He lies in a bed with his best friend. The two of them drew the curtains closed tight against the South Florida Sun. The air conditioning keeps the sweltering heat from encroaching into the room too much. The dark adds a layer of cool blanketing their young skin. He stares at the fan spinning on the ceiling and sighs. His friend stole the Lita Ford/Ozzy Osbourne Close My Eyes forever cassette single from his older sister, and the two of them listen to it obsessively, flipping the cassette over almost as soon dead air fills the speakers and the sound of the spindles grinding away fills the room. They talk about the mysteries of death in the language of children.
As trite and cliché as the lyrics might end up sounding thirty years later, they are transfixed in this moment. Death is a door. Death is a shock sometimes. Death is a choice sometimes. Death is not the end. He hears Lita singing to them from the perspective of someone who has taken their life and come to regret it, a moldering corpse, singing from the grave:
“If I could have just one more wish, I’d wipe the cobwebs from my eyes.”
“What the hell are you two doing? Give me my tape back!”
The sister is onto them. The gig is up. The boys race out of the house, onto their bikes, and they take flight, soaring through the steam rising from South Florida blacktop, out in the sun; full of life. Out on their bikes in the park, they make the figure eight on the path over and over, watching the wild parrots jump from transmission tower to transmission tower, the static hum of civilization ever present, but enough to drown out their songs. They halfheartedly look for ghosts. They never see any, for the sun is still shining down on South Florida and whoever heard of a ghost appearing during the day anyway?
The ocean is warm and gentle. The day is already hot, and the early morning breeze feels perfect on his tanned skin. His mother sets up her umbrella, and puts her day bag down in the sand. He is already racing for the surf with his friend when his mother warns them not to go out too far. Those riptides can come up out of nowhere and drag you out to sea forever before you even know it, she says.
Out in the swell, he is elated and alive. He knows he should be afraid, but he is not. His friend tells him that his older brother told him there is a sandbar roughly a hundred yards out. The ocean feels like a warm and loving embrace. They reach the sandbar and sit there letting the waves lap at their bodies. Their knees sink into the soft sand, allowing their bodies to rest. The horizon stretching out to infinity, and the distance from the shore gives the boys an illusion of being in the middle of the sea. His mother looks like a small dot in the expanse of alabaster. He wants to taste the precise feeling of forever that must exist out where the sky and the sea meet in a brilliant expanse of blue.
His friend looks nervous, glancing back to the shore. He asks if he thinks they should swim back in, just a little closer to the shore. What about the riptides? What about sharks? Just a little bit longer, he implores. They hold onto one another’s arms, bracing one another against the timeless roll of the waves, resting on the soft precipice of forever.
He stands on a small dirt hill in a neighborhood where the all the kids all ride bikes and play flashlight tag during the summer. He isn’t it, but he wants to hide anyway. He feels safer in the dark, away from his friends, even though they are his friends. He looks up at the stars flickering in the sky and has a feeling he will always be alone. He stretches his arms to the sky and inhales, breathing the late summer in. Something in the night makes him feel at home.
Last week, he watched unflinchingly as his friend got unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend at the carnival. They were standing just in front of the tilt-a-whirl when it happened. His friend cried all night and he feels only a little embarrassed for him when they get home and he breaks down into his tears in front of his parents. He is genuinely confused when the parents inquire on his emotional well-being and tell him they knew he loved the girl and that there are other fish out there in the sea. They sleep in his friend’s room later, and he can hear him stifling sobs from his makeshift bed on the floor. Sometimes his friend starts late night wrestling matches that go on for too long and his friend inevitably ends up on his stomach, pushing himself against his crotch.
Tonight, the girlfriend has since taken his friend back, and he spent the night following her around the labyrinth of well-manicured lawns like a happy puppy. At 8 PM, The Simpsons comes on and all the kids want to make sure to catch it, even though it’s a summer rerun. One of the neighbors has brought a television out onto his patio. The neighbor invites all the sweaty youth to watch with him. There’s plenty of patio chairs, after all. He sits away from the crowd and broods. His friend and his girlfriend share a wicker chair with a cheap cushion beneath them. They are all smiles and sneaking desperate kisses, holding hands in the cathode glow.
He tilts his head, and catches the two when they think no one is looking. Something about the way their forms molding into one another makes sense to him, while feeling alien all at once. Like he is catching a glimpse of a world he will never truly feel part of. He can almost taste the longing at the back of his throat.
He met her in the spring of 7th grade, and they become fast friends. They pass notes in class during the day. They stay on the phone late into the night. She sneaks the calls, because she isn’t allowed on the phone after 7 PM. He picks up on the first ring so as to not wake up his mother, who sleeps fitfully, if at all these days. His father has been dead for six months. His mother still sleeps in the room where his father’s heart stopped beating in the middle of the night. She can only sleep through the night if the television is on, turned up so loudly that he can hear it through his bedroom wall.
She is the realest person he has ever known, despite her sheltered upbringing and the fact that they are children. They flip through channels on late night television together. “Do you like this song?” “Do you like this show?”. They make small talk about the details of their slow as molasses summer days. He finds himself looking forward to the small instances during the long weeks with no school where they can see one another. He feels himself softening into more than the couch of his mother’s living room. Staring out the window into the waves of grain and sea of cornstalks that cover the darkened countryside, he asks if he can tell her a secret.
The words fall from his mouth before he can even stop them and all the shame and rage he held for so long is laid out there it’s like a dam breaking. His tears fall until they stop, and they talk of other things. That was the night he learned that there are some secrets that a soul doesn’t have to bear alone.
All the small town freaks dance in the back of a rented church hall with one set of fluorescent lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling illuminating the room. The band is all clumsy chords ripped jeans and waving hair. He falls in love with the feeling of dancing the Doc Marten stomp in a circle so hard with his friends that he’s sure it might burn holes in the dirty brown carpet below them. The words ring in his ears with the echo of feedback, and he feels like everything he knew before tonight is a lie, he’s locked into some truth that the dull-eyed masses around him will never know.
After the gig, some rednecks wait for him outside in the parking lot. They wandered into the show. Nobody knows why, or what they think is here for them. They taunt him from their pickup truck, swearing they’re going to beat his ass for the unforgivable transgression of “being a faggot”. As always, he is the smallest of his friends. The rednecks move in, and his friends surround him.
“Sorry boys, y’all gonna have to go through the rest of us first.”
He hears the flicking of a butterfly knife unfolding behind him and he smiles.
They were young, loyal, violent, and most all, they were in love. They made their plans one Sunday night in spring. Wait for Monday morning, stick the blade into the back of the boy who did their friend wrong and fuck the consequences. They’d go out in a blaze of outlaw teenage glory before they let this sin slip under the rug unpunished.
They see him in the morning, and he hands her his knife without a second thought, like he was passing her a cigarette, or a bottle of wine. They follow the boy in the hall for a while, and they lose their nerve. The rest of the day comes and goes. All without a single small town burnout bleeding to out on a lunchroom floor. The summer follows the same way. He never even knew.
They make out clumsily and say their goodbyes, too young to know how to make the other one cum. After she leaves, he locks his door and takes off all of his clothes. He jerks off into the empty corner of his room, right where his stereo speakers used to be. Two nights ago, almost every single one of his friends came over and they laid waste to the house downstairs, kicking holes in the walls and spraypainting pentagrams all over the basement. His mom cried. What if we got a miracle, she said. He doesn’t believe in miracles anymore.
He figures he will leave just one more parting gift encrusting the carpet for the bank when the come to take the house.
The two of them sit on mountain overlooking the city. He’s read about spots like this in books and seen them on movies, but has never actually been to a place like this before. They spent the night together for the first time a few weeks ago. Two nights in a row. The first night they stayed up all night talking about their lives, waking up two hours later to go to school. The second night they shared an illicit kiss. Infatuated, he broke up with the girl he was dating the next day and never looked back.
Now it is love with wild abandon, the kind that only comes when you are young. Before you accrue scar upon scar on your heart. She straddles him on a rock and they kiss, while the lights of the Coors brewery twinkle below them. His fingers trace the scar on her leg, given to her by her last boyfriend the night he got drunk and pulled a knife on her and her friend.
The secrets they share run deep and shine bright, like black wells with stars burning in the depths. She tells him that with all the quiet atrocities endured in her short life, even with a genetic time bomb ticking in her DNA. The one waiting to wage war on her body and brain before she turns 40, that she loves her life.
The certainty in her voice shakes him to his core.
An older woman kisses the two of them on the cheek as they march down a pink brick South Florida Street. They hitchhiked two thousand something miles to across five days to reach this exact point. He can see the armored phalanx of riot police in the distance; already beginning to smash their clubs against their shields, clamoring for an asymmetrical war. The sound terrifies him. On the way downtown, they drove past one of the police staging points and he heard a commanding officer rallying the officers under him:
“Alright. Everyone get ready. Strike fast, and kick ass! This is what we’ve been training for! Let’s make these pussies regret ever coming to the city of Miami!”
The bark and bite in the officer’s voice reminds him of portrayals of Nazis war criminals in films and it terrifies him.
“That’s for luck.” The old woman says. I know what you and your friends are here to do, and I know what you’re up against once we get to that wall.”
He hears the woman standing behind him scream. He feels the car collide with his body. He is surprised when it doesn’t feel like anything. It just feels like something kind of bumped into him. He feels his body hurtling forward. “Oh shit. I just got hit by a car” is his last cognizant thought before blacking out. He comes to on the street, with a woman holding a napkin to his bloody mouth and nose. “I’m on the street.” He thinks “How did I get here?” The recollection of the car hitting his body creeps in. He wiggles his toes inside of his boots, realizing with relief that his back is not broken. An awareness of pain in his mouth creeps in, and he presses his tongue to the front of his mouth, where his teeth should be.
The doctors tell him later, colliding with the street face first saved his life, or at least saved him from a traumatic brain injury.
He thinks there is a victory to be found here, in not being able to win them all.
She helps him sew together his first skirt. They buy underwear at the store that will flatter his ass, and hide the harder parts of him. He clumsily applies lipstick, eyeliner, mascara. Before they go out, they share a kiss. He has never been kissed like this before. He asks her to please put her hands on his new body. She spits on a finger, reaches down and slips it inside him. He moans softly into her mouth.
Out in the sun, they nervously think about what to do with their day, and her in her fresh skin. They settle on the bookstore and reading comic books. She reads The Punisher Volume 5: The Slavers. She reads Marvel Zombies, and doesn’t care for it much. She only worries a little bit about being noticed when she goes to take a piss in the woman’s bathroom.
The river was low that fall, right after their friend died, stabbed to death and set on fire thousands of miles away. The sick horror of it sticks with her at night. She wakes from restless sleep to pull swigs from a bottle of whiskey next to her bed. She stares through the dark at the ceiling until the alcohol warms her body and numbs her spirit enough that she can fall into dreamless sleep. Everyone around her is heartbroken, and with good reason.
The day after Halloween, three of them clamor over the rocks usually submerged beneath the rushing right and light candles. Someone pulls tarot cards for each one of them. She burns an effigy not of their friend’s murderer, but of the forces that motivated him. They drink one beer each, and watch the candles lit for their dead friend burn low. Before walk over the rocks and to the shore, she spraypaints “PATRIARCHY KILLS” in angry red letters on the pillar. One of her friends paints “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living” in beautiful flowing script. They walk up the hill in the gloom, hearts held fast against the gathering dark.
She meets him at a party and is standoffish immediately. “Who is this old man asking me who I am and what my story is?”, she thinks. Unaccustomed as she is to genuine interest from her elders. Guarded by nature, she responds to his inquiries tersely. She feels herself warming up to him despite herself. At the end of the night when it’s time to leave the party, he simply says “I hate that y’all are leaving” in a drawl more affected by a life well-lived and filled with the deepest love for everyone around him than anything else.
The next time she sees him, it’s because the grease trap at the restaurant she works at is broken. A struggling business, run on lofty anarchist principles, they can’t afford to fix it. He comes in and spends hours installing the piece. When they ask him what they owe him his response is “Not a damn thing. I’ve had one hell of a good life, and I try and spread it around.”
She starts to get an inkling somewhere that this man is going to affect the trajectory of the rest of her life.
She got married in an April Fool’s Day prank that got out of hand, but the story really isn’t that interesting.
1.344×109 (give or take)
Her heart pounds in her chest thunderously, for months now. She sees demons dance behind her eyes. She hears the voices of the restless and angry dead when she is in a room by herself. She sees an emaciated stranger staring back at her when she looks in the mirror. She walks like a ghost haunting herself, eyes grown bitter by the sight of almost every single thing she thought she could rely on ripped away.
Zie is there, standing tall like a pillar made of glass, beautiful and fragile. They don’t mean to fall in love, it just happens. A few months ago, her horoscope told her she was going to re-learn everything she thought she knew about love. She had hoped the lesson wouldn’t be quite this fucking hard and leave so many bruised hearts in its wake.
She tells hir she sees hir the darkness zie walked in for much of their life, and that she is not afraid. The words hang there between them, brave in the dark. The moon is rising outside the window, old and red. Zie takes the words to heart because nobody has ever said them to hir before. A week later, zie’s lost in the crowd with everyone else. The Nazi skins put the word out that they were roll downtown and stomp every faggot commie and Black Lives Matter motherfucker they can find. The punks wait, all brave with their baseball bats and blades on 4th and Adams to see if the fash will actually show up. She told hir later how she drove by the crowd on the way home to get her kid to bed, craning her neck nervously out the window to see if she could spot hir shape in the sea of black masks. Her child asked a question:
“Momma what’s that?”
“Uh. It’s a crowd of people who are trying to defend our city from these bad people called Nazis.”
“Momma, is hir out there?”
“Yeah baby, but zie is really smart and really strong and will be safe. I promise.”
“Momma, does zie have hir dog with them?”
“No, baby. I promise the dog is at home safe and asleep.”
The fash get beat back, straight out of downtown and zie goes home close to four AM when zie is sure that every one of their friends is home safe, and the streets are empty. Zie calls her to let her know zie is finally home and will be surrendering to well earned sleep shortly. Zie loves the sound of her voice, and won’t lie that zie wishes that zie was curling up next to her for the night. Being so near to danger and death makes their exhausted sex the next day all the more sweet.
Hearts open, and hearts break. Tender trespasses and broken promises. Neither one of them will ever forgive the other. Zie thinks what a shame to watch hard earned intimacy die and rot into nothing at all.
They have been out hunting all night and, just became the hunted. The van screeches to a halt in front of them. Zie is sure at least six Nazi skinheads are going to jump out. “This is it” Zie thinks. “I am going to die with my friend right here on this street in a city I can’t even bring myself to love. Or we are at least going to the hospital.” Everything moves in slow motion, just like they say it does in moments like this. Zie puts one hand on hir friend’s shoulder, and feels every muscle within it tense, poising to strike. The feeling sends a shockwave through hir hand. Zie puts hir other hand in hir pocket, and feels hir fist curl around a cold metal cylinder and waits for the moment to come crashing in, and for the world to spin right again.
She wrote him a letter twenty years later after their youthful plot to stab to death a boy who had long since died in a car wreck over a friend who had long since moved on. He received the letter in the small town he moved to on the other side of the country from the small town where they grew up. It said:
“Sometimes I think that everything I ever needed to know about loyalty and being a good friend, I learned from being friends with you when we were fifteen.”
He was sitting alone at the kitchen table in his house on a dead end street, in the dry, rainless depths of a nowhere summer with the constant hum of heartache and regret ringing in his ears. She had no idea how much he needed to hear those words at that exact moment in time. He didn’t believe in coincidences.
Aging lovers in a small room, they were tired. Tired, from the past few months, the past few years. Maybe it hit them all at once tonight. The road that led them to one another had been at once both winding and strange, and fraught with fear. All the same, he could see where the path will diverge in the very near future. They weren’t the last great love of his life, but was as close as it was going to get with his giving up on love and all the headlines screaming hate and war.
Their wild Friday night date consisted of watching hurricane footage down south that filled his heart with ice and made it ache for home all the same. On their laptop, they looked up survival gear and talked about what to order their family he’d never be a part of for the apocalypse everyone can feel building. They watched a movie and cried together at the ending, knowing the tragic hope in fiction and the improbability of happy endings for people like them. With heavy eyelids, they slipped into one another for what ended up being the last time. They grind, and moan, and giving into one another and then to rest. In the morning they leave. He smiles alone in his room, his eyes already gazing towards some other horizon, knowing this one will never burn any brighter than than this, hoping for the best, planning for the worst.
“If they take you down, I wanna mourn you.”
He pulls the car over on the highway in the desert beneath a sprawling sea of stars. He needs to stretch, and they want to look at the sky. The kid has never been to the desert before. So they sit on the hood pulled to the side of an empty country road and listen to the engine cool in the darkness and look up. The majesty of the night sky goes on forever, and he feels safe out there, in their solitude. The kid still winces at far off headlights, as if even the visibility their glow brings could stain their skin. He subconsciously touches the knife on his belt as if to remind them of the safety it brings, that he made a promise, and he’d be cold in the goddamn ground before he let any harm come to them.
“What is that glow in the distance?”
“Oh shit. Baby, that’s the moon rising.”
“Oh! What the fuck? I’ve never seen anything like that!”
A coyote howls and he makes a note to tell his dad who isn’t his dad how if he can be just half the elder to this kid that his dad who isn’t his dad has been to him, he will have done one thing right with his fucked up mess of a life.
A week later, he does just that. He is sitting on the porch in the cicada swell of summer with his dad who isn’t his dad but goddamn close enough. They are holding hands and crying when he tells him.
“Well goddamn, son. Thanks for picking me.”
He takes a photograph of the moment the kid’s feet meet the warm waves of the Atlantic for the very first time. He thinks about the thousand tiny victories that surmounted to this precise moment on a spinning earth. The sun burns down on both of them, and it is delicious. They wade into the water and feel the waves roll. The dog swims back and forth between the two of them, happily bobbing with the waves, making sure both of her humans are safe. He tastes the salt crossing his lips, and remember the ocean’s worth of tears both of them cried before this immortal moment presented itself to them. How every one of those tears, worth their weight in salt dried eventually. Tears fall. Tears dry, and more tears follow. We keep living and we remember how that counts for everything.
All you can do is keep living.
Until the last beat of your heart, and even then maybe death is not the end.