Madison / fall 2016
Out from under the cover of city-noise, Marjorie heard a strange voice call her name, then whistle slowly. Three mocking syllables: a long dactyl of whistled sound, a seductive musical slide.
Third time tonight: it brought her to an abrupt halt, and standing astride her Trek racer, she scanned the Saturday night crowd that set the sidewalk in waves of motion. For the moment she ignored the stream of traffic to her left, the stroke of oncoming headlights fixing her in the lightly falling chill mist. Her eyes roved over the sea of faces, laughing, celebratory despite the weather—and she, shivering unaccountably, why this foolishness? A surge of unfamiliar fear left her skin tingling warmly; vulnerable, she of all people felt vulnerable, trapped between these parallel currents of movement, car and pedestrian.
The moment passed, panic receded. Marjorie forced herself to laugh, shoved off the curb to rejoin the steady flow of traffic. The instant she bent forward, a raindrop struck her neck, its rude touch a warning—behind me. She turned to look over her shoulder.
There, she saw the mournful face, stock-still, stocking-capped, behind the bodied wall of parkas and slickers hurrying down the sidewalk. He was looking straight at her, waiting for her gaze to find his own, and as it did, his lips curled ever so slightly—wan, sardonic smile—and from them issued a sustained whistle, three tensile tones: babe, I’ve got a bead on you. It was barely audible beneath the cacophony of humming cars and heedless chatter, but it stung Marjorie’s senses like a roar. Third time tonight she had heard that whistle, but the first time she had seen the wan face.
If she had—for the instant she spotted him, the already spinning wheels of her bike sped her forward. Automatically she shifted gears as she pedaled to the beats of her heart and her mind raced to irrational conclusions: this wasn’t coincidence, she had actually heard that whistle before, the anonymous face had just called her name: MÁR-jŏ-rĭe. Her name.
Ahead, flashing in the neon corridor of university restaurants, bars, headshops, and boutiques, she recognized the Barron’s logo. Skidding to a halt on the slick pavement, Marjorie chained the bike under the glare of a streetlight, safe enough, and edged her way through a knot of Buckeybadger fratboys pouring out of the adjacent sports bar. One of them reeled into her, all beery breath, but Marjorie barely noticed, fixed on the promise of her friends’ presence inside the bar restoring her calm of mind. She didn’t pause until she reached the protective maw of the Barron’s threshold, gaping mouth through which she pushed, swinging doors swallowing her in darkness.
San Diego / winter 2016
The echo of his footfalls as he clattered down the tiled stairs to the basement entrance of the bar made José feel within inches of being overtaken, fantastical figment of his imagination. The more comforting sound of men’s voices and trance music filtered from behind the closed door—my kind, my kin—and somewhere in the waste of noise his amigos waited. At the bottom of his descent, José passed the mural of an amazed Alice proclaiming as she fell down the rabbit hole, “Come, there’s no use in crying like that!”, and pushing open the padded leather door, he passed the steely-eyed bouncer and entered the golden darkness that was the multitiered Wonderland.
A winter’s weekend night: a wonderland of men’s bodies pressed flesh to flesh in liquid dimness. Above the constant drone of conversation in the basement bar, the beat of techno reverberated from the upstairs dance space, a siren’s homecoming song. José let his body swim through the sound, parting a wake through tanned and tattooed biceps toward the stairwell, where moving beams hinted at the expanse above. Grazing past the onlookers who lined the stairs as he pressed his way upward, José felt the flex of desire surrounding him, and he breathed himself into his body, willed his attractiveness into being.
A figure blocking his way stepped aside, throwing an unexpected shaft of light into José’s eyes.
He stopped, dazzled, and for a second all he could see in his mind’s eye was the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the changing room at work. One minute he had been undressing, alone, hanging his waiter’s uniform—white shirt, black gaucho trousers, floral sash—in the rusty locker as he sat on the long gray bench; the next, looking up but not recognizing Eddie Garcia’s face because the light bulb, swinging to and fro behind the older waiter, had blinded him. José started, because he hadn’t heard Eddie enter and because he had spent the last three weeks attempting to avoid the man.
Reaching the top of the stairs, José scanned the dance floor. It was Saturday, prime-time and too many primed people. Three years since he first stepped through the looking glass, yet he still wondered where all these new faces—brown, white, black, but mostly brown—came from, weekly infusions of desire and hope. But tonight he wanted to see faces that were familiar. He inched forward to the periphery of the dance floor for a better view, standing motionless as nameless figures swayed in tribal rhythms in front of him and a river of bodies jostled past to his rear. Where were they, his friends?
“Where you running off to in such a hurry, hijo?” Eddie had asked in the locker-room; they were the only ones there, it was late, and José quickly buttoned his skin-tight jeans. José couldn’t remember quite what he had replied. Something polite but carefully evasive. “Don’t bullshit me,” Eddie had shut him off, his voice suddenly hard, as nakedly raw as the light bulb behind him. Then, as his gaze traveled up and down Jose’s body before resting on his eyes, the man’s tone metamorphosed into honeyed insinuation.
“Sonny, I know. I know all ’bout you, and what I know I can tell others, eh, maricon?”
The word floated in the air, it hung suspended between their silent gazes, illumination before which José felt helpless to hide.
Williamsburg / spring 2017
Using the ancient ivy to hoist himself to the top of the ornate brick wall, Daniel paused to stretch out lengthwise along the ledge, taut leg muscles clenching either side while, through his worn army khakis, skin absorbed the coolness of the clay. A moment was enough, heartbeat slowed, and he slipped down the inner wall, landed with a whisper on the soft pine needles: carpet for the ages. Before him, posted like shadowed sentries on a bank sloping downwards in darkness, rose a screen of Virginia pine, beyond which, dimly, the lake glimmered. And beyond that, the gardens themselves unfolded: formal mazes of colonial beauty enclosing flower beds of geometric floral design, moonlight muting rich color—all Daniel’s tonight, a solitary paradise through which he might glide silently, stealthily, alone in luxuriant stillness.
But he wasn’t alone. As he stalked forward, downward, stepping carefully lest the needled carpet bring him to his knees, he felt electric life everywhere, invisible, enveloping him. The gardens were awake, they awaited his entry, awaited the caresses he alone could bestow. They had been waiting a decade, why had it taken him so long to return? Easing himself out of bed at two a.m. he had sensed Janene feigning sleep as he slipped out of their house in Newport News. She’d said nothing; she knew his moods too well. But not as well as this darkness. As he moved through the murky gloom of the pines, he felt eyes watching him—of friend or enemy? Daniel shook his head, camelbrush thorn and desert palm transformed back into pine boughs, on high alert he continued forward and downward.
Closer now, the pleasure-lake glinted through the boughs: moonlight quivered at its center.
Emerging from the pines, he pushed through a border of azalea, dislodging from the outrageous blossoms the scent of sticky sweetness. Even in the dark, he could imagine their colors, bursts of red pink white against waxy black foliage. Star-shaped bursts: like the fireworks that his patriotic parents—exemplars of the melting-pot incarnate—once took him here, colonial capitol of America, to see on the fourth of July: shock and awe, shock and awe.
Daniel’s feet reached for the flagstone path that edged the rectangular body of water: so tranquil, ordered, summoned into harmony by a long-deceased landscaper’s visionary fiat. Daniel absorbed it all as he moved forward—the water-lily pads clustered in the squared corners of the lake; the slate roofs of the Governor’s Palace glinting above a stand of trees on the opposite bank. And again he heard the living sound of landscape: hum of cicadas, a gurgle from the lake’s western end. There the lake’s overflow, trickling off into the woods, formed a miniature waterfall; there the path led to a Japanese footbridge that spanned the tiny cataract.
Daniel paused. The direction he was following would take him there, beneath the boughs of weeping willow shrouding the bridge in shadow. Not yet. He had come to walk the gardens, thread his way through their shapely mazes, absorb their beautiful symmetry. For this he had stolen into the palace grounds. Later, the blackness of the cataract, later, when he was primed to stalk his foe.
A block away, the bell in the steeple of Bruton Parish chimed three o’clock. Daniel reversed his steps, setting off at a jog towards the terraced lawns of the Palace, which, bathed in moonlight, invited him to enter to the gardens beyond.
Brooklyn / summer 2017
You’re sure not in Kansas anymore: the whimsical thought melted into others as Brandon drifted to the edge of sleep on the murphy bed of his sublet. He’d come East two weeks before, sleeping on a friend’s sofa in a cramped studio in Soho until today, when he’d moved into this apartment, his own cramped studio, his for six months. So what if the air conditioner didn’t work, the night temperature hovered in the nineties, the faucet in the kitchen drip-drip-dripped? Now it all begins. Tomorrow morning an audition, in the afternoon a meeting with a casting agent—horizons so far exceeding the wheat fields of his youth that, as he nodded off, images of golden acres of grain began to undulate, as if a rug were being slowly shaken in an alternate reality while detached chaff floated in sunlight, wisps of the life he had left behind.
Two hours later harsh rasping rings, unfamiliar and urgent, pulled him up from sweat-drenched slumber. Battling back the twisted damp sheet that pinioned his limbs, Brandon looked at the glowing red digits of his clock, half past two. The clock wasn’t ringing, no, then he realized it must be the prior tenant’s landline. The service wasn’t scheduled to be disconnected till Friday, did that obligate him to answer? The question resolved itself when the built-in answering machine clicked on and, as the greeting finished, Brandon became aware of a presence on the other end of the line: not the hollow thrumming nothing preceding a recorded solicitation, no, rather the engulfing nothingness of human breath, rhythmic intakes and exhalations deliberately, obscenely, orgasmic, and just as Brandon readied to hurl himself across the room and slam the mute button, a voice, gasping in heraldic release, filled the room: “Settled in, dear? Welcome to Emerald City. I’m always here when you need me.” Then a click on the other end but not before the caller—man or woman, Brandon couldn’t tell—exhaled a taunting, haunting laugh.
Madison / fall 2016
Their laughter echoed in the doorway where they waited, the neon sign above them flashing violet as they watched Marjorie, slightly wobbling, bend forward in the drizzle to unchain her bicycle. Once she succeeded in looping the chain around the waist of her rain poncho, Ellen and Marta ventured onto the sidewalk for a group hug—“Pedal safely!”—before dashing to their cars in the adjacent lot.
Smiling as she thought of her friends, Marjorie walked the bike across Main and University, joining the flow of impossibly young-looking university students disobeying the Don’t Walk signal. How did it happen—when did we transform into the adults here? Only yesterday, it seemed, the threesome were ABDs, sure they’d finish their dissertations “next year”; and now this, biweekly martinis at the Barron, as close as they now came to those carefree student days when the world seemed possible. Back then, did they imagine this would be their destination—staying in Madison, dissertations abandoned, single (and approaching thirty), underpaid? But, when all was said and done, not discontent either. Mounting her bike, Marjorie pedaled past the closing-hour revelers rotating in and out of the taverns on University Ave.
Nothing like the press of bodies she had encountered earlier in the evening when she’d lost her cool. Stupid fucked-up kid, strung out—dime a dozen in a university town. Marjorie approached the west end of University; here the bars and restaurants thinned, and fog drifted upwards from the lake.
Out of the dark, as if carried by the gathering mist, the sound of a whistle, dactyl-phrased, punctured the night.
Marjorie slammed on her brakes. It took only seconds to spot him in the alley by McDonalds, his thin frame lounging against the dumpster and staring her way. He whistled again, not the ubiquitous wolf call of convention but a whistle of selection, recognition. He was fifty feet away, the mist blurred her vision, but it was him. Emboldened by the Barron’s martinis, Marjorie decided to stand her ground, a stare-down, and memorized: white, six feet, navy blue jogging suit, dark hair jutting out from a knit cap, scruff on his chin like a billy-goat’s nape. Fucker, see if these details don’t make it to a police report—
A couple emerged from McDonalds, obscuring Marjorie’s view. By the time they passed, he’d disappeared, vanishing as silently as he had reappeared. With his absence, the heartbeat of irrational fear returned, and Marjorie pedaled to the middle of the street, not wavering at all but steering a straight line of determination to be gone.
San Diego / winter 2016
The mirrored wall behind the dance floor had misted over, victim of the humidity generated by so many shirtless torsos moving in liquor-drenched rhythms. Welcome to Wonderland! So José’s inner emcee declaimed: land of smoke and mirrors, yes gents!, yes YOU!, step through the looking glass, join the greatest fantasy of all: one loving community, safety in numbers.
José was leaning against the railing of a balcony overlooking the crowded dance floor with Jorge. Together they watched their friend Tito sway below them in luxurious abandon. The music segued into a new track, Tito pulled back from his partner, and arching his back in a stretch that only accentuated his taut bare belly and sinuous torso—a fact Jorge bitchily noted—he saw his friends above him, waved. Within moments he was at their side, draping damp arms over their shoulders and bringing their heads together in an affectionate rubbing of brows that dislodged a shower of droplets from his tight dark curls.
“Amigos! About time you showed!”
Jorge arched his eyebrow. “Josélito’s fault—he was entertaining a paramour at work. Tell Tito about your conquest, José.”
Son, don’t be nervous, I don’t bite, that’s what the older man had said after staring José into silence. “I’m just jivin’ ya, we brothers, no?” And José remembered the first time Eddie had used that line: they were working adjacent stations in the dining room, and as they waited for their last tables to depart, Eddie had said, apropos of nothing: “You can’t fool me, I got your number. You’re south of the border so you don’t let on, but I know. We’re compañeros, brothers, you and me. I’ve got the power, son, I see through the world’s lies, I reveal Truth to the world.” And he had laughed a little too loud.
It had chilled José then, and it chilled him an hour ago when Eddie, slipping out of his shirt in the locker room, slapped his hands against his stomach. “My woman, she feed me too much. But look at you—man, tight as a drum!” José quickly slipped his Henley over his head. “So what’s up tonight, hijo? You ain’t putting on those fancy duds to wear home. You’re off to par-tee and be evil, hombre! Not fair for us married men. Believe me, lots of action left in this body,” and his hands dropped below the floral sash that looped under the curve of his belly. “Just give it a chance! You and me, we’re brothers, we should hang sometime. Real soon, or I might get pissed, you hear me?” José had shrugged his way to the door when a change in Eddie’s voice stopped him cold. “Pret-ty. Pretty boy.”
“So why didn’t you tell him to fuck off?” Tito asked. “Tired old queen, send him to Camp Pendleton to suck off some horny Marines.”
“I don’t know, there’s something about him—” José stopped. He felt, again, the curious horror of Eddie’s eyes boring into him, scanning his thoughts while talking relentlessly, giving José neither a chance to break in nor break away.
“Hel-lo, it’s the twenty-first century! He’s the closet case, don’t let him threaten you. Shit, man, he’s the one who should worry, and you gotta let him know it. That’s what THIS”— Tito threw open his arms in an embrace of the aura, sound, world, that was Wonderland—“is all about. You’re free! I’m free! It’s all about love, baby!” José couldn’t help laughing, this was pure Tito, and then Tito leaned forward and surprised José with a wet kiss on the mouth, holding the moment. With surprise José felt his friend’s tongue part his lips, relaxed into Tito’s caresses. But rapture wasn’t enough, he couldn’t shut off the voice in his head: why had Eddie Garcia singled him out, what did he really want, what might the fucker do? I got your number, he had said.
José’s stomach knotted, even as he and Tito continued to make out and desire welled into possibility. Behind Eddie Garcia’s eyes, José had glimpsed a blankness he had never known before: enemy terrain. At that moment, the dreary blocks separating Wonderland and his apartment flashed before him, and he leaned back from Tito.
“Holá, Tito, give me a ride home tonight?”
“Baby, you’re coming home with me.”
“Well!” Jorge said, affecting neglect. “At least have the decency to buy your tia another cocktail before you va-voom. Follow me!” And, hand in air, he led the way, with Pied Piper assurance, through the thickest thick of the noisy throng, path of most resistance the obvious choice on a crowded Saturday night.
Williamsburg / spring 2017
Complete silence, except for the scruff of his boots and the hum of insects nesting beneath the boxwoods lining the flagstone walk. Daniel dropped a hand to the trimmed flattop of the shrubbery, the gentle friction tickling the pale of his dark palm as he broke into a trot, bounding up stone steps into the formal gardens. On either side stretched squares, diamonds, hexagons of shape, hedging inky floral treasures. Breaks in the shrubbery led to even smaller paths intersecting the flower beds, you could become part of the harmony if you lingered among the parterres of color long enough.
Knowing this helped; it left him feeling cleansed; he had seen too much of nature’s desolation, tabula rasa of stony plateaus and freak sandstorms, black clouds hovering over burning oil fields and charred corpses, the unexpected turn in the collapsed city’s jungle of blasted cinderblock and bent rebar and, poof!, staring into kohl-lined eyes before the world temporarily disappeared in rounds of sniper fire. But fears of ambush dissolved under the spell of this silent listening landscape; his thoughts, too, were dissolving out into this vast stillness.
Daniel paused by a marble bench recessed into a hedge and, sitting on its cool surface, began to remove his clothes, item by item he stripped himself bare. You have not seen too much, an inner voice argued. And when he stood, he lifted his hand to his chest, felt the beat of his heart beneath the slant of dark golden muscle. He touched his belly, brushed his fingers over his thighs. You can return, the voice said.
I have. Daniel stepped back onto the path, curled toes gripping stone. He grew more and more sure-footed until he found himself on the lawns beyond the last border of hedge. Here, the landscape undulated in tiers of olive gray, a silver carpet unfurling beneath cherry and apple trees, skirting random beds of flowers, crossed by winding paths nowhere. Garden of the world, navel of America, he stood before it with shoulders thrown back and hands turned upwards from his sides. It was ecstasy, he felt the moonlight glazing him in its sheen, a new skin.
With sure steps he left the path and lightly dashed across the lawn; sprays of dew flew up beneath his footfalls, marked his trail. When he reached the bed of daffodils, hundreds growing in an oval on the bank, he paused. As if he had always known this was what he had to do, he dropped forward, landing on his hands and knees in the riot of yellow cups, he could feel a cool breeze tracing the scar tissue on his back, stroking his slim hips and dipping between his legs, scrotum’s chill warning, yet he continued to lower himself with delicious slowness into the trembling flowers, their soft mass caressing his genitals, his chest, his face, their golden mouths meeting his parted lips, withheld breath, as he sunk into the blossoming earth.
Brooklyn / summer 2017
. . . you belong here, honey, those city wolves they’ll gobble you up in a second . . . let me send you a check, just a little to tide you over?. . .
Brandon’s head rang from the litany of phrases littering the obligatory Sunday evening call to his mother back in Council Grove. Just a little to tide you over till you come home where you ought to be: imagining the words she’d left unspoken when they ended the call made him angry all over again. He exhaled deeply, let it out, let it all out, placing his mobile face down on the arm of the easy chair where he sprawled in cut-off sweats and a shapeless tee. It was another unbearably humid night, it was going to be impossible to fall asleep. Gee thanks but no thanks Ma, I’m doing just fine, he’d answered, although, if he were honest, oatmeal breakfasts and ramen dinners were wearing thin. His only income so far had been a single band gig, subbing for an absent saxophonist. Who knew this secondary musical skill would be funding his acting ambitions? But he was living the dream, going to auditions, getting feedback, who was he to complain? That’s where his mother picked up the slack, always ready to remind him just how green, how naïve, he was: Kansas boy born and bred.
His cell phone vibrated with an incoming call. Typical: no conversation with his mother ended without her calling back within minutes to relay a family story or words of admonition she’d forgotten to convey earlier.
Brandon closed his eyes and took a deep breath—let it all out, slowly, count one two three—as he felt for the mobile, tapped the ON button, and brought it to his ear. But the breathy sound that greeted him was not his mother, not at all. Neither was the low, slow peal of faint but high-pitched laughter that followed nor the oddly enunciated words that jerked him upright: “It’s me, dear. You haven’t forgotten me?”
And, incredibly, he hadn’t: the anonymous caller who had interrupted his sleep his first night in the studio, before the prior occupant’s landline had been disconnected.
“Settled in nice and comfy? I hope so. I’m always here for you.”
Again, orgasmic intake and exhalation, unmistakeable in its meaning, as Brandon cut the connection, but not before the voice lilted, “Here, I’m here.” Fuck this, Brandon thought as he threw himself onto his feet and paced the cage of his room to still the shiver that traversed his body like lightning, coating him in a chill sweat. How in the fuck had the caller accessed his cell phone number? It just wasn’t possible.
I’m here for you. Pacing the few feet from kitchenette to easy chair, Brandon stopped before the open front window, faintest of breezes stirring the blind that he’d drawn earlier in the evening. On impulse, he peeked out through the slats, gazed at the empty avenue two flights below: identical apartment buildings directly across, beside them a twenty-four hour mart, and, there, stepping out of the shadow of a defunct telephone booth, relic of another era, a lone dumpy figure, hoody pulled tight, hand holding a cell phone whose glowing face the figure, taking off in a clumsy trot, held aloft, pointed backwards and upwards in Brandon’s direction.
The souls you found walking the streets at five in the morning touched her imagination to the quick. A grizzled old man, senile and unaware of the hour, pushing a metal walker as he walked his schnauzer, an overweight jogger (too ashamed to exercise in the light of day?) wheezing asthmatically, two identically mascaraed and blue-spike-haired Goth lovers, unisex, necking with abandon against the Bank of America drive-through, a bag lady snoring under a cardboard tent pitched by a warm-air vent, plastic daisies in a diet Pepsi bottle marking her square of sidewalk as home. Marjorie had been working her new shift for a week now. The idea of burying her six hours of clerical work in the dead hours appealed to her sense of irony: it was dead-end enough a job, menial labor to fill the gap until the university lab where she’d worked for seven years hired her back, state budget cuts notwithstanding. It was perversely pleasing to walk nightly out of a job one would rather forget into the void of these sleeping autumn nights and spy into the secret lives animating it. Queen of the night: her secret kingdom. Walking was even better than biking—she liked the time it gave the muscles in her neck to unknot, anticipate the approach of sleepiness, attend to the gratifying sound of leaves rustling beneath her feet.
Marjorie turned into the residential neighborhood that abutted her own, breath visible in the chill air. At a distance, the silhouette of another jogger bobbed into view, at least this one’s not going to have a heart attack, Marjorie thought as he approached, contemplating with satisfaction the run she’d take along the shores of Lake Mendota in the afternoon, once she’d risen from her nap—her goal was to compete in a series of marathons next year. Maybe a triathlon the year after. In her peripheral vision she saw the jogger pass on the opposite side of the street, only a fleeting impression but enough for her to realize he was bare chested. Wasn’t he freezing? Marjorie’s breasts responded with an icy shiver, she thrust her arms deeper into the pockets of her parka and moved on.
Three minutes later, Marjorie looked up, puzzled. Coming around the next corner was the same jogger—yellow shorts, no shirt, now bizarrely zigzagging down the middle of the street. A warning sensation crept up Marjorie’s spine, and she deliberately kept her eyes cast in front of her. Keep walking like you know where you’re going. Use your keys as a jabbing weapon. You could outrun him any day.
She sensed the runner slowing down, something curious was happening as he neared, and against her better judgment she lifted her eyes. No wonder he had slowed his pace: his hands were tugging at his shorts and, holding the waistband beneath his crotch, he veered closer to her side of the street. Marjorie opened her mouth but no sound emerged. Absurd image of his erection, framed in wiry hair, bouncing up and down, just as he passed out of her line of vision.
She turned, dumbly, to watch the figure recede in the distance, yellow nylon now hiked up over his buttocks. He didn’t look back. As her mind reconnected with her pounding heart, Marjorie felt a bubble of hysteria choking her throat, and when it finally burst, she couldn’t stop laughing: in the instant he had passed, he had called her name. MÁR-jŏ-rĭe. Saturday night a month ago tumbled into the present, no relic of the past. The pre-dawn air descended over her shaking frame like an unfurled cape under whose weight, although she was still walking, she could not move.
His friend the breather had called three more times. Each time Brandon had been foiled into answering—different numbers each time, just when he’d been expecting callbacks or a summons to a new gig. He couldn’t parse it out, to his knowledge he didn’t have a foe in the world; he’d left home without leaving a grudge behind, he hadn’t yet met enough people in New York to have made an enemy. He must just be the random target of a virtual stalker, it happens all the time, he told himself. Still, how had the caller known Brandon was a newcomer to the city? And how had he managed to reach him both on the apartment’s old landline and his own cell phone? That was too damn weird.
The only solution had been to change his number, which after some difficulty he’d negotiated with his mobile company. It was an irksome process; he’d had to make sure his contacts knew where to reach him—he’d be damned if he lost out on an audition because he’d been forced to change his number. A good thing, too, because almost immediately he’d gotten the call he’d been waiting for: a small role (a walk-on really, but still) in a downtown venue that would run for three weekends.
It was nearly midnight, Brandon had returned from his first rehearsal two hours earlier, he was too wired to sleep so he whiled away the next hour and a half on his computer, sitting at the kitchen table as he checked his Facebook page, caught up on email correspondence, scanned reviews of new productions. The heat wave had broken, so when he unfolded the Murphy bed he fell into the deepest sleep he’d experienced in a month. So deep that, when his laptop started pinging insistently from the table where he’d left it in sleep mode, it took a Herculean effort to surface from an immediately forgotten dream, note the time—five a.m.—and locate the source of the annoying noise. The computer screen glowed eerily in the dark, casting blue shadows over his body as he stumbled in its direction. It was emitting a sound completely unfamiliar to him.
“What's your problem?” he muttered, reaching for the mouse as he focused his eyes on a chat-box that had popped up on the screen. All of a sudden the drumming pings stopped, and letters started scrolling across the screen.
“Silly you! You can’t escape me so easily.”
What the fuck?
“I can see you, my love, can’t you see me?”
Brandon slammed the computer shut, yanked the plug from the wall. Shaking, he strode across the room to the window, then stopped abruptly. No, he refused to lift the shade or peer out, see if anyone were lingering on the sidewalk below. That way lieth madness. What should he do—call the police? Absurd.
Then his cell phone rang. Blocked number of course but he answered anyway, not even bothering to ask who it was before blurting, shouting really, “What do you want?”
“Surely you know?”
Gasping intakes and expirations of air, the rising and falling cadence of desire. Brandon hurled the phone across the room, its face cracking against the plaster wall.
Why had he come here in the first place? Not these recent excursions but the first time, just after the millennium, when he had snuck over the wall with Dara and Tom—what had been their inspiration? Had they been bored, tired of sitting in the library? The original cause, it was lost, but he could still recapture the feeling: the thrill as the three of them, juniors at William and Mary, had slipped over the wall late one night, wary of patrolling guards they later learned did not exist, simulated fear binding them as one; suppressed laughter escaping as they set off down the paths, brought their revels to the Queen’s maze, a labyrinth cut into the shrubbery where they had run down its blind paths, never really afraid of losing their way or each other.
Daniel walked the gardens naked now; he took off his army gear as soon as he entered, a pledge of good faith: if the snipers were watching, hiding beneath the tranquil surface, they would at least know his terms, see that he came defenseless. He paused to breathe in the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine; soon there would be roses. What had happened to them all? Dara, Tom, himself—the invincible college threesome? Marriage, the entirely predictable bloom of motherhood for Dara, who had seemed so unpredictable: and who had died in a hit-and-run accident four years ago. Tom’s post-graduation move to Jersey where, trapped in the shadow of the past that had first cast its spell over him here in Williamsburg, he had begun dealing antiques, a failing business that left him fading into apathy when they lost touch years ago. Only he, Daniel, had followed the path he’d always avowed, a calling that grew after the events of 9/11. Dara and Tom expressed credulity when he enlisted, but he reminded them that it was in his blood, this urge to serve; his dad had fought in Vietnam, that’s where he’d met and married his mother. Black dad for whom the army had provided upward mobility, Asian mom for whom America had offered safety: Daniel had been raised to believe his mixed heritage represented American possibility at its acme, and it was his duty, his privilege, to keep the torch burning. What happened to you? Janene had screamed at him the other day, their last fight before she’d moved out. You’re ashes inside, there’s no spark left.
The spring evening they had come here, they couldn’t have foreseen any future beyond summer jobs, beach vacations, senior year festivities. He could remember how their adventure ended, arms linked while they strolled by the lake, asking each other what it might feel like to be trespassing the gardens alone. “Who’d want to?” Dara had laughed, her Southern lilt a fool’s shot at the darkness they did not yet know. Now he knew. For even now, beneath the beauty wrested into order by colonial minds, Daniel felt the struggle of a formless war being waged against a formless enemy. Yellowcake and WMD had proved a fiction, insurgencies abounded, factions became impossible to parse. Even now, lowering himself again into the embrace of flowerbeds whose pearly touches reminded his scorched skin that his body had lived to return, he felt in the cool breezes licking his spine the invisible eyes turned towards him. It did no good to call out, halt! who passes there, min yadhab hunak?, not any longer. All he could do was to shudder and release himself to the somnolent loveliness, forget as long as he could. He had come to court the garden, rekindle a memory he hoped might cleanse him, only to learn that even here, especially here, lurked the most inevitable courtship of all.
Sometimes he felt that if there weren’t his friends to talk to, he would go crazy. And this thing he had going with Tito, they were now sleeping together a couple nights a week, it helped. Every few evenings, it seemed he had a new story to report, more tales of Eddie’s Garcia’s insinuations at work. At least he had managed to avoid being alone with Eddie. But that didn’t stop the older man from singling him out. The captain had made them partners Saturday night, and, as the last tables lingered, talking with Eddie was inevitable. Stories of youth back in Mexico and Texas, of smoking “pod,” tales of his two marriages—“years before you punks was ever born”—small talk Jośe could handle. But then: what drugs you kids into these days, how ‘bout getting high sometime, when you gonna invite me out with your buddies?
That, José told Tito as they pedaled lifecycles side by side at the gym, was when Eddie started acting strange again. At one moment needling José, “Hey don’t be so secretive, loverboy,” and the next minute asking, “Good a Catholic as your folks? Don’t go breakin’ their hearts, chico guapo.” And then: “They still be livin’ in Fresno? Ain’t that many de Sotos in Fresno, wouldn’t be hard if somebody got a mind to look ‘em up.” Eddie was right; José knew exactly what information would break his parents’ hearts. His mother had told him as much one day three years ago, just before he moved to San Diego, looking him straight in the eye. “It’d kill me if one of you boys turned out that way.”
Tito urged him to lodge a harassment complaint with the dining room captain, but José knew better; the captains always sided with the older professionals on the staff, and Eddie had seniority over all the other waiters.
But last night convinced José that drastic measures needed to be taken. The man was not only insinuating, but demented, so he told Tito and Jorge when they met up for drinks. Not one of the clubs in Hilldale tonight, but the Schooner down by the harbor, a dusty sit-down bar where aging men with furtive motives and secret lives congregated. It was Jorge’s inspiration that they slum it—“hey, we might bump into the famous Eddie Garcia, camping it up like there’s no tomorrow!” Of course he wasn’t, but his image hung in the air, bits and pieces of him visible in the worn faces undressing the three young men as they walked in.
“He started on this crazy routine about how he was the world’s savior,” José explained as he peeled the label off his fourth Tectate. “My savior, too, if I just gave him the attention he deserved. Said he knew all the secrets of the world, including my darkest secrets.” Follow me, he had said to José as they stood by the buffet lodging the silver and chinaware for their station. He had taken José’s hand into his own, and looking into his eyes, had said Follow me: don’t be afraid. I’m gonna take you places you’ve never gone, just have faith in me. And he wouldn’t leave it alone. “I’m your savior, boy, don’t forget.” And, out of the blue, “Soft, pretty hair. God likes good-looking boys, he’ll save the pretty ones.”
Tito and Jorge had laughed, and Tito had stroked José’s thigh—mute language meant to comfort and distract. But how to explain how he really felt, even to Tito?
“You gotta get a grip,” Tito said. “You’ve got it all wrong. Make him afraid of you. Humiliate him, he’ll shut up.”
“Cut his shivelled heuvos off,” Jorge added.
He deserves it, José thought to himself, seeing red. His friends’ jokes paled before the reality that tomorrow he would have to face Eddie again. He needed this job, he was an undocumented worker, he couldn’t walk away. He drained the beer, signaled for another round. A surge of anger passed through his taut body and into the cracked seat of the booth where they sat. Maybe Tito was right, maybe it was time he did something to end the black pall Eddie Garcia had cast over him. A wave of the wand, a change of sorcerer—then see how his enemy would react.
Quickly he slithers over the garden wall, a heightened feeling of impending contact directing his movements as he advances down the slope. Stealthily he glides downwards, tree to tree, sliding on needles and catching himself against trunks, catch your breath, before moving forward again . . .
All around him, the sense of a truce drawing to a close. The whispering voices that escaped the cloak of silence, the bark of the trees he grazed, told him as much—tonight offered one last chance to walk at peace in the garden—and he already felt the difference in the air: as if perhaps the voices are mocking me, peace already compromised. He instinctively recognized the acute tightening of his senses, every nerve radiating outward to meet the night.
Before reaching the perimeter of the lake, he stoops and digs his hands into the earth, moist from spring rain; he smears the forest rot onto his face: dark on dark, double camouflage. Dressed in black, he is temporarily invisible, ready to patrol his favorite haunts, bid them farewell. He quickly bounds flagstone steps that lead to the gardens, not bothering to shed his clothes; not enough time, he thinks, breaking into an uphill sprint. Hump that trail, keep it low and sane, reach your vantage point. Yes.
Yes here I am, we can relax now. Swing through the gate, sharp left. Yes: the long narrow tunnel through the boxwoods that opens onto the rose garden. Step carefully, carefully, the moonlight is your friend; spot the trick wires by their faint gleam and you will make it home. The distant reverberation of artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades, blanching day into a glistening mirage of sand and sun, dissolves into the heady odor of roses which, magnetlike, draw him out of the green channel into the perfumed circle where rows of roses twine around a fountain filled with moonlight: we could walk in spirals on the narrow paths between these thorns forever.
But forever was a dream, I can’t dream forever. Speed was racing through his body, attuning his senses to the darkness beyond and propelling him outward to explore it, time to move, to keep moving is safety. One by one he visited his favored shrines, enjoyed still their somnolent beauty; but behind and above the order he felt the unrelenting formlessness pressing closer, breathing down his neck, searing heat rotting the exhumed corpses, line of tanks burning in the distance while three boys dribbled a soccer ball on the flinty soil a hundred yards away, and he is on patrol duty, last tour of duty, every unfamiliar sound a warning and you don’t know any more whether to pay attention, mark the spot in your sights or ignore the threat; it is an illusion, maya, anyway, it doesn’t matter. The rush of blood, the pulsing of fear, nothing else is real anymore.
Daniel came to, finding himself back at the summit of the hill overlooking the pleasure lake, the pines, and the exit wall beyond. The gardens lay behind him. Like a mirage, the fear had dissipated outwards, it returns to the invisible eyes that feed it. He felt calm and steady; an emotion close to joy filled him as he looks downward at the water. Yes, the gardens are behind me.
Like opening the door into a dream world and finding wonderland at home, into the living room they spewed, the party has begun. All of their friends and plenty of strangers, it’s Valentine’s Day, “cum as your dream lover cum meet your dream lover,” Jorge’s invitation had tackily if effectively announced. So in they flowed, in full force and fancy dress, fantastically handsome and buffed, José can’t help but turn his head again and again. The room radiates energy as drinks slosh over the rims of plastic cups and drugs are discreetly palm hand to hand, as laughter spurts above the loud music: baby baby baby I’m your, we’re all in it, we’re all out of it.
“You look tense, take this,” Tito whispers, pressing the blue capsule into José’s palm. “Fun’s just beginning.”
Tito slips away, José’s mind slips too, lost in the pill-induced rush, and when he surfaces, he is circulating through the crowd, friends are cackling and a stranger in his Navy whites tries to fondle him, José doesn’t reciprocate, I can’t lose it.
But he dissolves anyway, and when he comes to we are seeing the impossible. As if on cue through the front door march, no sail, three queens in golden coronets, long dresses, full regalia. An appreciative murmur ripples the room, sonic ahhhs parting the way as the trio moves forward, queen of hearts in triplicate, empresses of the night, arbiters of love’s labor’s lost and found on this heart-breaking heart-begetting night.
And even more impossibly: following in their train, as if their royal protector, Eddie Garcia, smiling broadly, steps through the door, through the looking glass, his arms around a gaggle of younger men who seem also part of the regal entourage. Heart thudding, José watched in disbelief as his foe melted into the crowd, eyes darting everywhere with unbridled desire. Eddie doesn’t look at all discomfited, that is the strange thing, this dawns on José as from a distance he watches his tormentor throw back his head in merriment, camp it up as if there’s no tomorrow, accept the drink pressed into his hand. Another trip to the bar for me, too, or I’ll never survive this nightmare, and halfway across the room José looked up to see Eddie’s path intersecting his own, but the man merely shot him a glance of recognition, brief and sharp but no threat, I breathe a sigh of relief.
Time swirls in increasingly uneven loops, taking for a ride in its circuit the ever-moving crowd, initiates into the night that never stops, those who move in and out of dreams with quicksilver ease. José overhears the rumor that a threesome has started in the bedroom, or is it the jacuzzi, anyway it’s true the crowd in the living room has thinned but he can’t see Tito anywhere. One of the queens has approached Eddie, Eddie bows and they are dancing, he leads her like a gallant swain. The room refills, others are dancing, and from the archway opening into the dining room he watches as Eddie lights an old-fashioned joint, the weed dangling at his mouth. He is sitting on a sofa, garish Hawaiian shirt flaming in the candlelight, two sycophants have planted themselves beside him as he sprawls legs splayed.
José watches as Eddie pulls something from his pocket, dark fungus, opens a pocket knife, it flashes silver as the man slices off bits of dark flesh that his minions solemnly ingest, celebrants at a black mass. José is leaning against the arched opening to keep from losing his balance when Jorge approaches from behind, slides his hands beneath José’s shirt, soothes the tension in José’s shoulders. “You’re flying, don’t leave us,” Jorge says. Shhhh, José cuts him off, pointing, it’s him.
And now Jeff is feeding Eddie his piece of the mushroom, sliding a hangman’s arm around Eddie’s shoulder. While Stevie, blondeboy prettyboy Anglo pretty if that’s your thing, draws his feet up to the sofa cushion, snuggles into the older man, toying with the buttons on Eddie’s shirt, and they’ve been joined by someone I don’t know, three’s a crowd or isn’t it, where’s Tito? Jorge says he doesn’t know. They are laughing at some private joke, sinking deeper into the couch, and now Eddie’s egging them on as they unbutton one, two, what a hairy chest they coo!, and three, four, touch my tattoos, a real man’s tattoos none of your sissy shit: unable to stop watching I shrink crucified against Jorge. I hate him, we hate them; laughter rolling off their faces like water from a tarp as Eddie’s voice booms across the room. He’s boasting how he’s left wivey and the kids home tonight so he have some real fun, now he’s reaching out to blondeboy Stevie and fondling his hair, I’m your savior, follow me. Oh, so unsubtly his hand grazes blondeboy’s lap . . . I wish I had a: I don’t mean that
—but the vision flashes across the dark backward of José’s thoughts, anyway, he can’t resist imagining the blade as it flashes a raw edge of blinding light, one flick of the wrist unleashing a flood of crimson, I’m feeling stinking sick, where’s Tito? Is it Jorge’s voice or my own saying you don’t have to watch anymore? You’ve seen enough. I relent, I turn away and face the hallway, nausea rising in my throat, “I just have to go the bathroom, I’ll be okay,” and José plunged wobbling down the corridor, into its tunneling darkness, the taste of nightmare forcing its bitter palate against our throat, our tongue, our teeth.
Her head is throbbing as the taxi pulls up in front of the apartment complex, she hopes she isn’t going to puke. The nausea’s been rising in her throat all night, she needs to get under a warm shower and have a good cry: ritual beginning of her period. She paid the driver, waved him off. The damned bother of taking an Uber every night. But, good girl, she’s taken her friends’ advice to heart, no more walking or biking alone at these ungodly hours.
Although dead silent her neighborhood was not frightening; the street was familiar, it is home. Sidestepping dog shit to reach the outside stairs leading up to her second-floor apartment, she is halfway up the flight when the whistle pierces the air, a knife-sharp wound rending the stillness. Marjorie’s heart leaps, she stumbles; and the night begins to shatter when she drops the container of mace she’s pulled from her jacket pocket and it bounces down the stairs, pieces of sky are tumbling all around me and the falling stars cut my skin. As I pull myself upright, the night is bleeding, darkness flushes red. Through the open risers of the stairs she saw him, walking forward from the rear of the building. Naked as an angel of God he glides forward, cupping himself, and despite her rising panic Marjorie notices the forlorn smile on his wan face. An odd naturalness descends, the cessation of fear that occurs in dreams, and then she panics, wake me up, God please keep him away, she pushes herself upward.
My feet stumble to the top of the stairs and I have my keys out, if my hands will just stop shaking I have time. As I angle the key to fit the lock, it catches a ray of moonlight that sears and blinds me. The night is falling again, he has started to mount the stairs, everything is red night except the expression in his dead man’s eyes, tiny blades of ice, and he is hard and sharp and the key is turning, glinting.
From here I can hear the faint roaring in the distance, sound of darkness and of water waiting below. I descend to the lake, nothing is easier than moving forward. The sound echoing in my ears leads me to the flagstone path I have traversed so many times . . .
This is where I rubbed my face with earth, did I really think a mask would protect me? I kneel by the lake, dash handfuls of black water against his cheeks. The water trickled down, blended with the sound of the waterfall at the opposite end of the lake. There in the darkness of the bridge, veiled by the willows, someone is waiting.
Water has spilled on his shirt, I pull it over my head. If I go forward, it will be on my terms. Carefully I strip away the rest of my clothes and leave them, neatly folded, on the walk. I feel lighter now, I want to believe that if I chose I could dart and dodge the watching eyes.
Swiftly I walk through the darkness but lights are flashing in my mind, white explosions in the black desert sky one after the other, falling on utterly desolate terrain; I am traversing the perimeter for the last time and my foe is calling, out of the black tomb beneath the sweeping branches of willow I imagine the metallic glint that waits for me. The trickling sound of the waterfall is roaring in my ears, water is falling in torrents, I am drowning in darkness.
He jerked awake at three-thirty drenched in sweat, and seconds tick away before he realizes that his repaired phone is not ringing. His computer is turned off. Neither door buzzer nor fire alarm is sounding. The room is too silent. He lies awake, a buzzing sensation kept him from drifting back to sleep. All of a sudden he jumped out of bed and jerked up the window blinds, surprising himself as he presses close to the bare pane, wet flesh suctioned to glass, and looks out blindly. See me, he thinks, seeing nothing. I’ve had enough. Whoever you are: look. This is my flesh, my blood, my body. I’m ready, don’t you see?
But I frighten myself, and though I move away from the window my imprint remains, humid ghost hovering between me and the caller who waits on the other side. I sit back down on the bed, panting with rage. Nothing rings, and we must sit waiting
I come to, thinking I am sitting on the arm of the sofa but I’m in the bathroom, gagging face down in the sink’s glaring whiteness. How long have I been here? I raise my face to the mirror, I imagine a single white bulb dangling above my head, suspended from the ceiling: and then I watch the bathroom door open, and there he is, Eddie Garcia shuts the door gently and he is standing right behind me, warm breath touching my neck. My spine stiffens, the white glare of porcelain blinds me, sterile blankness against which Eddie’s words ricochet, I’m your savior, follow me. I struggle to escape this bad dream, but he leans against the door and plucks my hand from the doorknob, and our fingers give way like pieces of frail china crumbling, a door is closing in my mind
I slip inside and shut the door behind me, turning the lock as I hear his steps outside approach then stop. But I am safe, and I sink gasping for air, one hand still holding the door knob as I fall to the floor. I cannot overcome the pounding of my heart enough to move, although reason tells me I must take out my phone, dial 911. I can only lean, paralyzed, against the door, quivering mass of flesh, sinking in and out of consciousness.
And then I hear a whimpering sound, it could have been a dog yelping or a baby crying, but it is him: for he too is leaning on this door, in a flash I see it clearly, he too has collapsed to the ground, and only this thin membrane is separating us, through it he is crying to me, this door, this barrier
My eyes travel from the window to the door of my apartment. A calmness possesses me, I feel strangely rested. I will wait, for in a flash I know there will be no more calls. I am right, instead there is a knock at the door; gently, gently, it raps at my heart, I feel a curtain has lifted from the night, it is easy to walk forward
I walk into the blackness, the willow branches embrace me like a hand, it is a hand that holds the blade, and I know, I have always known, that I would one day take this path, step into this roaring darkness where
a gleam of light catches the edge
a rent in the darkness flashes
but we move forward, determined to take back from the night its shroud of mystery
ready to meet you eye to eye.