I nudge Sebastian, and his eyes blink open. Someone is knocking at the door. At first, I thought it was the cleaner, coming to check on his sink. I always avoid them in my own room. No matter how much I carefully shave or wash my hands, no matter how much I clean the basin, I leave behind small black hairs, and find the porcelain offensively gray.
But then there is a second knock, and if it were a cleaner, they would just use their master key. They want to catch us doing something offensive –not sex, they’ve seen that before– but lighting candles or incense. Oxford is obsessed with fire.
Sebastian’s eyes widen, and he abruptly jolts up. Before he can say anything, the door rattles open, and he clutches the blanket, gathering a fist of fabric between his fingers.
Very quickly, there is a flurry of motions I have trouble registering, before the door closes again. There is the swishing of an expensive trench coat, and two taupe suede gloves hastily retreating towards a white Peter Pan collar, reddening cheeks, long strands of ashy blonde hair swishing back like tentacles, and the person is gone. Sebastian, meanwhile, has stood up straighter, flung his arms forwards and crossed them, yanked the covers up his body, almost exposing me entirely.
I only catch fragments of words. The one that comes back the most is Mom!, cried out resentfully by Sebastian. The knocker apologized manically, and is now pacing the corridor, the sound of her boots reverberating up the bed frame.
“Shit,” Sebastian says, jumping out of bed and into a pair of jeans, “shit, shit, shit.”
He looks around for his T-shirt, frantically throwing my own clothes in the air. I see my pleated pants falling in slow motion, as if I were not witnessing real life but a movie, as if there were a faint, shimmering screen in front of my eyes, a sheet of distance I have retreated behind. Buckling his belt, he stares at me for a moment, and I realize he expects me to get dressed too. I try and match his hurry, but am unable to find my underwear.
“Just…” he jerks a drawer open and throws me one of his. “Oh God. This is…”
“Was that your mom?” I ask, slipping a sock on.
“We were supposed to have breakfast, and I totally forgot. Fuck.”
“Oh no,” I whisper, putting my sockless foot on the ground.
“Yeah. Well don’t just sit there, get dressed,” he snaps.
“Sorry, no, you’re right, I’m just…”
He walks to the sink, scrambling for his toothbrush.
“You boys…” the voice clears her throat, before approaching the door.
“Mom, don’t come in,” Sebastian says in a cautiously levelled voice.
“No, I know, I was just saying,” the voice moves closer to the door, “you boys take your time, I’ll wait for you at the coffee place we went at last time, the one with the green crockery and the…” she trails off, snapping her fingers.
Sebastian ruffles his hair before interrupting her, “Yeah, no, I know the place, I’ll be right there.”
“Um,” the disembodied voice says after a small beat, “what’s your name?”
For a while, I do not realize she is addressing me. Sebastian stares at me through the mirror.
“He’s Trevor,” Sebastian says, before nudging my ankle with his foot and mouthing wake up.
“Well, Trevor, you’re more than welcome to join if you feel like it.”
Sebastian throws his hands in the air, forming fists, before insistently staring at me, nodding exaggeratedly and pointing at the door.
“Um, sure, I’d love to,” I croak, before clearing my throat, “I’d love to, thanks.”
The voice says okay then before starting a couple of sentences she leaves hanging in the air like unfinished tree branches, hovering without a trunk, and then the boots clunk down the stairs, until the front door on the bottom floor slams shuts.
“Fuck,” Sebastian says, “fuck.”
Brushing his teeth furiously, he starts pacing around the room in short, neurotic circles. I button my shirt up and smooth it down on my chest.
“What’s your mom’s name?” I ask him.
“Sophie,” he answers distractedly, spitting in the sink, “make sure to call her that right away, she hates it when my friends call her Mrs. Wilson. Hates it. Fuck.”
“Is she going to hate me?” I ask, embracing him from behind and resting my chin on his shoulder. He is staring at the mirror, running his hands over his cheeks and chin and forehead. I see his face softening.
“No, she’ll love you, just… It’s just weird, you know.”
He grabs a bar of pink soap and starts washing his hands again. It doesn’t look like he wants to take a shower: maybe it would seem too decadent for us to show up with slightly humid skin, warm to the touch and smelling of the same body wash.
“I know,” I tell him, my reflection blinking at me. I want to tell him it’s even weirder given he still won’t call me his boyfriend.
“You know,” I continue cautiously, “I can bail if you want me to. Just tell her my supervisor called me in.”
“No,” he turns around and kisses me, “don’t worry about it.”
I see at that moment the Sebastian I know best, with his solid stance and the way he carries me up the stairs to make me laugh. The man who buys me bubblegum for no particular reason. I glance at the potted spider plant on the windowsill and its long glossy leaves. In a while, they’ll grow plantlets. Sebastian pats his pockets for his keys, and I kiss his cheek.
“Yeah, no,” he tells me as we exit his room, “I mean, obviously it’d be less awkward if you could get out of it, but once she’s invited you somewhere, she’s invited you somewhere.”
I let out a small, floral oh he does not notice.
The way Sebastian’s mom hugs him is the same way he hugs me. The coffee place doubles as a bike repair shop on the ground floor. Whenever I walk past it, I hear the wheels turning like so many medieval spindles. For a while, we pour ourselves cups of tea and coffee, and all apologize to each other in circular motions, punctuating our excuses with small spoonfuls of sugar and quick dashes of milk.
“Anyway, Sebastian, you should’ve told me you had such a lovely boyfriend,” she adds warmly. Sebastian opens his mouth, and closes it.
“Early days,” I answer tentatively.
“Anyway,” Sebastian says, “how’s dad?”
“He’s good,” she quips distractedly, “just being dad, as usual. Trevor, where did you grow up?”
“Um, off Portland.”
“Mom, do you know if Aunt May’s got the keys to the beach house?”
“No, I don’t, I’m afraid. Do your parents still live there?”
“My mom, yeah. She’s lived there her whole life.”
“And your father?”
I turn the toad-green cup between my palms.
“He’s passed, unfortunately.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says, brushing a hand through her long hair. There’s this pause people always take. She stares at Sebastian, who takes my hand.
“That’s fine, thank you,” I answer. “Yeah, he passed away a couple of years ago, but I was still living around that area, so I got to… You know, be there. Cancer, chemo.”
“No, I’m sorry I brought it up …” she trails off and expects for Sebastian to fill in the blanks. His back is extremely straight.
As usual, for a time, it feels like my father’s hospital bed has materialized on the table, and that we are reaching for scones and teapots through a gaseous mattress. And as usual, it fades away. Sebastian asks about the beach house keys again. Maybe Amanda has them, and I do not know who Amanda is. I did not even know the beach house existed.
What I do realize is that Sebastian is wearing the same shirt I peeled off him last night. We were in his room this morning, he could’ve chosen any shirt he wanted. This is an effort to build an alternative script. If he wore this T-shirt yesterday, and wears it today, then night has not fallen, the sun has not risen, and whatever has happened did not happen. One long day.
I ask Sophie about her work as an architect, and she shows me cardboard models she’s doing for an art collective. Projected on chaotic pillars of painted shoe-boxes, I can make out fragments of a Jenny Holzer quote: guilt and self-laceration are indulgences.
By this point, I expected Sebastian to have mellowed out a bit. But his back is still impossibly straight, his hands nervously butter a scone, sending pastry flakes all over the table and into my lap. He ends up dropping it, half-eaten, into his plate, and glances at his watch.
“You don’t have to be somewhere, do you?” Sophie asks him.
“No, I’m fine,” he answers, glancing in my direction, “but Trevor, you told me about this thing…”
I shoot him a blank stare before realizing the underlying code.
“Oh, yes, I have a supervision, I’m going to have to go soon, I’m so sorry.”
“Please, that’s absolutely fine,” she says, and we launch into another round of apologies. I stand up, and so does Sophie.
“We’ll walk you there,” she tells me, “I love a good morning walk, don’t you?”
Once she leaves to go the bathroom and pay, I am left with Sebastian, staring at the wooden table and the cups and spoons and plates we’ve arranged in a peculiar pattern.
“She’s really nice,” I tell him.
“The best,” he answers vacantly.
“I think she likes me. Parents usually do. It’s because I’m short, they think I’m still a kid.”
“Cute as a button,” he echoes without looking at me.
He blinks twice, as if awoken from a strange slumber.
“No. Sorry, I’m just… It’s just really weird.”
“Well,” I tell him, “let’s just make the best out of it.”
He does not answer.
“You boys ready?” Sophie asks, clapping her hands.
“Yes,” I tell her, brushing Sebastian’s hand. He cups it delicately around mine, and I wonder if Jenny Holzer has a quote on duty.
They want to go to the Pitts natural history museum, so I tell Sophie I have a supervision at the Vere Hamsworth library, which is just next door. On the way there, Sophie points at buildings and I explain what they stand for. The Radcliffe Camera. All Soul’s. The King’s Arms. There is a small lull in the conversation, and Sophie asks me if I know who Mariette Riback is.
“No, who is she?”
“She’s this woman I knew, used to live near San Bernandino, and she had these old teacups from her grandmother, passed down from the trail. Anyway, the grandmother was long dead, but she had married an Englishman who went to Oxford, and she loved nothing more than Keats.”
“Yes. So, Mariette was this conceptual artist at the time, and she hand-painted these cups with Keats quotes and then buried them in the desert. She had this map, and she wanted her son to find them when the time came.”
We walk past Wadham College, and a man with long hair almost bumps into Sebastian. I realize they know each other. I realize Sebastian is falling behind.
“Oh wait,” Sophie tells me, abruptly heading into Wadham’s lane, “I told Amanda I’d pick something up from her daughter, I almost forgot, I’ll be right back.” As she shuffles away, she scrambles for her phone, breathlessly dialing a number. I imagine her knocking at every dorm door. After all, she can’t uncover anything that can shock her today.
I feel Sebastian’s arm on the small of my back, and explain to him where his mother is.
“Oh yeah, that’s right, Florence goes here…”
“Once more, your mom’s really cool.”
“Yeah,” he smiles warmly, and for a moment, I am afraid he will fall back into his mutism, but instead, he continues, “when I was a kid, she used to get all of my friends together and she’d bake these weird cakes, with chocolate and candied oranges, and she’d pretend she was a French waiter, or a Scottish pirate, whatever character she wanted to be that day. Everybody loved her.”
“You don’t talk about her much,” I say.
His arm moves up to my shoulder. The way he smells is warm, and reassuring. The first time I identified that smell as his own, we were in bed, talking about who’d we be as House Of Cards characters.
“I think I’d be Kate Mara. Or that hooker who almost makes it out but then eats it.”
“Nah, you’re definitely Claire. You’re tall, you carry yourself well, and you’re crazy smart.”
I knew I was nothing like Claire. He knew she was my favorite.
Sebastian drops his arm away. I don’t even have to look to know that Sophie is back.
“All done,” she tells me, “anyway, what was I saying?
“Um, Mariette Riback.”
“Right. So, she had these teacups, buried them, charted the locations. But then her husband, he took this job in Columbus, and it turns out somewhere along the way, she lost the map.”
Sebastian slips on a pair of sunglasses. His eyes look like two dark empty plates now.
“Turns out it really doesn’t matter anyway, her son’s grown now, and he doesn’t care about those teacups. Nobody really does. Nothing but malls there.”
I am hardly listening anymore. I am remembering the times Sebastian has walked me back to his on the road. I see our doubled, prismatic bodies walking opposite us, smiling.
“In Columbus. Poor thing, can’t even drive.”
I want to ask her what the point of this story is, but I can see the Vere Hamsworth’s driveway and there is no time left. As I fumble for my library card, she gives me a tight hug. Sebastian keeps his distances.
“It was very nice meeting you, Trevor,” she tells me, “see you soon?”
Sebastian throws me a confusing glance.
“I hope so,” I answer weakly. “It was nice meeting you too.”
“Come on, Mum, let’s go, museum’s right there,” Sebastian tells her.
I wave, and they are already walking away. It is time for natural history, for insect corpses and large, angular skeletons. For forgotten tapestries.
I spend the rest of the day on the last floor of the library. I do not know if Sophie’s staying for lunch, for afternoon tea, for dinner. I cannot risk seeing them again. So, I do not walk out, and just eat a granola bar.
I pick up a book that mentions Jenny Holzer.
Action causes more trouble than thought.
Beyond method, there is the question of motive: do I want trouble?
I google Mariette Riback, and find a few articles about her past art installations. It seems she had a thing for burying, like a 1978 Encino Herald article I find about paint capsules she hid behind loose building bricks. If you found them and pressed them down, primary pinks or greens would ooze out of the sides.
“Why,” the interviewer asked her.
“Nice to leave a trace,” Ms. Riback answered, laughing heartily.
The paint must be gone now. Projections fade away, etched benches are replaced, whole neighborhoods torn from the ground.
Once I finally work up the nerve to scuttle home, I lock myself into my room. I cannot bring myself to start fires in the oven, so I devour the bag of apples I keep near my bed. Throwing their cores away, I think back to the T-shirt, the new script, the night last night that may or may not have happened. I feel an intense desire for Sebastian’s touch, like the pull of a subterranean cave, paired with a deep, twinkling sadness. I have always been a beautiful crier, and I have always believed that men would protect me. Hence the logic at hand.
I text him to ask if he wants me to come over. He answers an hour later.
Too tired. Sorry.
Tomorrow? I ask back.
The answer takes another hour. This week is going to be crazy. I’ll make it up to you.
I walk up to my mirror, my hands clasping the edges of the sink. I want to take my white bar of soap and obscure the glass, refuse light. I want it to be night, again and again, wrapped in heat waves and stronger arms.
But I know the cleaners are coming tomorrow.