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Mikey and the

Chickadee





KID BOISE

Copyright © 2016 Kid Boise

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Published in 2016 by Boise Urban Publishing Company

Cover design Copyright © 2016 Jessalynn Tran

Edited by Wesley J. Koster

ISBN: 978-0-692-62976-5

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

To the baristas of Flying M Coffeehouse

Boise, Idaho, USA







1


In a word: stability. This man in his gray suit radiated stability, there in the rain next to a lamppost, not leaning against it as I would have done, but standing on his own two legs as he texted furiously away on his massive phone.

I stood just under the eaves of a bus shelter, on the cusp, as I was these days, of a life more adventurous.

Not the least bit troubled as his screen became flecked with water, he glanced right, south, the direction from which he, both of us, several of us, knew the bus to come.

Pathetically, this was the latest along a string of encounters acknowledged only, it seemed, within my own mind. The thread had grown lengthy enough to reach back six months to a time when a summer spent traveling clung on by one finger and I settled into my first post-grad occupation in Accounting. Yes, it’s true that I had traveled, seen Europe with two friends from my college program, and it was an experience every bit as enriching as they had convinced me it would be. For nearly two months I screamed, I laughed, I became someone; I met people on the road whom I revealed my whole self to unhesitatingly. Later on, the enormity of this personal growth would serve only to enhance my disappointment and self-loathing when I slipped with alarming ease back into complacence, gasping fish into pond, at home in my new job.

Perhaps there had existed a window of time during which I would have approached him, even with some semblance of confidence. This window began when I first assumed our shared bus route, set back down on the earth still ready to run, still willing to share myself, still holding the point of view that I was worth sharing. It ended when my mind no longer grasped so firmly the temporary perspective I had taken on, when outlines of memories were no longer in focus.

If this tiny window had existed at all, I had not taken significant notice of him from within its bounds. That happened later, on one of the last truly warm, sun-filled days, when I sat directly behind him, and he sat next to a small elderly woman. I was first exposed only to the back of his head, a shock of black-as-night hair that spiraled outward from a common center to form a structured mess that occurred to me as nest-like and effortlessly charming. Phone to his ear, he spoke with a voice that scooped up the surrounding air, in a language which, only after some time and with considerable effort, I identified as Thai. Apparently aware of his conspicuous presence on an otherwise quiet bus, his phone conversation was brief, and then he sat in silence.

In this town I would not take for granted another person’s ability to speak English, however, the old woman next to him seemed to hold no such reservations.

“Do you ride this bus often?”

He turned to her and I caught one side of his face: the smooth skin of his cheek (not extremely dark but certainly darker than mine), the left eye, deep-brown and heavy-lidded, abbreviated nose, linear jaw angling cleanly upward near the neck.

“Yeah I do,” he said with no particular accent that I could detect. “I ride it to work.” He then smiled with such genuine compassion that the woman may as well have been his own grandmother.

“I thought so,”  she said. “I remember you from the last time I was on, but that was weeks ago.” Her shoulders shook in quiet laughter.

“I’m sure it was me. I’ve been riding this route for more than a year.” He then proceeded to ask her about her day and, as her answers came, regarded her with careful interest.

As I listened, forever a shameless eavesdropper, I, too, realized it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him. And in the months to come I would continue to notice him. It wasn’t something that happened every day. I did sustain a compelling interest in my career of choice, and I will admit that there were days when I was so engrossed in preparing for work that I couldn’t have recalled whether he had ridden the bus that day at all.

So, it appeared, did he. On days when I noticed him, his gaze would often shift from papers perched on his lap to his phone’s screen and then back again. Occasionally he would hold conversations in English over the phone regarding presentations and clients and many other business-related concerns, but his field never became clear to me.

And unclear it remained on this day in the rain at the bus shelter. Looking up from his phone, he seemed to think better of letting the rain soak into his suit and, in his casual manner, trudged over to stand under the eaves, next to me. Although not very broad-shouldered, he filled out his suit well. He was also tall; I had already known all of this, but our standing proximity had never permitted me the chance to size him up properly. Without looking over I could tell that he was a couple of inches taller than I was, and I stood somewhat above average.

I imagined a fantasy world in which he noticed me just for one second. What was his impression? Lighter skin, darker suit, this fledgling white boy. Younger maybe, but if so, not by much. Did he fill out his suit quite so pleasantly? Did he stand with any ounce of confidence at all? Was his compulsion to exercise regularly at the gym evident in the muscles of his neck?

In my past I had beckoned the attention of a few boys whose looks I estimated to surpass my own, and although my conceptualization of the person I projected outward was ill-defined, I lacked much of the insecurity concerning one’s own appearance that I sometimes noticed in other people. I cut my dark-blond hair short, as there was a lot of it. I was dealt the fortunate hand of a clear complexion. My face was structured in a way that I believed to be pleasing. In truth, I rarely considered my physical being beyond an approximate effort to maximize what was there.

The bus arrived much more full than I’d ever seen it. I boarded directly behind him and watched him sit against the window in the last remaining open pair of seats. There were other single seats available farther down the aisle, but no matter where I chose I would be seated immediately next to someone. There was no reason not to sit next to him. I understood this then and did so.

Because neither of us was small in stature, this move immediately lacked any of the relaxed feel I’d hoped for. We were not uncomfortably close, but a brief acknowledgement of the circumstance felt inevitable. I was, however, silent for a few minutes.

Finally I said, “Busy today.” I don’t remember deciding expressly to speak, and yet there it was. “Must be something going on downtown.”

“It’s Pride,” he said.

“It’s what?”

“Gay Pride,” he said. “Well, as in, the event. Not just the everyday, you know, look at me, I’m gay, I’m proud.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at this.

“I don’t mean to offend,” he said, “if you’re gay or something. I can be a little awkward around strangers sometimes.”

I had trouble believing that. “I am, but you didn’t offend me.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well that’s good.”

I felt stupid for not having remembered the winter pride event that took place every year here. Although it was smaller and by design more somber than its shimmering mid-summer counterpart, I had attended before, more than once, compelled by my own curiosity. It crossed my mind that in my haste to become a functioning adult, I had abandoned a few of my old interests (not to mention a few people I associated with them).

We kept to ourselves for the rest of my twenty-minute ride, and there was no point in my wishing we hadn’t. He was still for a minute, maybe out of courtesy to me, before retrieving his phone from his coat pocket. I did not try to steal any glances at what he was up to. Already I was folding back into myself. It had finally happened, and now it was over. Nothing had come from our voices’ first chance to intertwine in conversation except, I guessed, transmitting the one and only crucial fact about me that I would have wanted him to know—that I was gay.

If I stood any chance at all of gaining the particular kind of attention from him that I desired, this otherwise arbitrary detail about my life was the best thing I could have divulged. Furthermore, I hadn’t said anything uninvited; in fact it was something he had all but set me up to reveal. This could have been unintentional on his part, but I refrained from wasting any more energy in analysis. At least now he knew.

Each day I left the bus behind at one of the city’s busiest intersections, a two-block walk from my company’s offices. I could never have known how much longer he remained on the bus, but today, as I departed, I turned back for one last glimpse of him before entering the rambling hive of pedestrian traffic. He looked directly into my eyes, and then back down at his phone. He didn’t smile. He also did not seem unhappy.

I would be a liar if I said I didn’t think of him on and off for the rest of the day. In all honesty, though, I believe it to be the first time thoughts of him stole more than a few seconds from each passing hour at my desk. That night I wondered cynically what situation could possibly lend itself to further interaction between us.

As it turned out, my wait for an answer was brief.

The next morning was colder, but dry. I had overslept and was walking with purpose from my transfer when I was stopped short by his approaching form, gliding above the earth, away from the bus stop.

Once within an acceptable distance he said, “The bus is down. Looks like it could be a while.”

This was unfortunate timing. I had scheduled a performance review with a supervisor whose opinion I valued, and in whose hands lay the responsibility of determining wage increases. Now stomaching the idea of calling for a taxi I could not comfortably afford, I looked past him toward a handful of fellow bus riders who stood talking on their phones. “Do you think any of them would split a taxi with me?” I wondered aloud.

“Don’t worry about that. My place is close and I have a car. I’ll drive you.”

He looked at me with such devastating concern that I very nearly needed to hug him then and there, to assure him that I felt deeply nurtured by his offering. “You really don’t need to do that.”

“It would make me happy if you’d say yes.”

His dark eyes divulged a fleeting sadness, which I spent the next instant wondering if I’d actually seen. I had a number of reasons to say yes. “Alright,” I said.

He didn’t say anything but smiled and started in the direction he’d been walking, and I fell in alongside him.

“How old are you?” I asked. The question came to me out of nowhere, and sounded extremely bizarre now that it hung in the cold, clear morning air.

“Twenty-three,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” I replied, in a casual tone that mirrored his apparent lack of sentiment for his age, and immediately struck me as idiotic, since I had obviously cared enough to ask in the first place.

“I figured we were close in age,” he said.

I wanted to ask him if he had any reasoning that ventured beyond appearance, but it felt like another strange thing to ask, so we just walked in silence for a minute.

“It’s not much farther,” he said, “just around that corner. Do you live close to here?”

“Not really. I get off the 40A at Stratham and walk from there.”

“That comes from Corbin right?”

“Yes,” I said. He referred to the nearby suburb in which I rented a clean, small studio. On my street, the buildings did not crowd together and up against worn sidewalks the way they did here. I envied him a little for calling this cozy, bustling part of town his home, but the rent was out of reach for someone like me.

“I grew up in Corbin,” he said. “I don’t go back there too often anymore, though.”

“Oh, cool,” I said. “I grew up there, too. Never quite made it out, I guess.”

Cars hurried along the narrow street, shunted between endless lines of parked vehicles, punctuated only by the occasional side-street entrance or hydrant.

Suddenly he ran several feet ahead of me, whipped around, tie and coattails flying outward, and pointed at me with both hands. “Bengals.”

I stopped and shook my head. “Chickadees.”

“Aww, get out of here, then,” he said, letting his whole frame slump down as I caught up with him. “Although I guess I would have remembered you if you were a Bengal.”

I laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you.” Although I had no stake in, nor had ever paid much attention to the unusually heated high school rivalries in my hometown, his impromptu display had been completely void of pretense, playful and lovable.

“My car’s in here,” he said, leading me off the sidewalk, through a door, and into a parking garage that occupied the first floor of his apartment building.

His silver Honda Accord sedan hunkered in a lonely stall near the back, by the alley. I sat down in the passenger seat and noted its newness in look and smell. I asked him about it as he stood removing his coat by the open driver door, and he confessed that it was still pretty much brand-new. “I bought it a few months ago, but I don’t use it as much as I thought I would. Can’t shake that bus.”

He sat down behind the wheel, shoved his coat into the back seat, and soon we were off. He reached out to turn up the heat, and I, unable to help myself, glanced up his arm to see that his bicep stretched almost taut the upper-sleeve of his salmon button-down. I turned away quickly and looked out the passenger window.

“So besides being a brave Chickadee,” he said, “what is there to know about you?”

I looked back at him. What was there to know? I became suddenly and inexplicably self-conscious. “What do you want to know?”

“Well,” he said, “what do you do for work?”

I told him about the accounting job, about how it was very entry-level and still mostly administrative. I described the meeting awaiting me that morning and conceded that I was anxious about it.

The whole time he listened in silence, nodding and smiling here and there and when I was finished, said, “You’ll have to let me know how it goes,” with none of the gratuitous job-related reassurance that I had, ungratefully, grown a little tired of from friends and family. I rarely sought reassurance concerning my career, but often received it.

“I will,” I said, excited at the thought of our interaction extending even further into the future. I folded my hands together in my lap. “So what do you do? I’ve noticed you look busy on the bus sometimes.” This comment was a little brazen on my part.

“I work for a software development company called Pancaked. We help other software companies streamline their stuff. Make their coding more succinct, make their data take up less room, stuff like that.”

“That’s pretty impressive,” I said. “I like the name.” I found myself wishing I knew something about software and coding and data storage. “How long have you been with them?”

“About two years.”

“I hope they pay you well. Sounds like pretty complicated stuff.”

“It varies, I guess.”

“I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure if it was the pay or the work that varied. It felt inappropriate to ask him to clarify.

He didn’t say anything after that, and drove in silence for a few minutes. I found myself feeling oddly comfortable just sitting quietly beside him. I could detect, just slightly, the heat from his body, radiating across the console dividing the two seats. In a way I knew to be absurd, given what little I knew about him (and how new it all was), this made me feel safe.

Finally he cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry. I feel like I was being a little vague. I should say that my pay isn’t completely consistent because I sort of started it myself, so it’s not conventional in that way.”

I looked over at him. “Are you serious? That’s awesome.”

“Well,” he said, “the thing is, I couldn’t have done it without help. I have a cousin who I brought on pretty early in the game and she’s made it way better than I ever could have on my own.” After saying all of this he looked embarrassed, which made me feel sad.

I didn’t know quite what to say in response, but because he had refrained from offering reassurance earlier, I suspected he wasn’t looking for any, either. “Well, I think it sounds really cool.”

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun, most days. That’s about all I can ask for.”

I wouldn’t have described my job as a ton of fun, ever. But I found moments of enjoyment in it, which felt like enough. I considered sharing this with him, but then realized how quickly we were approaching my stop.

“Want me to get you closer?”

“No,” I assured him. “This is just fine. I can’t thank you enough. Seriously.”

He swung the car swiftly up to the curb and turned on the hazard lights. “What time should I pick you up?” he asked.

“What? Seriously?”

“Hurry up,” he said, flashing a grin. “I’m blocking traffic. Same time you board the bus home?”

I was too selfish to tell him no, to say that he’d already done too much. I needed more time with him. “Uh, yeah sure,” I replied. “That would be amazing. Thank you so much.”

“No problem,” he said as I stood up onto the sidewalk. “Stay out of trouble, Chickadee.”

He waved and I let the door close with a muted thud. He signaled to rejoin traffic and sped away, leaving me standing there, motionless, taking this time to reflect with happiness for just one minute—time I felt I owed to myself—on what a pleasure it was to finally know this man. If today was all I should expect, if I woke up tomorrow and we never spoke again, at least I had known him once. But I was optimistic that we would see more, know more of one another in days to come.








2


Disappointment does not ask permission to enter one’s life; this was the irrefutable truth with which I was comfortably familiar. What I had forgotten was its stoic disregard for any pleasantness that may have entered before it.

Later that morning I had trouble focusing on anything besides the conversation that had transpired during the meeting with my supervisor.

She had smiled continually, to the point that her face no longer appeared amiable. “We’re asking you and a few others whom we have not yet chosen to be moved to the offices in Fern Hill. This branch has taken on a few new senior-level employees and we’re short on room. You’ll have six weeks to prepare, and relocation costs will be accommodated.”

Work passed slowly today. It marked the first time in recent memory that I had even glanced at the clock before lunch. Late-morning hours normally spent careening through paperwork were chained down by the unsettling nature of our exchange.

“Thank you,” I had said. “Thank you so much for finding a place for me. I appreciate this opportunity.”

The thought of waking each day in a small town four hours from the city, removed from all of this fantastic mayhem, proved difficult to digest. Six weeks would allow plenty of time for digestion, but a new and strange impermanence had already crept up over the edges of my desk and anchored itself there so that my job as I knew it, my livelihood in this city, that which I had finally trusted enough to hold onto, had transformed into something only temporary.

In a sense it was not unlike my summer abroad, constrained by two dates, bollards bolted into stone, one marking the birth of an experience onto which I would tether myself, the other signaling an inevitable end. I now had another ending date, the terminus of next month, to ponder in quiet contrition during the days leading to its arrival.

I’m certain my productivity for the rest of the day could have been measured as inadequate, but I would imagine, given the circumstances, that no ruler was held up against me. I drifted through the final hours in lazy irresolution. Of course I would go. It was the natural path forward for anyone whose career was as young as mine. I realized I had yet to assert this change as necessary and valuable not just to my career, but to my personal growth and wellbeing. Maybe once I discovered how to do that, I would find peace.

I exited the building and made my way among the boundless flock of commuters, beneath cliff-like faces of stone, glass and steel, coming nearly to the bus stop before I remembered. Were my problems so immensely important that I had almost forgotten? Frustrated with myself even more than with the latest developments, I sat gloomily on a bench near where he had dropped me off and waited.

I couldn’t have sat longer than a minute before his silver Honda halted at the curb just feet from where I rested. His wild-haired form and broad smile, visible through the passenger window, compelled me into motion. The whole of me desired simply to be back in the car, returned to that shared space with him.

And I was. The roar of the city died away and we were alone.

He shifted the car into first gear and turned to me. “I’m Mikey, by the way. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier.”

Mikey—such a fantastically handsome name, and somehow it fit him perfectly.

The car began to move and he steered out into traffic, so I did not try to shake his hand. “I’m Wyatt,” I said, “and don’t worry; I didn’t either.”

“Wyatt,” he said. “That’s a good name. Guess I can’t call you Chickadee forever.”

“You can call me whatever you want. It’s just a name,” I said in a tone more downtrodden than I expected. In this moment, still fettered by the idea of endings, forever sounded like a beautiful, superb length of time. Feeling a bit reckless I said, “Actually, I like it when you call me that.”

He was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to have me worried that what I’d said sounded strange. “That’s good to know.” He downshifted as we approached slower traffic. “So, how was the big meeting?”

“It was pretty good,” I told him. “Anyway, it’s over now, so there’s no more wondering what’s going to happen.” I paused for a second before saying, “But I want to know what a day at work is like for you. How is it to run your own company?”

He brushed back a group of coarse, black strands from in front of his eyes. “I guess there are a lot of ways to answer that. But today, it was like operating some big, noisy machine that’s not in very good repair. As the machine runs, it’s like one component stops working, and when you fix that one, it affects another, so that becomes broken instead, and so on. It sounds awful,” he said, “but it’s really pretty great.”

“I don’t think it sounds awful,” I said. “Are you talking about fixing someone’s software?”

“Yes, exactly,” he said. “For me, running the company is ancillary to all of the actual work, like finding blocks of code that aren’t serving a good purpose, or database structures that are poorly organized.”

“Ah, okay,” I said. “It sounds like you still do a lot of the hands-on work yourself.”

“Yes, I still do. And I hope I always get to,” he said, smiling. “That’s where all the fun is, for me. It’s so nerdy, I know.”

I laughed. “Yeah, because accounting is so much more glamorous.”

“Hey, that’s right,” he said. “We’re not done talking about your job. What did they tell you in the meeting?”

“Well,” I said, “it didn’t go how I thought it would. Not at all, actually. They want to relocate me. I don’t think it’s permanent, but I’m pretty sure it’s for a while.”

“Where?”

“Fern Hill,” I said.

“As in the resort town? How far away is that?”

“Four hours,” I said.

“When do you go?”

“End of next month.”

“You’re serious?” He put a fist flat against his chest and made small seizing sounds, as if he had been physically wounded. “And just after we become friends. You’re killing me, Chickadee, you know that?”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. He had no idea how sorry I really was. And already he had called me his friend.

“I’ve heard it’s beautiful up there,” he said. “I’ve never been, though.”

“It really is. It’s a great place to visit. To live there, though, I’m just…I don’t know.” I stopped and looked at him. His eyes focused on the road, but I could have sworn that most of his attention had been diverted toward me. I looked away.

He turned and glanced at me for an instant before looking back at the road. “If I were in your shoes, I would be very upset right now,” he said. “How do you stay so calm?”

“I’m not calm. I mean, I definitely don’t feel calm,” I replied. “It must just not show.”

He took his time responding, staring ahead and making small adjustments to the car’s path of travel as we crossed the bridge out of downtown. “You know, even though we just met and all, you don’t have to hide that from me.”

“I don’t know if I’m hiding anything,” I said, although I suspected he might be right. “I am upset, that’s true.”

“So,” he said, “what do you think you’re going to do?”

“There isn’t much I can do,” I replied. “This is my career. In the whole scheme of things, like, later in life, ten years down the road, I think I would look back on it as a small sacrifice. A year or two away in exchange for long-term stability. I mean, that’s nothing, right?”

I sat in thought for a minute. He must have sensed that I wasn’t finished, because he stayed silent.

“It’s just…this doesn’t feel like a small sacrifice,” I said. “It feels like a massive sacrifice, if I’m honest. That’s how I feel right now. I can’t be me in ten years. I can’t get into that headspace.”

He started to say something but only a small amount of air escaped his mouth. We rode along without speaking for at least another minute before he moved his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel and said, “But the you in ten years isn’t a real thing. It literally doesn’t exist.”

It occurred to me that Mikey might fall in among those extraordinary people who wait to speak until they can say something in which they have full confidence. “Right,” I said. “Yes, that’s true.”

“You, sitting here, right now. That’s all.”

I smiled at him. “I’m not disagreeing with you.”

He laughed. “Well, I’m done. That’s all I have to offer you.”

“You’ve done enough listening to this garbage.” I noticed we had turned right, off the main road, and were closing in on his neighborhood.

“It isn’t garbage, and I will be here as long as you need to talk. But I think it would be rash to decide anything today, so maybe we do need to change the subject.”

“We’re out of time, aren’t we?” I asked. “I mean, you can just drop me off on Stratham. The 40 should come by soon.”

“Would you be violently opposed to me driving you all the way home? It would be nice to see Corbin again.”

I was beginning to feel that he enjoyed talking with me as much as I did with him.

“Not violently, no. If you’re okay with it, I would be very appreciative.”

“I am more than okay with it.”

“Well, fuck the 40, then,” I said.

He smacked the rim of the steering wheel. “Yeah, fuck the 40.”

After we had turned south I said, “If I had a car I don’t think I’d ever take the bus. Is that terrible?”

“No. If I had your commute, I would probably drive. I have a space in the garage under the office, so parking isn’t really an issue. It’s just that I live so close to the bus stop, and I don’t have to transfer like you do.”

“Still,” I said, “it seems like it would take a lot of willpower to get on the bus every single day, especially with a shiny new car at your disposal.”

He paused. “I do kind of have this thing about mass transit. Sustainability and all that. Cars may not be an option forever.”

I turned and threw him a sly smile. “But Mikey, you said it yourself: All we have is right here, right now.”

“Hey.” His lips spread into a massive grin and then he punched me on the shoulder.

“Ouch,” I said, laughing. “Was that necessary?”

“If you can’t handle it, don’t dish it out.”

“I was dishing out words,” I insisted. “The proper response to words is opposing words.”

He laughed at this. “Well, I didn’t have any opposing words.” He attempted a pouting face, extending his bottom lip outward just a little before giving up and cracking a smile.

“Seriously, though, I get what you mean. Sustainability. That’s actually really noble.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It feels like the right thing, most of the time. It’s a shame, though, because I really do like driving.”

“Is it hard to drive a manual? I never learned.”

“It took me about a week to get used to it,” he said. He shifted into another gear and then back again in absent demonstration. “Not on this car, but on one I had in high school. Do you want to try it?”

“No,” I said. “Well, not right now.”

“If you ever want to learn, tell me,” he said. “You’d be good at it.”

Mikey said things in a way that invoked visions of us spending time together in the future. I considered this while I watched the sun set out my window. Beyond houses, buildings and occasional fields, all of it racing by, I caught flickers of open water and the far-off levee holding it at bay. The next few miles were peppered with conversation borne, still, out of an inscrutable dose of caution and unfamiliarity. How does one coax something from a void? What kind of enigmatic force conjures a friendship between strangers? How fragile those first times together must be, yet with so much depending on them. For one covert second, I swelled with sadness, not just because a continued relationship with this beautifully unchained boy was so improbable, but for the tragedy of all friendships that died in infancy. Then with a symmetric abruptness, I deflated back down to my normal self in time for him to ask, “Do you have your own place?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s pretty small. I don’t really need a lot of room, and I keep a few things at my parents. They don’t live very far away.”

“Same here,” he said. “Well, not about my parents, but my apartment. It’s just a studio.”

“Did your parents move out of Corbin?”

“Actually my parents passed,” he said. “It was a few years back.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wow, my god. I’m so sorry to hear that.” I turned slightly away from him, wishing I had sounded less affected.

“It’s okay,” he said, then seemed to ruminate for a few seconds before adding, “It feels like a very long time ago now.”

“Alright,” I said. I considered letting the road leading to my apartment pass us by, but then thought better of it. “Sorry, turn right at the intersection.”

“No problem,” he said.

“Hey, this is a lot faster than the bus. It’s still light out.”

He smiled. “I’m glad. Do you have any grand plans for the evening?”

“No. In fact,” I said, thinking quickly, “would you like to come up? At least I could get you a drink to say thanks.”

“I would like that,” he said.

I pointed out my building, and soon we left his car at the curb. I apologized for the crumbling state of the wooden stairs leading to my third-floor apartment, and their unsettling tendency to shift underfoot. He showed no sign of aversion.

“It’s nice,” he said as I led him through the door.

“It’s small,” I told him, removing my coat, “and it hasn’t been updated in a long time.”

“You’ve done a really good job making it nice, though,” he said.

“You’re very polite,” I said, offering to place his coat on the bed with mine. “I should frame some of these posters if I really want to keep them. They look kind of tacky just pasted up on the walls like that.”

In Rainbows,” he said, untying a dressy black pair of Vans. “I like that album.”

“Yeah, I’ll put it on if you want.”

“What a fantastic host you are,” he said, jerking at his tie and letting it hang loose around his neck.

My apartment was narrow with a cramped entryway near the bed and bathroom. It had wood floors throughout, which I’d partially obscured with two small area rugs. Past the bed lay an unceremonious living area, modular white couch on the left wall, flat television of modest dimensions to the right. I had placed a broad, very low coffee table in the center of the room, or more cosmically, at the center of the whole apartment, and so did it possess its own gravitational pull, as many small items I owned were drawn to its surface. Along the far wall stood a small, complete kitchen. It was rarely put to good use because I wasn’t any good at cooking.

I told him to make himself at home. “Do you like wine at all?” I asked.

“Wine is just fine,” he said.

Glasses were poured, music was set to play, and I dragged over a wooden chair from the drop-leaf table that hugged the wall of the kitchen.

“It’s good,” he said. “I know nothing about wine, though.”

“You can’t know any less than I do,” I said, holding up the bottle. “Thirteen dollars. Real top-shelf stuff.”

He grabbed it from me. “2013,” he said in a silly, elevated tone. “A good year for grapes. I’m sensing some oaky undertones here.”

“Give me that,” I said, laughing and snatching back the bottle.

He’d undone the top button of his white dress shirt, just as I had. His tie was loosened even more so that it looped down over his chest like a sash. I could make out definition in the muscles of his torso underneath and then had to deliberately restrict my gaze to his face. I realized this was the most casually dressed I had ever seen him.

“If I was my own boss, I don’t think I could dress as well as you do,” I said.

“I like dressing up. Besides, we’re always having unplanned meetings with customers. I’m never sure when I’ll need to look nice,” he said.

“That makes sense.”

He sipped his wine and asked, “So, you’re gay, right? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No,” I said, “not right now.”

“Ah, okay.”

I tried to detect some hint of feeling in his reaction, but came up with nothing. “What about you?” I asked. “Are you seeing anyone?”

“No. Until recently I had almost no free time. But I had to take a step back from that, or they would have found me in a ditch somewhere. These days I’m not really sure what I’m doing, in that arena, anyway.”

I gathered some courage and asked, “Do you prefer guys or girls?”

“Girls. I mean, well, yeah, my girlfriend and I broke up about a year ago.” He took a drink of his wine.

I forcefully suppressed all urges to read into this statement. I still did not know him very well. In fact this showed me that I hardly knew him at all. “That’s cool,” I said. “Yeah, relationships are hard.”

“Relationships turn you completely batshit crazy.”

“Right,” I said, grinning. “That’s what I meant to say.”

“So have you ever dated a guy long-term?” he asked.

I told him I had been with someone for a little over two years in college. “He graduated,” I said, “and he moved away. I asked him if he’d consider long distance until I could move to be with him and he said no. So that was that.”

“It really sucks, doesn’t it?” He traced the rim of his glass and stared off at some point on the surface of the coffee table. “You care for someone, and they don’t feel the same way. Seems like such an uncomplicated thing. But it’s not.”

“That’s true,” I said. “It’s a problem without a solution. But I spent a long time trying to find one.”

“Me too,” he said. “When my parents died, she was all I had. After she broke it off, I would spend hours wondering if she had only stayed with me because she felt sorry for me.”

“I’m sure it was more than that.”

He took another sip. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” He leaned forward and picked up a large piece of white sea glass from the coffee table. I watched him stare intently at it and turn it over a few times in his hand. “You have a very nice home,” he said. “Some people really don’t, but you do.”

I laughed a little. “Thanks. Now I’m interested to know what yours is like.”

He finished his glass of wine and looked around the room. “You’ll have to come over sometime. You can be the judge.”

“I would really like that,” I told him.

“This has been nice, right?” he asked. “Us talking, I mean. There’s something about it. I don’t know.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I’ve had a really good time today.”

He stood up and walked over to the kitchen. Radiohead continued to play quietly. “Would you consider hugging me right now?”

“Hugging you?”

“Yeah, is that asking a lot? Is it crazy if I think we both could use it?”

I stood up. “I’m fine with it, if you are.”

He motioned me over with both hands, so I approached and pulled myself close to him. His body was very warm, even more so than I had expected, now that it was pressed against mine. He leaned slightly back against the edge of the sink and I fell into him a little, allowing him to support just the smallest amount of my weight. He drew in a quick breath and then exhaled slowly, almost imperceptibly. I felt his hands wander the expanse of my back through the fabric of my shirt, fingers exploring the tiny rifts between muscles. “If it’s okay, I just need to do this,” he said. His voice, barely above a whisper, nonetheless transmitted through our joined torsos, and I felt it profoundly. “It’s okay,” I said. His arms and chest became known to me, unmistakably now, as considerable and robust. I attempted to feel, so that it could be locked away and recalled later, when I was alone, the smooth olive skin of his neck, pressed delicately against my own.

I do not know who became erect first, but by the time I felt the bulking presence of him at my waist, I, too, had expanded significantly into the same space. He pressed himself firmly into me and I countered with equal vigor. He backed off slightly and then rebounded with even more force. Then he receded once again and became still. I felt our bodies decouple just slightly. He whispered in my ear, so that I could barely hear above the music, “I better go home now, Chickadee.”

I fell away from him and stepped backward into the living room. At first, he didn’t move from where he stood at the counter, and our shared arousal was still very much on display. I was not embarrassed. He didn’t seem to be, either, and he stepped peacefully past me to claim his coat from the bed.

I trailed him and said with directness, to ensure that he could hear, “I hope that wasn’t too much.”

“It was a lot,” he replied. “But it was just the right amount.” His tie still hung loose under his unbuttoned coat. He smiled to himself. “I couldn’t have dreamed of a day like this.”

“I know,” I said. “Crazy.”

“Will I see you on the bus tomorrow?”

“I’ll be there,” I said, opening the door for him.

“Well, until then.”

“Goodbye, Mikey.”

After the door closed I stood next to it and listened to the quick thumping of footsteps as he made his way downward. When they had faded completely I could not withhold myself from kneeling on the couch and peering out the window behind it. The street was now dark, glimmering with a coat of rainwater. The headlights of his Honda flickered on and dimmed slightly as it started. He pulled away from the curb and was gone.






3


Before bed and after an evening spent in mostly worthless reflection, only half-interrupted by a trip to the gym and the resulting takeout meal, I made a promise to myself. I would never pressure Mikey. Whether out of fear or discretion, or some measure of both, he had arrested our quickly intensifying moment together. He’d done it with poise and certainty. His action revealed a striking ability that might have been otherwise difficult to distinguish: He knew how to look after himself. A further advance into intimacy would not have indicated the contrary; it wouldn’t have proven anything other than the actuality I had already come to know (his attraction to me). But he had chosen to stop, an employment of the same deft certitude he’d used to rock us into motion. He lacked the clarity I possessed regarding my desires and certainly my orientation, but his authority eclipsed my own—which, with regard to sexual advances, I would relinquish.

With this in mind, I did not sleep poorly, and in fact felt revitalized during my walk between buses the next morning. I picked out his apartment building among the others as I passed his street. At this point our paths sometimes coincided, at which time one would follow the other while maintaining a suitable distance. I found it solacing to consider that this distance would no longer be necessary. Today, however, I saw no sign of him until I came to the bus stop.

He flashed a smile as I approached, so I smiled back and arrived to stand next to him in front of the shelter. He wore a black peacoat I had never seen before. His thick hair, blacker still, had been shaped a little more deliberately than usual, and was swept up, far away from his eyes.

“Any important meetings today?” I asked.

“No, actually. Nothing scheduled, anyway.”

“Well,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “you look ready, if they show up.”

“Thanks.” He must have known what I referred to, because he then said, “My hair’s getting way too long. I can usually get by putting some gel in it and tossing it around. Today it needed extra attention.”

“It looks good,” I said. “I mean, it always looks good.”

He smiled. “Thank you.”

I leaned back against the glass wall of the shelter and after about a minute, so did he. We watched cars and pedestrians pass by for a short time, and then he turned toward me a little. Even though the roadway roared with life, he lowered his voice when he said, “I want to apologize for coming on to you last night. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“It didn’t bother me,” I told him.

“Well, it shouldn’t have happened.”

The bus arrived and the subject rested until we had boarded, offering me time to consider how to respond. I had not expected him to feel this way. I entered the bus before him, a fact for which I was soon grateful; I had taken it for granted that we would sit next to each other, and realized suddenly that this might not be what he wanted. I sat by the window, and was relieved when he did not ask, but simply came to rest at my side.

We did not say anything immediately. I gave a little more thought to what he had told me, and recalled the carefree way he had smiled when I first showed up. Both his attitude and his tone seemed to dismiss what I felt had been a meaningful exchange, and this annoyed me. I asked him, “It shouldn’t have happened last night, you mean? Or it shouldn’t have happened at all?”

He hesitated.

I could sense that he strained to find an answer and I stopped him. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what I’m getting at.”

“You’re really putting me on the spot here, Chickadee.” He laughed, but he also looked very nervous.

“Really,” I said, “I don’t need an answer. It’s not a big deal.” I tried to set aside my agitation; his feelings were obviously more complicated than I had thought.

His expression vacillated between confusion and a kind of unfiltered sadness. “I don’t blame you for asking,” he said.

I didn’t say anything for a while. I began to perceive an overarching message of apology from Mikey, apology both unfounded and misplaced. I cleared my throat. “Could you try to trust me about one thing?”

He looked at me.

“You need to know that you didn’t do anything wrong.”

He stared at the back of the seat in front of him. “Okay,” he said in an uncertain tone. “I’m glad to know that’s how you feel.” His phone rang and he excused himself before answering.

I could see the call was work-related and probably important. I sat back and looked up to the front of the bus, through the gaping windshield at the path ahead. Mikey’s own desires, or more appropriately his cognition respective to them, differed from mine more than I could ever have anticipated. I marveled at the dissonance between his displays of clarion confidence and these fresh moments of uncertainty. Even now his voice rang in quiet tenacity as he negotiated an exchange of money and services to occur later in the day.

His phone call persisted until my stop, at which point he said, to whomever he was speaking with, “Hold on just a minute,” and covered the bottom half of his phone with his palm.

To me he said, “I’m staying downtown late tonight, so I’ll see you tomorrow. We can talk then.”

I told him goodbye and left the bus. It didn’t occur to me until I was a block from the office that it was Friday, and I guessed he hadn’t remembered, either. I resented the thought of a whole weekend spent vaguely suspended by an unfinished conversation. At least it had not been entirely unfinished; I had let him know he wasn’t in the wrong, something I felt deeply, and which, I reflected, overshadowed anything else I could have said. Still, I couldn’t help but sink a little into frustration after having my hopes partially dashed, and considered it a forfeiture of some of the connectedness I had felt with him the night before.

I resolved to limit my thoughts about him in general, and if I did ponder over him much further, to use other people in my life as sounding boards. I was not an especially unsocial person, and in that moment was shocked to realize that, other than Mikey and my work colleagues, I hadn’t spoken to anyone in several days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find work that morning engaging in spite of lingering doubts about my approaching relocation. By some miracle, considering my penchant for frantic anticipation, I was able to put it out of mind. I had lunch at a pho place down on the street, accompanied by a work acquaintance, Jennifer, whom I had become somewhat close with, and who had very recently received the same relegation.

“I just wish they had told us this could be a possibility from the beginning,” she said.

“I know. It wouldn’t have made any difference for me, though,” I said. “I felt pretty lucky when they hired me.”

“Me too. And I mean, obviously they expected us to be versatile. It’s not really asking that much. The trade-off is in how fast people rise up through this company.”

“So you’re going?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not like I have a choice.” She paused and then said, “Aren’t you?”

I told her I would probably go, that the reality of it just hadn’t sunk in yet.

“I feel the same way,” she said. “It’s going to take a little time. I’m sure I’ll feel a lot better about it when the time comes.”

We said nothing for the next few minutes as we ate our soup.

Eventually I sat back and said, “The thing is, I just met someone who’s made a really good impression on me, and it’s not that it really matters—I mean, I hardly know the guy—but just thinking about Fern Hill and how small it is…what are my chances of meeting someone like that up there?”

“If you think about it,” she said, tilting her head to one side, “small winter village…people trying to stay warm…I don’t know—opportunities may present themselves.”

“Sounds like you’ve already thought about it.”

“I have,” she assured me through a mouthful of noodles. She finished and said, “Wyatt, with a face like yours, what could you possibly have to worry about?”

“If you’re saying that for the return compliment, I’m not giving it to you.”

She laughed.

Conversation turned as it usually did to our work; we discussed sources of confusion and complained about our superiors. Back at the office I labored energetically and the afternoon hours passed at a tolerable pace. I began preparing to leave for the day, contemplating a long ride home and the uneventful Friday evening ahead.

Down in the lobby I texted one of my closest friends and asked if I could catch the train with her to Celadon. Marie, who also worked in the city and became free around the same time I did, lived by herself in a high-rise condo several miles east of downtown. After many late summer nights spent together in hostels around Europe, turning sleep away as we discussed life’s beautiful and ugly truths, we lately bonded over a shared perception of life back at home as nebulously unsatisfying.

“I’m already on,” she texted back. “Follow me! You’ll only be one or two behind.”

I walked underground and bought a twenty-four hour pass, unsure whether I would be staying overnight. The eastbound car arrived after a few minutes and I sat near the front.

Two stations later the train climbed above ground and I was met with a dignified view of the harbor to the north, where colossal container ships, some languishing at the docks and some drifting glacially, were the reigning species. I attempted to imagine the lowly human effort responsible for the creation and movement of such monumental beasts, but to the discredit of shipbuilders and crew the world over, I couldn’t do it; in my mind, epicenter of the childish and absurd, they had birthed themselves into existence through their own endeavors and they did not bow to human influence.

Rain had begun pouring and battered the front window of the train car. One long wiper swept silently across the expanse of glass. Someone now sat in the seat next to me, their elbow pressed slightly, painlessly, into my side.

If Mikey were here, I wondered, what among all of this movement would he find remarkable? If, in some moment of disregard, I unmasked my thoughts about the mammoth creatures of the harbor, would he laugh, or would a part of him, either tiny or considerable, find validity in my impressions? I did not favor one hypothetical response over the other, but I longed to know which it might be.

I found Marie about fifteen minutes later waiting for me at the station.

“You could have just gone home,” I said as she squeezed me tightly.

“Nonsense,” she said. “I haven’t been here long. Besides, you never carry an umbrella. I couldn’t stand the thought of you out in the rain.” She opened hers and pulled me under it. She wasn’t very tall, so I had to duck a little until she laughed and handed it to me. “Here, you hold it.”

Marie was an only child whose parents moved from Korea when she was very young. We met during the first week of college and had melded together over our tentatively chosen path to an accounting degree. I had been drawn to her initially because of her energetic disposition; people with that kind of unbridled verve and spontaneity often rubbed off on me. Later on she would offer undying loyalty, even during my most self-infatuated period to date, the eleventh hour of my failed relationship.

“You saved me,” she said. “Another night alone streaming shows and movies—I would have died.”

I laughed. “I was dreading the same thing. That’s why I texted you.”

“I’m so glad you did,” she told me as she surged up the street to her building. Her pace was astonishing, if not unfamiliar to me. “It’s been too long,” she said as we entered the lobby. “Come into my home and I will tell you what has changed.”

“Something’s changed?”

“Shhh.” She held a finger to her lips, then grabbed her umbrella from me and folded it into her cavernous purse. “Not until we have drinks.”

She stamped her feet frantically as we rode to the 11th floor.

“The suspense is killing me,” I said, half-sarcastically.

“I know,” she said. “Me too.” The door opened and she took off down the hall, towing me along with her.

Marie’s parents owned the one-bedroom condo and rented it to her at a forgiving rate. She had filled it with mostly modest furnishings, but the unit itself was finished with materials that gave one the impression of lasting quality.

She told me to wait on the couch and then leapt over to the kitchen to throw together two of the strongest Vodka Collinses yet known to the world.

“Let me taste yours,” I demanded as she sat next to me. After sipping it I said, “Okay, as long as we’re in this together.”

“I’m not trying to get you drunk, Wyatt.” She slapped my thigh. “Not without me, anyway.”

I laughed. “So? Big news?”

“So, I broke up with Anthony last night.”

I set my drink on the table. “What? Why didn’t you text me?”

“It just didn’t feel text-worthy. Besides, I knew we were long overdue for a chat and, well, here you are.” She grinned.

Text-worthy or not, she seemed ecstatic to be reporting the news. At the risk of sounding selfish, I had been as bored with her relationship as she was. I dreaded circumstances that would bring the three of us together, such as whenever she felt an obligation to include him on our exploits. Anthony’s emotions were delicate and required a certain level of outside care and upkeep during a given evening; this ranked highly on a short list of social traits that I considered unacceptable. I kept this mostly to myself, but when Marie complained, I lamented alongside her.

“Well, you know how I feel,” I said. “I’m not going to miss him.”

She raised her glass and we clinked them together. After taking a drink she said, “You know what sealed it for me? I gave him an ultimatum for more sex—you know about our dry spell—and he actually couldn’t bring himself to do it. He kept ducking around the issue so I just let him have it. I could have internalized it and made it into something I was doing wrong, but you and I have talked about that. If he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it. I’m not going to wait around trying to read into it.”


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