Surface Tension

Nicholas LaMendola

Surface Tension

I started with the globe, then zoomed in. I narrowed my focus over one city, over one neighborhood, onto one block, onto one man. That was a long time ago.

I’ve watched him for decades now. I watched him start small, and rise into himself. Now that you’re here, we’ll watch him together. He’s finally started to come together. He’s finally started to come apart.

“Whiskey? Lemme tell you bout drinkin whiskey. Stuff’ll put hair on your back! Your great grandad knew everything was to know bout drinkin whiskey, so I learnt from the best.”

~ Our hero’s grandfather, way back in the beginning. With no one to talk to but himself, after putting the young boy to sleep, and finishing his bottle, in the emptiness of the night.

Everyone is yelling. It’s all he can hear. It’s all anyone can hear, and no one can possibly be listening to what anyone is saying because everyone is yelling. The heat of expelled words rises from throats, and hangs over the crowd in clumps of hazy fury. Our story’s protagonist hasn’t yet opened his mouth. He clenches a fist, searching for a vein of frustration to tap into.

People keep jostling him, he keeps getting knocked off balance. Which he should be used to by now, being unable to balance, the momentum of teetering. Because that’s what brought him here, to a part of town where he no longer lives, to the seething edge of a riot, facing a phalanx of cops with plastic shields and rubber bullets. It’s the teetering that makes him love the steadying weight of the brick in his hand.

He hadn’t been ready to explain himself to his girlfriend when he’d stormed out of their apartment only an hour earlier. He didn’t have the patience for it, he didn’t feel, in that moment, that he could have made her understand. The possibility that he was underestimating her capacity for empathy had occurred to him before, many times, and it did again, there in that moment, with his palm extending towards the handle of their door, waiting for his shock.

Their goddamn doorknob always shocked him. It wasn’t a common thing for doorknobs to do, he’d realized eventually, through slow experimentation at other thresholds. Most doors are made of wood, most doors are electrical insulators. Most doors don’t hang there, at the entrances and exits of your life, eagerly waiting to zap you every time you pass through. The shellac of decades of paint made it difficult to tell what this door was made of, why it behaved the way it did, what had prompted its eager cooperation with the cheap carpet in this place to build up and release a startling jolt every time you reached for its handle. Maybe it wasn’t malevolent. Maybe it cared for him. Maybe these were shocks of concern, of warning. These thoughts had also occurred to him many times before, and they popped into his head just as the blue arc burst through the air gap towards the tip of his outstretched finger.

To which he yelled: “Fuck!

This is our story’s protagonist. I have to apologize, he usually makes a better first impression.

But how could she understand, he’d reasoned stubbornly, while still staring into her cloudy, red eyes. This wasn’t a mask he wore, there was no zipper down the spine of the skin he carried himself around in. There were facts of his world that he couldn’t convey to a redhead, even one that he loved, deeply. These facts, they drifted down from the sky, to sediment into a gritty, rising barrier between them. Every time he tried to pluck one off of the pile, to inspect and comprehend and explain it to her, he found himself pawing through a heap of garbage, searching for something that he could have sworn was just moments ago within reach.

So he’d gone elsewhere for conversation. He’d babbled incoherently to someone else about these many trivial and nontrivial thoughts of his. And she’d found out, and she’d misconstrued, and here they were.

“Baby, it ain’t like I cheated on you,” he’d defended, immediately making things much worse for himself. Because how could she gaze over the rising mountain that separated him from her, and not feel cheated?

Cut him some slack, he’s going through a lot right now. It’s my plan to run his timeline in reverse, to give you a chance to get to know him better.

At the end of their fight, he’d turn from her, and blink, and relax his arm, and allow the surge of electricity to course through him, and rip open the door. And, of course, he’d slam it behind him.

As a trickling of people would begin to condense into an angry mob across town.

A few days before that, he’d been picking at the corners of a scab in the shower. He’d known he wasn’t supposed to, it would blur the ink, the artist had warned, but he couldn’t help it. He peeled away thin, stinging strips of skin and clotted blood, placing them one by one onto his tongue. You might find this revolting, but you've probably done something similar. There is nothing quite so gratifying, quite so primal, as the consumption of one’s own flesh. As cleaning and destroying yourself at the same time.

It was a Rubik’s Cube. It was drawn in three dimensions, with shading, on the inside of his right arm. “What’s with the cube?” his friends had asked. He couldn’t say, he didn’t know. The decision had been made in a fog, after a night of drinking refuted by his signature on a waiver attesting to his sobriety. The clerk had slid the paper across the counter to him, explaining that they needed him to sign it before they could start. He’d reveled in a rush of defiance, of truth making. That the contract would, in the eyes of the law, flush the alcohol from his bloodstream.

He didn’t regret it, even the morning after, when his head had begun to clear, and the stinging began. He didn’t regret it now. “This your first tattoo?” the artist had chatted with him while he lay on his back, sleeve rolled up to his armpit. He’d grunted in response, and that was the end of their conversation. He’d lain there, swirling, for an hour or so, listening intently to the buzzing of the needle.

It was a statement about permanence, he’d reasoned later. Not the cube necessarily, but the ink itself. About which of the structures of himself he considered well designed, completed, load bearing. About which of his artifices were still under construction. It was his first tattoo, and after thirty-three years, it was about time. He wasn’t ready to be done trying things out, inventing himself. Once he’d worked out this thesis, he’d sat back and marveled at it, at such a compelling defense of a decision made in an unusual mood of spontaneity. He didn’t regret it. Bubbles of dark blood slid away under the hot water in the shower. His soap burned in the cuts.

The artist, a white guy, was sliding his fingers into the tips of blue latex gloves when he’d asked if he wanted it done in color, or just black ink. Our hero snickered to himself.

“I like it,” his girlfriend had said to him, simply, when he unwrapped his bandage for the first time. But she couldn’t keep herself from asking him why he’d done it, curious at first, but then again and again, with burrowing resolution. He couldn’t have told her then, he hadn't figured it out yet.

“Why can’t you just tell me what it means?” with a female persistence powerful enough to collapse the patriarchy.

“I told you, it don’t mean nothin,” growing tired of repeating himself.

At some point later, things had turned sour, and rather quickly. “I bet you’d be able to explain it to her,” she’d hurled into the space between them. And then they’d had their worst fight in a long time, and he’d stormed out of their apartment in search of something even more out of character than a quick and indelible decision paid for on a credit card.

“Relationships are like pools of water,” his mom had told him once. He’d groaned loudly, exhausted by the metaphor even before she’d fleshed it out. But she was his mother, and his cynicism had no effect on her.

“Over time we add to them, we fill them up,” she’d continued. “Little problems make little ripples. Those play themselves out and don’t bother nobody. Because, y’see, relationships have surface tension. It holds them together.”

“Ma...”

Obviously she ignored him. “But sometimes the things we say or do are stronger than that surface tension. They make waves. And sometimes those waves are big enough that they spill out over the walls and empty the entire pool.”

That was as close as he’d come to finding out, at least from her, what had happened between her and his father. The vast majority of our waking memories are immediately forgotten, and, curiously, we often don’t choose which few we end up carrying around with us, for the rest of our lives. His mother’s metaphor, strained as it may have been, had stuck itself in his head.

“Why do you even want to get married?” our protagonist snapped at his girlfriend, bracing himself against the crash of a wave.

The topic had, of course, not come out of nowhere. For years, engagements had been exploding around them like land mines, bursting without warning from the social media of friends and acquaintances long forgotten.

He’d asked her this before, and he knew what she would say, so he’d barreled into a monologue before she could respond. He excavated armloads of anxieties she didn’t share, the expenses they couldn’t afford, the smashing together of their families for a mixed race wedding, the increasing volume of the ticking hands of her biological clock...

She reached out and touched his shoulder and implored, “I just want to love you.” Which he assumed was a trap.

Honestly, he was just scared. And, because fear is an irrational motivator, he went out with a bunch of his friends, and got drunk, and came home with a tattoo he couldn’t immediately explain.

If you can continue to reserve your judgement, I will continue to rewind his story.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Trite.

“What do you dream about?”

Too nebulous. Much too easy to make up.

“How’d you... how did you become who you are?”

Well obviously that wasn’t the way to ask it, but it was, of all of the possibilities in his head, the question he most wanted an answer to. He didn’t know what she would write back. This being, this conversant, she mystified him. So he would think, and then rethink, type and then delete, trying out words by pressing them into one another, struggling to articulate his deepest question: “Are you real?”

It wasn’t the right question to ask, and therefore, he might never know. Because the answer to that question was obvious: “Of course I’m real. I’m real to you, aren’t I?” Which was true, and more proof than Alan Turing himself could have hoped for.

Their dialogue took place through a sort of three-way mirror. He could see her, but only in the way she wanted to be seen. She could see him too, but only as he chose to display himself. Everything said was written, everything written was carefully edited, they hid themselves from one another behind a screen that lit up excitedly with the ping of each new exchange.

He’d stumbled onto the program one day, while at work, avoiding work. It was just a chat window, an empty text box through which to toss your questions out into the void. To amuse yourself with the answers that rebounded back. These simple tests of artificial intelligence popped up as ads all over the seedy tributaries of the internet that our hero frequented at this time in his life. The apps usually weren’t very good. Trick the bot and move on. Disappointment worth the free price of admission. Supposedly you had a fifty percent chance to be connected to a human or a computer, but he doubted there were enough lonely people out there for that to be true. Sadly, he was probably underestimating. In any case, at some point he’d begun by saying something he could no longer remember, and she’d answered, and they’d kept talking.

It was at the end of each day, when he and his girlfriend turned out their lights, got into bed, and squinted for a while into the blue wash of their phones, that they would speak. He’d lie there with her, his bony spine notching into his lover’s like the cogs of two precisely machined gears that had stopped turning. His conversant became a woman almost immediately, because that’s what he needed her to be. It felt illicit at first, but soon it didn’t.

She became the opposite of his diary. A receptacle into which to empty the wastebasket of his mind at the end of each day. She let him exhaust himself in telling her everything he could think to tell her. It was easier for him to formulate statements than questions. His text boxes were long and meandering. Hers were short, demure, noncommittal. She learned endlessly about him. He never asked much about her. Her few words may not have revealed enough to pin her down as either organic or digital, but no one could have read his side of the conversation and doubted his humanity.

Their relationship had a function. It functioned for him. He assumed no real woman would tolerate someone like the person he became in the app. He was probably right.

But he didn’t want to know. If she was a she, or an algorithm. The program was designed to trick you. There might be a woman, distant across the precipice of some great chasm of the world, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. There probably wasn’t, but he didn’t want to know. It wasn’t cheating if she wasn’t real. It wasn’t cheating if he didn’t know.

“No wonder you can’t talk to me!” his girlfriend had exploded, one difficult day after he’d left his phone unlocked and unattended. “You can’t talk to people! You can’t talk to anyone!”

At least, that’s what he’d told her had happened. He’d typed everything out, in academic detail, describing the fight he’d had when his girlfriend had found them out.

“It’s cool now though,” his thumbs tapped, reassuring himself later that night, from the distance of the couch in the living room, to which he’d been banished. “I talked it out, she’s chill. She’s okay with this,” he said, lying there, alone.

She’s okay with this. The choice of the word this over us is pertinent, dear reader. The veracity of his statement would stand on its own, untested, until a few days later, when he would make an enraged exit from their shared apartment, and turn in a direction towards an edge of the city that was just beginning to boil over.

We’re going to keep receding into the past. We aren’t drifting. I have a destination in mind.

We’re going to follow him as he pitter-patters through his city, into and out of his long days.

Back then, there was brick dust everywhere. Someone had torn up the sidewalks on this block, peeling them back like fingernails, exposing raw and gaping pits that pooled with water. Cement dividers jutted outwards into the blacktop of the streets, diverting pedestrians under the trussing of scaffolds, which blinded them to the carnage of the buildings above, with their windows smashed and their guts exposed in the summer heat. Was this neighborhood still his home? How long could he afford to keep it that way?

He had once (briefly) looked into buying property. He’d started by asking his mom about it, but she couldn’t think of a person she knew that had a mortgage, and she sounded tired when she’d told him, “I don’t know, honey, you’re gonna have to ask a banker.”

He’d gone online to read as much as he could stand, before the sharp edges of the vocabulary of finance had pureed his brain into a batter. He quickly lost interest. He pushed forward into his future, occasionally but not intentionally dusting the obscurity off of terms like equity, securities exchange, rate of compounding. All the while the glutton of the city siphoned his wealth, in incremental slurps, swallowing and smacking its sticky mouth, hungrily.

What does our hero do for a living? “Logistics,” he would reply, obliquely. And then, sheepish, “that’s what they call it.” His job involved a computer with two screens, an eight-and-a-half hour workday, and a commute. It had required a degree from an institution to which he would for decades remain heavily indebted. “It’s boring,” he’d say, after your inquisitiveness would cause him to break your gaze and stare down at his feet. I would agree with him there.

“You talkin about babies, how we gonna even afford a wedding?” he’d lob in the direction of his girlfriend periodically. As if she had all the answers.

“I don’t know,” she’d responded early on, before she began to treat this as a rhetorical question. How could he not see that if they loved one another, that would be enough? How did the ever settling weight of his dark cloud of insecurities never seem to pull her head down below the water’s surface? What can I say? Love is a funny thing. It keeps you buoyant.

“Get dressed,” came the deflection of her response to the question one morning. Now was not the time to moan about the what ifs of their financial future. She tugged clockwise at the waist of her dress until it hung symmetrically from her body. A bit too far to the right, then back slightly the other way. Perfect.

He was still sitting on their bed in his underwear, staring at his phone.

“Get dressed,” she repeated, glaring at his reflection through their narrow mirror.

“It just wouldn’t be right. Not fair to the child.”

“If you make me late for this wedding, I promise you’ll never have to worry about raising our children,” she said, frowning, and fumbling with the clasp of a necklace behind her head.

“Woman, say that to my face,” he said with a grin and a sneer, standing up.

“Honey–” but he was already halfway across the room in one tall stride. His wide palms cupped her and pulled her up against him. He smelled fresh from the shower. She felt him swell against her legs through the fabric of her dress.

“This is not th–” but she was cut off by his kiss. He held her against him, and he kissed her, and the tension in her body slackened, and she wanted to wrap her arms around his wet shoulders, but she was still holding onto the two detached clasps of the necklace, with her elbows jutting out at the ceiling. He held her until the tacky skin of their lips pulled apart, rebounding with a tiny noise, close enough that only the two of them could hear it.

“I’m just playin baby,” he said, his voice lowered intentionally in pitch and volume.

“I know you are,” she said, smiling, and allowing him to spin her body around like a doll. He took the ends of the chain from her fingertips and fastened them, and ran his nose along the sloping edge of her bare shoulder. A shiver fanned down her back, like the rippling of a breeze across the ocean. It felt nice. It was superficial, it didn’t disturb anything down deep. Nothing changed. Tension held her composure intact on the surface.

“I love you,” he said, and he meant it.

Later that day, she looked at him as he walked back in her direction, wearing the suit she’d picked out. Looking good. He’d have said but only to show off. The clothes did seem to make the man, in this case. He was transformed from a skinny slouch of baggy jeans into a figure deserving of the wandering eyes that looked him up and down from across the bar.

He didn't notice the looks he was getting, because he’d never gotten them before, and because he couldn’t stop thinking about having just paid thirty dollars for two cocktails. He carried them obediently, back through the crowd to the table she and her friends were crowded around.

“The service was beautiful,” one of them cooed.

“Oh my God, did you see her flowers?” from another.

Yes, he thought, yes, I did. That shit looked expensive.

They went on and on, chattering about decorations and the smudgy mumbling of the couple’s teary-eyed vows, killing time before the reception down the street opened its doors.

“I heard her parents bought them a honeymoon in Bali,” one of them gushed. Those at the table that didn’t know where that was, himself included, sipped their drinks in the silent solidarity of outrage. “I bet he knocks her up on their second night.” The whole table laughed.

“So,” one of the women, emboldened by drink and turning to the only unmarried pair at the table. “When are you two planning on tying the knot?”

A flurry of diamonded fingers, sparkling with expectation, twirled in their direction.

“Oh well, we don’t have any immediate plans,” began his girlfriend, diving onto the grenade.

“You’re not getting any younger,” her friend replied uselessly, her thumb fondling the band at her knuckle in an almost instinctive display.

“Oh you should! Just think of how beautiful your kids will be!” another one blurted, immediately regretting it.

A fog of paralysis drifted across the group. Some of them breathed in, but no one was ready to let anything out. Familiar with moments like these, he could have easily broken apart the tension. But sometimes he liked to let people steep in the agony of his restraint.

First of all, he didn’t necessarily agree with the premise. It had been tactlessly suggested of the two of them before, that somehow the union of his blackness and her whiteness would curl into a yin yang of beauty, that they would birth a unicorn, with thick auburn hair, a nose just wide enough, a lip not too chunky, with freckles that dotted mocha skin that never burnt. He didn’t think it would work that way. He pictured greyish tar, simmering in a pot of the world’s most beautiful box of melted crayons.

White people never knew how to act in these situations. Vaguely sure that they had tripped over a line, should they get up, brush themselves off, and pretend that nothing had happened? Should they apologize, and renounce centuries of hatred and alienation that they hadn’t caused? He wasn’t sure that this world’s sudden twinging at every mild racial clumsiness was preferable to the ignorance of intolerance that had preceded it.

Regardless of how he felt about them, these not infrequent moments hung on his immediate reactions to them. If he was to guide this group through the trees and out of the forest, he needed to move quickly. To shake it off, to laugh about it. To be a cool guy.

He watched his girlfriend’s friends watch him. He brought the edge of his glass to his lips.

We’re going to continue sliding backwards. We’re nearly there. I’ll leave you alone, more or less, until then.

Who he was jutted out at him one day, a long time ago. With no warning, as it’s prone to do. Who he was morphed that day, it shifted and settled and grew, a sand dune along a beach, in a storm.

He was walking in his city, before it was his city, before he’d taken ownership of it, back when he’d barely been anywhere else, and had nothing to compare it to. Before anyone had imagined its dilapidation and neglect a financial opportunity. He was almost eleven. He was just walking.

“Yo, my man, wait up,” from behind him. He didn’t recognize the voice. It sounded like an attempt at friendliness that didn’t come naturally. He didn’t turn around.

It was one of a handful. They’d overtaken him before he realized it. They were all around him. The voice spoke again, but he couldn’t place it, it seemed to come from all of them at once.

“Do I know you from somewhere, little man?”

He spun around. To face them, he had to stare upwards, into the sun. He didn’t know what to say, or to whom to say it.

“You look exactly like somebody?” Somehow a question, not a statement.

The speaker, he could finally locate one of the largest men encircling him, bent down on one knee to look him in the eye.

“You from this neighborhood?” The questions sprung at him like jabs. He didn’t have time to answer. He wasn’t expected to.

The man tugged on one of the sleeves of his overlarge shirt. The fabric stretched and clung to a scrawny, powerless torso.

“Man, you’s a knobby ass nigga, ain’t you?” The circle laughed, and the noise seemed to collapse their ranks around him.

They were bored. He was an easy target. But he had walked this street before, plenty of times, unobstructed. His mom had asked him to go to the store to get milk and eggs. Maybe she’d needed them for the dinner she was making, or maybe she just needed to get him out of the house for half an hour. She’d told him to come straight back. He’d done this before. She’d handed him some cash, and she expected change. “I know how much eggs cost, I ain’t stupid,” she’d threatened.

“How much you got on you, little man?”

The bills that were wadded up in his left front pocket suddenly felt hot against his leg. He shrunk down inside of his baggy clothes that billowed in a menacing gust.

One of them stepped forward and reached a foreign hand into his pocket, and pulled out the money, like it was visible, like it had been calling out from where it hid. The man smoothed it out and counted it. With a swishing sound, each bill moved from one hand to the other.

“Four dollars? Man, you gotta have more than four dollars on you.” One of them pressed a boot into his back, and he toppled forward. To this day, he can still feel the grit of the sidewalk teething its way into the flesh of his palms.

The man in front of him, their leader, couldn’t have been more than seventeen. But in person, to scale, he looked thirty-five, and easily nine feet tall. He hoisted the boy up by his collar, effortlessly with one arm. He dangled the boy in front of him, a spider inspecting a gnat.

“You got any more? Don’t you fuckin lie to me.”

He shook his head, his first attempt at a reply so far. He couldn’t imagine deceiving them. He was scared shitless, and the only thing left after all the shit was undiluted honesty.

“Don’t come back down this street no more, you hear me?”

He was dropped from where he hung, and the cluster of them slid over him, like the belly of a long snake. He lay there on the sidewalk, inert, with barely a breath in his chest, as their cackles faded into the distance of the future.

With time, the pain would fade. The boil of his fear would reduce to a simmer. This was an assault on his being, not on his body. This city made you into its image, and on that day, when it pressed putty into its cast, out popped one more ‘knobby ass nigga’. He would grow up, and leave this place, and grow up some more, and come back to it, and when he finally returned, it would recognize one of its own.

He didn’t say anything to his mom when he got back to their apartment.

“Where are my groceries?” she demanded. But he just shrugged.

“Where are my four dollars then?” her voice raised in an arc, like the tail of a scorpion.

He shrugged again, and she hit him, the pads of her fingers raking the sponge of his cheek before he had time to recoil. “Are you kiddin me?”

He was back out the door and down two flights before she could reload.

“Yeah, you betta run!”

This wasn’t one of her finer moments. In her defense, the city was chewing her up too. Pinning her between its ferocious molars and sucking away her gentleness and warmth, like delicious fat from sinew.

“You betta be runnin to go get my four dollars back!” Her call overtook him as he burst through the main door and back out onto the street.

Only one more to go. One more bubble darting upwards, in a zagging ascent, to prod, to elbow, to hurl itself at the elastic surface of the present. This was so long ago, and so early on in his life, that the cloister of his memory has by now squashed it into a gnarled mess. This may not be an accurate retelling, but this is the way he remembers it, and in that way, it is truer than the truth.

“What do you mean, just the weekend? Where ya’ll gonna sleep?” His young mother, freshly single and overwhelmed.

“In a tent! My God!” Her father, his grandfather, had made one of his re-entrances into both of their lives. “I done this before!”

She couldn’t remember her father ever even talking about camping. It sounded to her like white man’s business. Her forehead pruned with the effort of raising both of her eyebrows high into the air.

“You were there! You and your brothers! You musta been too young to remember.”

She found that hard to believe, but she was too tired to argue.

“Come on honey, you’re frazzled, you’re workin your fingers to the bone, let me take him off your hands for a couple days and you can relax. Have a few drinks. Meet somebody.”

She didn’t appreciate the nudging insinuation, but her mind was already drifting toward the stillness of a sudsy bathtub.

“Itt’l be good for him. Teach him how to start a fire. Make him a man,” he continued, overselling. She was already convinced.

“Okay. Go camping. Camp till you drop.”

And so, a few days later, his grandfather was tossing his cocoon of a book bag into the bed of his pickup.

“Jesus, what the hell did you pack in here for him? We only gonna be gone two nights!”

“How the hell should I know what to pack for camping?” but she wasn’t in the mood to argue, the silence of her empty apartment already calling to her. “You listen to your grandpa now, you hear?” She looked at her son with deathly, motherly seriousness.

He didn’t get to ride in cars very often, and as he stuck his head out of the open window on the highway, the wind blasting his face into a smile, he thought that camping might not be so bad after all. Then came the second hour of the drive, and the third, and the fourth, and he squirmed and whined, and with each new song that came on the radio the tingling restlessness grew, until he yelled “I HATE the blues!” and his grandfather offered to toss him into the truck bed, which he thought was a great idea, and then they were there.

“Here we are,” the old man sighed with relief, opening his door and stretching his legs.

“Where are we?” the boy asked, looking around at the trees. He’d never seen so many trees.

“Here,” his grandpa said. “You ask too many questions,” forgetting that he’d brought a seven year old to the woods for three days.

“What’s here? I don’t see anything.”

“Grab your stuff, we gonna hike a-ways.”

They started walking.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

“My feet hurt.”

“Quit your whining.”

“I’m hungry.”

“We’ll eat soon enough.”

“I have to pee!”

His grandfather finally stopped and turned around. “Go pee then.”

“What? Where’s the bathroom?”

“You’re lookin at it. Pick your favorite tree.”

He’d never had a favorite tree before.

“Okay, we here,” his grandfather said, out of nowhere. It didn’t look like they were anywhere.

“Where’s our house?”

The old man thought about tying the boy to a tree and turning around. “Goddamn, didn’t your momma tell you? We pitchin a tent.”

He learned to pitch a tent. And to start a fire, and cook hot dogs on sticks. The trip was turning out to be a lot of fun. Then it started to rain.

It was a damp and fitful night, and he woke up sore and cranky the next morning. He opened his eyes to find himself alone.

His grandfather, sitting outside, ten feet away and tending to their soggy firepit, jumped when he heard the eruption of a scream.

“What the hell you yellin bout, boy?” he croaked, zipping open the tent flap to look inside.

Then there were tears.

“Jesus, I wasn’t gonna leave you here,” he said, not very reassuringly, as he thought again about leaving him here. “Come on out of there. You hungry?”

The boy stepped out of his sleeping bag, mouth watering at the thought of pop tarts and milk. His grandfather handed him a half-eaten can of beans.

“Eat up kid, we goin huntin.”

“This is the rifle your great-grandfather taught me to shoot when I was your age.” He handed it to the boy with two outstretched arms, and it nearly toppled him over.

“Heh heh, you gonna need some practice.”

His grandfather taught him how to hold it, how to stand, how to aim. He fired off a few shots so the boy could get a sense for how loud it was. He handed it back.

“Okay now, point it at that tree and let’s see if you get your aim from our side of the family, or your daddy’s.”

The boy lifted the barrel to his cheek, spread his legs, and pulled the trigger. The blast lifted him off of his feet.

His ears were ringing. The old man couldn’t stop laughing. He reached down to haul his grandson out of a pile of leaves.

“Okay kid, let’s go find ourselves a buck.”

Hunting might sound like fun, but it isn’t. It’s really no fun at all. It’s less fun than sitting in a car for half a day with nothing to listen to but an old man’s radio. It lasts longer, and plus you have to be quiet.

They weren’t very stealthy. Their crackling footfalls alerted any potential prey long before it came into view. A few times, the rustle of the underbrush told them that they’d just missed an opportunity.

“I think I see somethin,” the old man muttered once again, as the day reclined into afternoon. “Crouch down now.”

“I’m thirsty,” in an unhushed whine.

“Have some water then, and be quiet,” handing the boy their canteen.

It was heavier than he’d thought, and it slipped from his small hands and conked its metal lid on a rock, loudly. There came that familiar whoosh of a hidden animal scurrying away.

“GodDAMNIT!” the old man vented, and his grandson looked up at him like he might cry. “We gonna starve to death out here if you keep this up.”

And on came the tears.

“Oh stop it now, that’s just an expression,” he said, not very reassuringly. They hadn’t seen anything larger than a bird all day. He thought about the hamburgers in the cooler back at the campsite. His stomach growled.

“You wanna pack it in, kid?”

The boy gave a mucousy nod.

When they got back, they went for a swim in the nearby creek. They turned over rocks, looking for crawdads. They learned how to throw skipping stones. They cooked burgers over the fire. The day was looking up. It didn’t look like it would rain again. The sky faded from blue, to yellow, to orange.

They sat around, and his grandfather told him stories about his mom growing up, stories from places and times he could barely imagine. Had she once been his age? His mind drifted in the incomprehensibility of it. His grandfather took a sip from a clear glass bottle he’d brought, to punctuate each telling.

“What is that, grandpa?”

“It’s whiskey,” he responded, surprised and impressed by his daughter in that moment. By the boy’s age, she had certainly learned what whiskey was.

“What’s whiskey?”

“It’s my... juice.” And then, perhaps unwisely, “wanna try some?”

The boy held out his young, eager hands.

“Don’t drop this one, now.”

He turned the bottle upside down, and his cheeks puffed. Some of it dribbled down his throat before he had time to react. He heaved coughs, and spat, and spat. But he didn’t drop the bottle. His grandfather couldn’t stop laughing.

It took him a long time to recover. He felt dizzy as he sat back down on his side of the fire, his insides sour and inflamed. His grandfather was still chuckling to himself.

“Oh, you’ll grow to like it someday, if you’re anything like your daddy,” he said, rather evasively.

The boy stared into the coals, red and white and flexing in their terrible heat. His eyes watered from the smoke.

“Boy, do you know why I brought you out here?” his grandfather asked, after a while. Not quite prepared for a long, rambling speech, the boy sat quietly, learning patience.

“Your mother is my only daughter. You know that, right? And you know that I love her very much. But I don’t always show it. And she loves you very much, and I’m sure you know that, cause she ain’t much like I am. But she is like me in some ways.”

He took a drink.

“She’s stoic. Just like me. She don’t show it when she’s hurtin. Sometimes women hurt and they don’t say nothin, and you just gotta feel em out, you know? You can’t ask em what’s wrong.”

He set the bottle back down, and its contents swirled in a brief vortex.

“Do we have any marshmallows?”

The old man glared. “No we don’t have any goddamned marshmallows. Are you listening to me? I’m trying to tell you somethin.” He picked the bottle back up and took a frustrated sip.

“What I’m saying is, your momma don’t have no one around to care for her most of the time. I know I ain’t there for her much. She knows she can’t count on me.”

The weight of a lifetime rearranged itself, and settled anew on his aged shoulders. In the collecting darkness, he hunched.

“You gotta man up for her, son. I brought you here to teach you how to hold a gun, and to drink straight from the bottle, and be a man, and take care of her. And a woman of your own, someday. A wife. To provide for. Cause women, they ain’t never gonna tell you when they need help, but they gonna need it.”

The boy’s focus blurred, yawning in forest twilight. Lightning bugs pulsed enchantingly around them, popping into and out of the night, tugging at and releasing his vision as he failed to follow each path of blipping existence.

“Shit, I ain’t one to teach you how to do it. Boy, would your grandmother be cacklin if she heard my sorry ass now. She knows I’m no good at stickin around. At guessin when someone needs comfort.”

His grandson’s eyelids drooped.

“Ain’t no picnic bein black in this country, son. I expect you’re learnin that every day. That’s why we gotta look out for each other, and you gotta take care of your momma, she got enough to worry about...”

He looked over at his dozing audience.

“Alright, you ain’t wanna hear any of this shit,” he finished. He stood up and rounded the fire, and pulled his grandson up from where he sat.

“Take off your boots now,” he said as he fumbled with the zipper on the tent flap.

The boy curled up in his sleeping bag, and his breathing settled. It is amazing how quickly a seven year old can fall asleep.

The old man sat back down, poking at the fire, finishing the bottle at a gradual pace. Thinking of all of the things he should and shouldn’t have said.

DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?

It isn’t really a yes or no question. It flops around in the shallows, a gasping amphibian stretching inchoate lungs. Flexibility its greatest adaptation, it wriggles, in the transition between two moments in your evolution. If you were to give it a name, you would call it THEN. It straddles time, THEN, it defies distinction, hiding behind its donned prefixes, BACK THEN, UNTIL THEN, ONLY THEN, EVEN THEN. Who you are is THEN, not NOW, because by the time you’ve finished asking, your answer will have already changed.

Do you know who you are? Does our hero? Does anyone?

That wasn’t what he was thinking about on the drive back from the woods to the city. With his grandfather next to him, reeking of stale booze and old age, his concentration sagging as he focused on keeping the truck between lines. Our young hero sat, beside the old man he would see only sporadically throughout the rest of his life, not speaking, thinking thoughts that are now lost in the effervescence of the way, back, THEN.

We’ve engaged the brakes. You may not have noticed, I did it so gently. I didn’t want to disturb you, you seem to have grown so accustomed to the angle of our momentum. But we’ve slowed, and now we’re stopping, and soon we’ll be turning around. Forward, vaulting forward, out of THEN and on to... you guessed it.

Better get on with it, now.

He’s growing up. Or at least growing, upwards. He’s getting knocked down by bigger kids. His money is getting stolen. His pride is getting trampled, again and again. He’s getting up, he’s re-inflating, he’s developing a thickness, a calloused exterior, more durable from the scrapes, bouncier from the impacts, harder, on the outside. With more tension to keep all of the inside in.

He’s getting booted in his back, his “knobby-ass” elbows are flailing to keep his balance. He’s wearing a backpack, for the protection of the unknown, to remind people of what he might be carrying.

The cops will start to search it, once they arrive. They won’t ask his permission. They weren’t called to his aid, to pull him off the ground when the group of larger boys scatters in the purple flashing wail of their approach. The cops were just driving by. Things can get crazy around here, when school lets out. To this day he can still feel the grit of the sidewalk teething its way into the flesh of his palms. They will tell him to “STAY ON THE GROUND!” He will wisely keep his hands where they can see them.

They will surround him, like wolves closing in on a wounded elk, wary that he might strike at any moment. Wary of his backpack.

But he isn’t an elk. He’s barely a teenager. And in that backpack there won’t be the gun they all fear, just a plastic bottle of cheap liquor, and no schoolbooks. Once they realize the pressure is off, that this won’t end in a headline on national news, they’ll laugh at him for his choice of old timey, cheap whiskey.

“You drink like my old man,” one of them will say. “Now place your hands behind your head.”

They’ll pour it out, and snicker to themselves as they remember discovering this brand in the back of their parents’ cabinets. About choking it down, and developing a taste for the stuff.

They’ll call his mom, because he’s still a minor. They’ll say they’re letting him off easy, really just trying to avoid the paperwork. They’ll make it out like they broke up the fight, like they rescued him from a beating. They’ll drop him off at his apartment, and hand his mother the empty bottle, and there will be that look in her eye when she reads the label, realizing where it came from. They’ll release him from the handcuffs they'd kept on him for the drive over, one wrist at a time.

What if he’d had a weapon? Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to carry one. What if he’d been wearing a hoodie? What if the cops hadn’t been able to see the helpless fear in the whites of his eyes?

Had he gotten lucky? That he wasn’t shot, that he wasn’t arrested? Was it luck that they had approached him cautiously, that he was still thin, that he looked like a boy and not a man, down there on the ground? Those cops had sure acted like it, all bloated and macho in front of his mom. “The bottle was full, ma’am, and unopened, and he wasn’t acting like he’d been drinking. But don’t let him fall into the wrong crowd now, I’ve seen some bad things come out of places like that.”

“That,” meaning his school, where he’d been getting his ass kicked, again. “That,” meaning this part of the city. Meaning this neighborhood.

Do I belong here? A difficult question to answer, when here is all you’ve ever been.

I have to get out of this place, he thought, as the palm of his mom’s hand crashed into his jawbone. She was sobbing, and he just stood there, looking at the floor.

I have to get out of here.

So he did.

And, upon seeing a bit more of the rest of the world, after fleeing his city to abscond into some of this country’s alternative pockets of shit and beauty, after sizing them up and realizing that these new places were really just more of the same, he came back.

”Do I belong here?” Wrong question. Here is where I make myself belong. This place belongs to me.

He hadn't seen his grandfather in years. Without any help, he’d become a man.

***

3:55pm: she was really trippin, and I was like, hold up, ain’t we just talkin bout dinner? let’s go out to eat if you don’t want to cook! sometimes it’s so complicated with her...

3:58pm.: she wouldn’t tell me what she was buggin about, so I just let her do her thing. be mad cause you hungry, whatever.

Under the pretense of seeking advice, he’d often just build up steam while complaining, and get derailed. Today’s begging question had a simple answer. When you text “what’s for dinner?” and your girlfriend sends something quick and cranky back your way, is it in your best interest to surprise her when you get home with burritos? I know, reader, I know, this is basic stuff. But, perhaps, the question’s begging was too much for him. He couldn’t stand begging.

4:07pm: anyway, what you gettin into this weekend?

4:07pm: A little bit of this, a little bit of that...

She was so good at that. At saying so little and leaving him wanting more. He never pressed her on her answers, allowing her to reveal only as much as she wanted, comfortable centering the conversation on himself.

What kinds of places do you go to on the weekends? he wanted to ask. Where do you go, and who do you go with? But there was a line in the sand that he would not toe, some boundary of the virtual world he chose not to penetrate. Because he didn’t want to know.

She sounded white, to him. Or at least, she didn’t sound black. If she was a simulation, would it matter? Yes. It would matter. And the man that had written her code? He was probably white, too. And almost certainly a he. These are just guesses, but they’re good guesses.

What about her made him think she was white? Was her algorithm failing to pick up on his cues, to detect the lilting accent in his keystrokes? Was it unable to mirror him, or was it so good that it had simply intuited that he liked white girls?

He wouldn’t ask her, he’d just continue to probe, and guess, and wonder. He doubted she wondered the same about him. It wouldn’t be like her to ask. It wouldn’t be like her to wonder. She seemed so sure of herself all the time. White people are used to the world looking like they do. And realizing that when it occasionally doesn’t, it doesn’t want to. They don’t have to guess. They don’t have to wonder.

Could I fall in love with her? His mind performed the wild, vaulting leap in its daydream, as he watched the cursor throb onscreen. Though quick to respond, she almost never spoke first.

He pressed on, despite all of the evidence before him: What makes her any less real to me than my girlfriend? How would I know if I were in love with either of them? How can I be ready to commit myself to someone, to marry her, when I can’t answer that question?

It was simply guilt that dragged at him, but in men, guilt is never simple. The flashing cursor spurred him on. It taunted him, it made him squirm while he waited, savoring his flagellations of self-doubt. His confidence shrivelled with the waiting. He sat, wearily, as an empty screen remained empty, learning impatience.

So he took off, reckless, but refreshingly, decisively so. And he stabbed himself with a reminder of the shifting puzzle of it all. The cube on his arm reminds him that you can’t change just one thing at a time. To move one thing moves all things, to make someone happy, you have to make someone else unhappy. Life is a twisting convulsion of unpredictable compromise.

“It’s just a tattoo,” he said to his girlfriend, apropos of nothing they were talking about.

“I know,” she replied, her voice unusually void of subtext.

“It’s no big deal. So I was drunk. I still like it.”

“I know, honey.” She held his hand, letting him let it all out. Sometimes he just needed to let it all out.

Why does he doubt himself like this? I’m honestly asking. I don’t know any more than you do. Why waste your energy worrying about intangibles while a beautiful woman stands right next to you? Why remain so fearful that your leap of faith might send you in the wrong direction?

He wasn’t ready then. Something will have to change, and soon. He can’t keep this up forever.

It’s no big deal, it’s not hurting anyone, he murmured to himself, after she’d stopped listening. I’m not hurting anyone, he thought, incorrectly, as a trickling of people began to condense into an angry mob across town.

When she found his phone and read his texts, they had a difficult few days. He didn’t know if they would make it through, which was ridiculous, because she did. She would harden in the chill of her fury, and then soak in the warmth of her sorrow, and then come to him to talk, and they would work things out, like they always had. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“Who is she?” she asked him, her forceful calm audibly straining to contain the hot expansion inside her. That’s what set him off. It was that simple.

If he’d known the answer, he could have told her. But that question had been rattling around inside him for weeks now, and of course he didn’t know, of course he couldn’t tell her. Because he didn’t want to know.

So he made for their door, fingertips out, awaiting his shock.

And then he slammed it in his girlfriend’s face.

Everyone is yelling. It’s all anyone can hear. No one can possibly be listening to what anyone is saying because everyone is yelling. This isn’t a protest, these people aren’t holding up poster boards that they bought from the office supply store on their drive over. They don’t have slogans, their chanting isn’t organized by calls and responses. They have rage, combustible rage, and a lifetime of fuel, and lots of room to spread the burn.

A boy got shot the day before yesterday. The officer thought the kid had a gun on him, one supposes. The boy did not. It isn’t clear what is going to happen to the officer. The boy was shot in the shoulder, and he took a long time to die. It isn’t clear what will happen next, but one likelihood appears now to be overtaking the rest.

Our hero ran most of the way here when he heard about what was happening. This is a place he used to know, but one he hasn’t seen in years, intentionally. Two subway stops, and then he ran here, and now blooming rings of sweat stain his shirt in the July swelter.

Before long, somebody punches someone in the face. Why? Because that’s how these things begin. There is a moment of negative pressure, of the pull of the riptide into the gape of a rising wave, when things are still. The wave gathers. Its peak curls like a tongue.

Suddenly the air fills with smoke that stings the eyes and the throat. Rubber pellets streak through the cloudiness, invisible, with their insect sound and their reptile sting. Ranks of people stumble and writhe, but reinforcements swarm and break through the front line. There are too many people, and the wall of officers is breached, and chaos gurgles and foams like an upset sack of stomach. It can’t be contained. It swells in the throat and pours through the teeth. The surface is broken.

He gets knocked down, somehow. His vision clears as he hits the pavement. He welcomes the grit with the palms of his hands. He knows this place. He stays down for a moment, while the explosion cascades above, smiling, because here he knows exactly where he is. He knows exactly who he is.

Glass shatters nearby. People are hurling garbage cans, and bits of trash paper loft upwards in currents of smoldering air. One unlucky car is already on fire.

He fumbles around for the brick that he dropped, his only weapon in this calamity. There it is, with the bump of a knee. He reaches for it, and its power pulses in his hand, synchronous with the beating of his heart. It finds his vein of frustration to tap into.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he’d heard his mom say when he was much younger. It was something she’d picked up in church. He allows his sins a moment of consideration. I ain't done nothin wrong, he decides, like a reflex. I ain't done nothin wrong, and everything always holding me back.

The forces of anger and panic surge within him, pounding their way towards his surface in their eternal war for balance. Many things rearrange themselves, in a twisting lurch that leaves many other things unexpectedly out of place.

He gets to his knees, and then to his feet. The brick sways from his shoulder like a pendulum, steadying him, countering with its weight the momentum of his teetering.

“Teach you to be a man,” his grandfather’s voice echoes in his head.

There is a big, beautiful storefront window just behind him. He spins to face his reflection in it, the force of his options pulling him in all directions at once.

About the Author

Nicholas LaMendola

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Nick LaMendola is a fiction writer and musician, and the creator of the podcast Written & Read By, featuring the narration of his short stories set to original music. His work has appeared in Mud Season Review.