hand slid down my back lifelessly. I felt it when I caressed his other hand lying on his chest.

And all I could think of was the roommate, the immaculate white door at the end of the hallway. Had he heard the man with the beard and the glasses moan? Had he heard that final release when the man with the beard and the glasses told me he was going to cum? He must have heard the apologies at least. The argument with the stress relief, he must have heard that.

Minutes earlier we had cuddled under the white covers, and while I pinned him down against the bed with my head lying heavy on his chest, he kept pushing my right hand downwards towards his crotch and moaned from deep inside his chest when my hand reached its destination. Slowly, I kept moving my hand over his erection just to hear him moan because here was a man who had picked me up, had bought bath tissue and avocado oil from Costco, had taken me to a park and then to his place, a man who had held all that power over me but who was now moaning because I was touching him.

There had been an uncanny detachment between me and my hands. As when I asked him whether he could drive his car with only one hand so that I could hold his other one. Maybe he felt the same detachment between him and his right hand, the one that felt warm and heavy against my knee. Maybe he felt the same detachment when I watched him take his sweatpants off.

Then I stopped touching him, and the moaning ceased, and he got on top of me and kissed my neck. There was hesitation before the kiss, I felt it, as if for a moment he had considered kissing me on the lips but concluded it was dangerous.

A visit to Costco and a nearby park doesn’t say too much about a guy anyway. Not even the jokes about the huge wallpaper with Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

When my hands were no longer moving, his right hand started to dig into my t-shirt until it found skin, and there rejoiced and bloomed into a series of circular movements that felt ticklish. I begged him to stop and he stopped. I told him I wanted to make that moment all about him and not about me because I was all about that, about satisfying a bearded tall man who was more than ten years older than me.

It was then that he told me I should continue doing my job.

And so I slid my hand under his shirt and felt the hairs on his stomach and chest; then found one of his nipples and circled it with my index finger.

He started moaning again, but only when my hand went down there.

I told him to slow down. Shshsh.

You can’t tease me like that, he said.

I can do whatever I please, I told the man with the beard and the round glasses whose name I did not know how to spell.

He knew perfectly well that it was going to happen.

It had happened already when I asked him whether he wanted me to go. He said he didn’t want me to go but he should probably get out of bed and take a shower because a friend of his was supposed to stop by in the next couple of hours. I told him I was going to go and he said okay. I got up and went to the bathroom to wash my hands.

He knew it was going to happen when we were still at the park. I saw it in the way he looked at my crotch when we were contemplating one of those works of art in the park by the river.

I believe it was called Trade. The work of art I mean.

We were looking at the little plastic animals covered in what seemed like petrol. One of them was a giraffe. Another one was an animal whose name I was unable to recall.

I’m sure it had something to do with trade because there, by the door, before I left his apartment, he hugged me and thanked me, and it all felt like a handshake, the kind of handshake merchants do at the end of a successful transaction.

Letter to an absent friend (Wednesday, December 30, 2015)

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Dear friend,

All of my letters to you are coming back to me. For no reason apparently, since there’s no reason listed on any of the envelopes. The mailman refuses to speak to me whenever I try to question him. At times I believe he is avoiding me. He tiptoes into the apartment building, then runs away like a bandit. It’s not his fault, I know. Maybe you’ve moved to another place without leaving behind a forwarding address, without telling me. Maybe you’ve instructed your landlady to return any letters coming from me. Regardless of this, I shall keep sending these letters to your old address because it’s the only one I have and because, well, you’re the only one I can talk to at the present moment.

I had the chance to reread all of my past letters to you since they were all returned to me. For an instant, when I opened one of the envelopes, I had the eerie impression that perhaps you had opened the envelope, read the letter, and then sent it back to me as a sort of reproach. The paper felt strange in between my fingers, the words oddly aloof and cold. It was as if I had not written them myself. In fact, for a long while after I had resealed the envelope and put it in the drawer on top of the other letters, I thought that, considering that sudden first impression, the letter had not been written by me at all but sent from some distant, parallel universe, where we were still together and were able to actually share these words.

It doesn’t matter anyway, I shall keep writing to you, and this is not the reason I’m writing to you today.

I write to you from distant lands, where the winter feels unnecessary, and the holidays are colored in green and red, and the women in food markets speak of broccoli and avocados, give voice to the promise of quiet dinners that stretch long into the night. I sometimes listen to them because the promise is so soothing that I suddenly want to inhabit it. I desire to have those dinners, in homes that actually feel like home. I wish I could offer you that feeling.

One of the things I like about the cold in winter is the steam that comes out of people’s mouths on freezing mornings. It feels as if they actually have a soul reaching out to stretch its limbs. I say as if because I do not believe they actually have a soul. I know, it sounds like the momentary wisdom of a child, but have you ever wondered why people can’t see the fire in your eyes, why they are so heedless of the fact that, at times, molten rock bleeds from your nostrils and eyes when you suddenly feel a wave of affection for the world that surrounds you? It’s not because you lack that feeling. It’s there, you can feel the warmth of it going through your hands and legs, it makes your eyes wet, you cannot deny it, and you feel as if there’s nothing else that could better prove the existence of the soul, your soul. And it’s not because they are incapable of seeing it. Their emotional antennas haven’t been numbed by repeated exposure to television drama. It’s because there is no fire in your eyes. You are not bleeding molten rock. The warmth you feel is but a slight change in your body’s temperature. Language itself has given you the fire and the molten rock, and these gifts are so paper thin that they wither the very instant they are given to you.

Yet, is there another way to speak to you? Steer clear somehow of this eccentric matron, our language, that comes to sit in between the two of us every time I try to reach you? If I speak to you of love and friendship these gifts have already withered, centuries ago. If I touch you, no matter how sensual that touch may be, my hand has withered long before I made the decision to reach out and touch you. The letters that have come back to me have not returned to encounter me but a creature so withered that I cannot distinguish the piece of paper I’m writing these words on from the hand writing them. You have withered as well because the people you don’t see every day parch and then crack like plaster. You see what language can do to us? It turns us into plaster, makes us bleed molten rock, and burns our eyes.

Remember the flowers we used to hide in books during the summer when we were children? Remember how the books sucked the moisture out of them and turned them into distant memories? How suddenly the language in those books gained vitality, how much they resembled life. Maybe that is even the reason why those returned letters felt so eerily distant. Their words, I believe, had gained their vitality from that earlier version of me.

I must end this letter by telling you that I am now afraid. Not of some approaching danger, no clouds darken yet the chunk of horizon I manage to see from my window. I am only afraid there is no way out of all this, that the more you dig the more words will come out and I will never be able to find you.

Until I will have proof of that, until I am reassured of the outcome of this premonition, I shall keep writing to you, no matter what.

Your lover.

Chicken: A Short Story

EncounterThe auburn shoes don’t match, they just don’t, and that was the first hitch of the day. His father did say something about the shoes while he was trying them on. It wasn’t the color according to father. And yet he can’t recall exactly what it was. There was something wrong with the way they were made, the whole thing. But he did not confront father and that was always the case because father was never clear about things. Father would mumble as if he was afraid to take responsibility for the things that came out of his mouth. He hated that, the indecisiveness, not knowing how to react, not knowing what to do in such circumstances, and secretly, as if ashamed by the thought, he hoped he would not turn out to be like his father.

Now he is completely aware of it, of the shoes that is, and that gruesome auburn that seems like a splotch on the whole outfit. They seemed so much nicer while he was trying them on. And it’s not just that. What he’s most angry at is the fact that he fell for it. He fell for all that capitalist shopping-aura related bag full of crap that pushed people into buying things they didn’t particularly like. Now he has to deal with the side effects, with the sorrow that comes with realizing that it was a mistake, with understanding that the shoes don’t match and it all boils down to wasted money, money that his parents can’t spare. And now, as he is waiting in line for his fried chicken he has the uncanny feeling that he is being watched by people who disagree with his choice of shoes. Everyone seems to be staring at the shoes and all he can think of is just going home and switching the damned shoes with the old and worn-out navy blue pair.

Even the guy standing in line next to him seems to be staring at his shoes and he feels like saying something to him, telling him that it was the shopping craze, and shops made him nervous. Most of all, he wanted to tell the guy that in the shop the color seemed like a gesture of rebellion, a rule-breaking statement that would disrupt the tediousness of life. But that would be weird and so he doesn’t say anything. People don’t just talk about shoes like that while waiting for their fried chicken.

Instead he pretends to be looking through the menu, and the words don’t make sense because people can’t possibly want roasted nails, they don’t exist, and it’s the shoes again, and all he wants is to get his fried chicken and get out, but the chubby guy at the counter who is supposed to deliver his order is too busy talking and joking around. Italians, the thought furiously takes shape, they like that, talking as if talking were an occupation of some sort. Or smoking. It must have been Wilde, he thinks, a man should always have an occupation of some kind. He’s sure of it. It must have been Wilde, just the right amount of sarcasm. He plays with the phrase in his mind. Italians should have an occupation of some kind. Talking, that is, delicious idleness. Does he talk that much? In the end, he, too, is Italian. Studying all those foreign languages at the university can’t change the fact that he is still one of them.

The guy next to him, he must be Italian, too. His vaguely dark skin and the dark hair, both seem to confirm his Italian origins. He feels a sort of pride in it, in being able to guess the nationality of someone just by the color of his or her skin. It must be because he is Italian too, and he knows. It’s just too easy and too arrogant in a way. He dismisses the thought immediately. The guy seems to have moved closer and as he turns for an instant to look out of the windows of the takeaway he has a clear glimpse of the guy’s underwear just beneath the shirt sloppily hanging over the belt. He turns quickly back to the menu blood rushing to his cheeks. The guy must have seen it, he is almost sure of it; the curious and almost indecent look as that of a child caught red handed in the cookie jar. And yet the image hangs in there as if it were the embodiment of a promise, of something reachable, almost like an invitation, and he can’t get rid of it. He wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible because he feels the guy’s cold and alien stare on the back of his head. Where is that chicken? He tries to make his impatience visible by moving his feet nervously because that’s all he could think of to make the image go away and with it his shame. But somehow the images squeezes itself back and again it turns into a promise. He must be wearing boxer briefs, grey, with a blue waistband.

“Let’s just hope the chicken won’t be too fried”, the guy says moving closer. He smiles and then laughs, a nervous laugh that seems fake even to himself. And there’s that cheap perfume, he can’t remember the name, notorious and with no personality.

 

“It’s so much more difficult in your case”, Gareth says, “when a guy sees a girl he likes, he can only hope she likes him back”. He nods. He and Gareth took the same course in American literature a few years back. They have been friends since then, and if he closes his eyes he can still see Gareth standing outside the building waiting for the class to start. Even now, as he tries to recall the moment, he can still feel the remains of that almost secret wish to become Gareth’s friend. A clandestine craving for his skin, almost sexual, that grew to obsessive proportions while they were still unknown to each other, but then had to be denied because of the inappropriateness of it. There was something about him, about the way in which he looked around him as if terrified by the prospect of an unexpected encounter. Gareth somewhat looked like a harmless deer while feeding, its eyes alert, muscles tightened, ready to leap at the slightest movement in the bushes. He later found out that Gareth was part of a famous band and he inferred that unexpected encounters must have always been on the agenda. Gareth denied that on several occasions and will continue to deny it until nobody will care anymore. Now they’re on the train, heading back home, their friendship strengthened by the many talks they’ve had over the years.

“You see a guy you like”, Gareth continues, “and you have to be very careful because the distinction is not very clear”. Gareth repeats the pronoun as if for emphasis. There it is again, he thinks, the revelatory use of pronouns to make a point, to divide things. Moses, too, might have used a pronoun to part the waters. We’re on this side and you’re on the other, there’s no mistake about that. He always resented and treasured that, the way English pronouns left room for interpretation. Once, while he was still in college, he thought of writing an ode to the omnipotent and oblique you, its superb and almost tasteful indifference toward gender and other distinctions of that kind. The very notion of otherness seemed obliterated by this indifference, thrown into stupor by a language so responsive to the needs of its users that it even reacted to his need for coded language.

“You never know how he’s going to react”, he replies, “he might even punch you in the face or something. You just secretly wish he’s like you“. It rarely happens, it’s a mistake that they do, think that all men are like them, or secretly wish they were like them, and then act according to that false conviction. All men are curious, one of his friends used to say. You can never be sure and you look for hidden signs. A look, or maybe a smile, a timid touch on the shoulder and bodies responding to it lavishly as if that touch is the answer that they’ve been waiting for a very long time. We’re so obsessed with our coded language that we start seeing hidden meanings even in the most innocent exchanges.

Gareth goes on telling him that he met a guy once, a musician, who told him that he would hit on practically every guy because he could never be sure about it. The word stays hidden like an ugly child. There are other people around them and they could hear and jump to conclusions. There’s a self-absorbed teenager sitting on the opposite row of seats. But a game, finally, you pull the lever and three red cherries might pop up. He wants to say that there is always a triple standard, three little boxes that you need to tick before moving in. All three need to be ticked otherwise it doesn’t work. All those fears and the longing that never goes away eventually boil down to that, to three little squares: I like him, he’s like me, and he likes me too. And that’s that, three saintly likes sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g. He’s almost furious, because of the unfairness of the whole situation. Then he realizes that he’s missing something else, something that he won’t be able to tell Gareth because then Gareth will end up knowing too much about him. Even now, as the train rushes out of the underground tunnel and into the blinding light, he resents the whole discussion. And then that mouth, miss congeniality. There’s another box that needs to be ticked before doing anything. It’s not a question of swimming or playing tennis. You need to know who’s who. A trivial thing, but still vital: unless one wants to waste a relationship by acting as if one was living in a nunnery, and nobody wants that. He could try to explain it to Gareth and Gareth would smile and maybe say oh and that would be the end of it and the starting point of a friendship lived in awkwardness. And for a moment, Gareth resembles an exhausted friend turned enemy.

 

They are both laughing now and he’d like to reach out, see how flesh responds to that other flesh. Epithelium, graspable but still capable of osmosis, people can’t be that, at least, they can’t be like that, as always the body stands in the way. He wants to say move closer, or move over, there are strings tied to his ankles as he moves. The rest of the world is the true density, the air with all its noble gases, that’s it, the body is variation, impure, and still it wants to extend its arms outward. A revelation that comes too late to change anything. A commotion and a plastic bag a voice addressing him. Your chicken, it says, and for a moment he has the eerie feeling that the voice is telling him something else as if in a dream. He cannot tell what it is. It’s too late now because a hand is extended, a palm and on it veins swollen, the outline of a tree, so tempting that he wants to feel it on his face. He takes a step back to make some space. The chubby guy at the counter stops for a moment, mouth open, plastic bag in midair, as if to say something. The plastic bag goes over the counter slowly and the extended palm takes it, some money and niceties exchanged, and that’s it. One final glimpse of the loose shirt and the underwear beneath, and that’s it. He moves, heavily, and then looks at the menu. Those damned shoes.

Letter to an absent friend (July 27)

Childhood_under_the_Sun Dear friend,

I apologize for my late reply, your letters never seem to arrive these days, I guess they just get lost on the way. Yet, I know you write to me every day, I just know it, I refuse to think that you have forgotten me. I refuse to believe I now linger at the back of your mind like one of those memories you refuse to acknowledge.

I would like to write to you about happiness, this imaginary friend that we all look for at one point and in whose company we feel like nothing could go wrong. But things can go wrong, sadly, and happiness is always greatest the minute before you realize something has gone terribly wrong. You’ll think I’m selfish, but selfishness, in my case, is like a declaration of love to you, dear friend. Only I know how many declarations of love I’ve written praising you and your beauty. Your beauty, the one that feels like the innocent cruelty of the sun.

I’ve been places lately, places I cannot even name because in the geography that we humans have created for ourselves they do not yet exist. Our friendship is a place. Despair is a place. Solitude is a place too. This very letter is a place. That is why I’m writing about happiness. I want this letter to be a happy place, its walls filled with pictures of happy people under the sun, smiling, loving people, the people that we both long to become. They are all happy, I swear to you, and because they are happy we must be happy too. I’d like to tell you about how the happiness of the others is really the happiness that we should live for, that I should live for. Think how, really, the kind of happiness that you experience every day is nothing compared to the happiness that we share like the jagged wheels of a huge mechanism powered by those who hold hands, and kiss, and can tell these things to each other while having breakfast. This might sound idealistically grand to you, but I swear, it is the most selfish thing that I could ever fathom. I am happy for you, really, because I know that when you are happy at least one tenth of that happiness descends, like the tentacles of a drug, into my own bloodstream, until I become like a sponge feeding on the remnants of that feast we call happiness. Like the prodigal son I return to you begging for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a kind of happiness too. The kind of happiness that I desire. Will you offer me that?

 

Yours.