The ticking of the clock was the only sound you can hear in the living room. That large, wooden clock Father brought home from Frankfurt last year was particularly loud. Spring has come late to our village, and people are a little antsy about how to put together a festival in such short notice. The cherry trees will begin to bloom soon. My parents were off in the town hall to attend one of the many meetings with the council preparing for the influx of tourists who are sure to come through town in a couple of weeks.
Everybody was in a bit of a rush, since they haven’t exactly finished putting up the observation decks at the public causeway lined with cherry blossom trees, nor the small collection of food stalls that the local merchant guild was planning. The first few groups of tourists have started to arrive and our inn was starting to fill up with guests.
I poured myself a drink at my father’s bar and I sat in one of our overstuffed settees.
I see her walk in, dressed in a simple linen robe, her hair down, preparing for bed.
“Will you wait up for Mother?”
I nod. She approaches and quietly refills my drink.
“The children are sleeping. Should I draw you a bath before bed?” I nod. She smiles and gathers up her robe.
“Hana?” She looks back and I see her small smile once more. “I am sorry for missing the New Year Festival again. I must really get control over my work schedule. I will make it up to you and the children during the summer.” I placed my drink on the lacquered table beside me. “I have booked us all a trip to the city to stay at that hotel in the city that you like, we can go shopping and get the kids some new clothes and toys. The boys seem to be growing much faster than ever before.”
“I think that is a wonderful idea. Thank you. And don’t worry about my birthday: It was work. It really can’t be helped.” She turns around and stops at our family shrine. She reaches out and gently touches a Daruma doll she placed there about three years ago, its single eye looking at her, slightly askew.
I look at the clock on the wall. Of course she understands, Hana has always been very understanding.
I look up from the guest ledger and see this ruddy faced foreigner with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.
“Konnichi wa, and welcome.” I reply. I bow slightly, and see him return the greeting.
“I made a reservation, it should be under Phillip Thompson?”
I scan through the names on the ledger and find his reservation. I enter his arrival in the log and hand him his safebox key.
“Thank you.” He picks up his bag and smiles. I look at his face, fair, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of his nose, between wide blue eyes. He had a set of straight white teeth behind a big, bushy beard, the color of straw. “When will the cherry blossoms begin to bloom?”
“Maybe within the next couple of days: We’ve already seen some trees beginning to change color.” I open a small door and pick up his suitcase. “This way please.” I lead him down the hall towards his room.
“This is my first time in Japan during the spring, but I’ve heard such beautiful things about this season.”
“Yes, it is beautiful in the spring. And the weather is so much more forgiving, especially in this area. Once the trees turn, I will arrange to have a place for you along the causeway. Do you prefer viewing the cherry blossoms in the afternoon or at dusk? They set up the park with lights at night and I could prepare some traditional Japanese confections for you to enjoy during your viewing.”
“Oh, that would be great! I think an evening viewing would be best.”
I set his suitcase down and kneel to slide open the paper screen that leads to his room. “Would you want to bathe before dinner? We have our own onsen, and you can try it out. I can also prepare your bed while you bathe so you can rest before eating. You must be tired from travelling.” I move into the space and put away his bag off to one side of the room.
“Yes, I would like that very much.” I open one of the closets and take out a robe and hand it to him. He changes into the robe as he makes more idle chatter. I take down his bedding and check to make sure it’s fresh. I absent-mindedly turn around to set the bedding on the tatami mat. He had his back turned towards me as he slipped his arms through the sleeves of the robe, and I had a brief glimpse of his broad shoulders. I feel a familiar sensation that stirred at the bottom of my belly.
I push it down. And drop my eyes to the floor.
“I see that Mr. Thompson has checked in today.” Hana looks over to me as she reviews the guest ledger. “I heard from Akane-sama that the pavilion opens tomorrow for the viewing. Shall we make arrangements for him?”
I put down the paper I was reading, and I look at her. Yes, I reply. He wants to arrange a nighttime viewing.
She picks up the phone and begins to organize a private viewing for him. I go back to reading the paper, though, I was only skimming the words on the page. My attention is lost among the fog of my thoughts. The clock on the wall ticks on and on.
I look up at her again.
She’s sitting there, cradling the small Daruma doll in her hands. She traces her finger along the edge of paper that came away from the body of the doll. She takes some paste from a drawer, and gently pressed the paper back in place.
“I have asked the kitchen to prepare a bento of sweets for tomorrow night, but I won’t be able to accompany Mr. Thompson to the viewing. Would it be alright if you go with him? I have some things to attend to.”
I put the newspaper down. “We have discussed this already. I do not understand why I must attend to the guests.”
She sits there silent for a moment. “No games, Touma. I just can’t go. That’s all.”
“Fine.” I got up and poured myself a drink. She sets down the doll on the shrine and went back to writing. I look at it, the red paint has faded significantly, with one forlorn eye staring out at me.
“You weren’t kidding! This place is amazing!”
Phillip and I walked along the banks of the small river that cut through the park. Paper lanterns lined the path that reflected off of the gentle ripple of the water. There were groups of people in colorful robes, weaving through the trees, admiring their foliage, or sitting on low benches enjoying their bento boxes filled with cakes and dumplings.
You can smell the aroma of roasted fish and other foodstuff from the collection of stalls on the other side of the stream. We didn’t have to go though; the kitchen has outdone itself in preparing both savory and sweet boxes for us to enjoy this evening.
We reached a low hill in the middle of a bend in the river where the view was particularly breathtaking, and set down our dinner on the bench that sat under a tree. Viewing the cherry blossom trees this early in the season meant that no cascading petals would go in our food. And you get to fully appreciate the magnificent foliage at the pinnacle of their glory.
“I have heard a story about how the cherry blossoms represented fallen warriors during the war.” Phillip sat down on the opposite end of the bench, looking out at the stream and the trees that lined the opposite bank, lit by soft hues of yellow and mauve. I offered him a bento filled with rice, grilled sea bream and pickles. He took it and he started to eat. “How can something so beautiful represent something so sad?”
I sat beside him, and started to softly play a tune on my shamisen. “Cherry blossoms represent impermanence in our culture. Like the cherry tree that is so short lived, it serves to remind us that nothing stays the same forever. We live, we bloom, and we die.” He was looking at me as I say this, and I see him look out into the water again.
“Once there was a man who had a cherry tree in his backyard. He loved the tree he grew up with, playing under its shade for many years as a boy. As he lived, his children played under the shade of the tree which gave him much joy.” I see him close his eyes as he listened to my story.
“As he lived, and as time passed, his children grew up, his wife passed away, and one by one his children had families of their own, moved away, and died. However, death would not come for the old man.” I struck a sad note. He opens his eyes and looks at me.
“He lived for so long, alongside his beloved cherry tree. Till one day when he went out into the garden to sit under its branches, as he has done countless times before, he found that the tree had died.” Phillip looks at me intently. “Overcome with grief, the old man wept and called for death. He took his sword and took his own life under the dead boughs of the cherry tree he loved. As his spirit escaped his body, it bonded with the tree, and it bloomed for one last time.”
“That was beautiful.” Phillip wiped the tears that welled in his eyes. “Sad. But beautiful.”
“Just because there is suffering, does not mean the story is sad: The old man lived a full life and in the end was granted a beautiful death. He was blessed with this fate, and death did not rob his life of its meaning.” I sat beside him and looked out into the water. The river started to fill with light. We sat there in silence, watching the cherry blossoms dance with the gentle breeze.
“Why did you come here, Phillip?”
“I missed you so much. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”
I felt his head gently rest on my shoulder.
“Hana doesn’t know.”
I hear him sigh. “I know.” He said under his breath, his voice was like an echo of mine over the surface of the water.
The clock ticks on, as I sat there reading the paper. Hana comes in with a glass of whisky on a small tray. She walks over to me and places it on the lacquered table beside me.
“How was your viewing?”
I put the paper down. “It was beautiful.” I reply. I can taste the venom in my voice.
“That’s good. I wanted to join you, the trees are particularly splendid this year, but I was kept busy here at home. The children needed tending.” She picks up the Daruma doll and sets it down on the desk in front of her.
She uses her finger to push it forward, and it rolls forward and settles upright. She pushes it from one side to the other, its wobbling making soft noises as it recenters itself in front of her on the polished desk.
“Did Phillip enjoy his stay?”
I can feel it. That coiled snake in my belly is moving.
“Why do you do this? Why did you do this?”
She doesn’t look at me. But still I know she was crying.
“Why? I don’t know.” She wipes away the tears on her pale cheeks. “I’m tired, Touma. Just say it so I can go to bed.”
“You are impossible. There is nothing to say.”
“No.” There’s a cold fierceness in her voice. It sounded like steel. “No. I see how you look at him. At them. It kills me every time I see it. That’s why I wrote to him. I asked him to come. I just… I needed to see it for myself.” She took a brush and started to grind some ink on her inkstone. I kept quiet. I know. I know it’s wrong. I know.
“Hana. Don’t do this. Please.”
“No. I’m tired Touma. Now I truly understand.” She takes her brush and dips it into the ink. She takes the Daruma doll and paints a big staring pupil on the other eye.
“Enough. No more secrets.” She stands up and leaves the room.
And there, on the desk, sat her Daruma doll, staring at nothing at all, with both eyes open.
Erwin Escarola writes about finding love even when one is not looking; and not wanting to let go when that love is found.
By Erwin Escarola
Ah, sa akin ika’y buwan,
sa gabi ng buhay ika’y tanglaw.
At sa liwanag ng umaga, nandiyan, kasama ng panginoong araw.
Kaloob ka: God gave me you.
Dumating di hinanap.
May pusong walang pagpanggap.
Uhaw kong damdamin, binusog.
Tulog kong buhay, nagkamalay.
Di maabot ngunit damang dama.
Magkalayo ngunit magkaugnay.
Buwan, ay ayatin ka!
Born and raised in Kabacan in Southern Philippines, Erwin Escarola completed his BA (Communication Studies) degree from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia and MA in Education from the University of New England, also in NSW, Australia. He currently teaches Secondary English and Humanities in Brisbane. He is the author of Does It Matter What the Dead Think, a collection of short stories about growing up in the Philippines. His story “Requiem for Pasig River” received High Commendation Award from Queensland Independent Education Union Short Story Award and Roly Sussex Literary Prize in 2016.
Elmo Ellezo writes about the apathy of those who have more in life, even if – by choosing to lend a hand – they can help effect changes in other people’s lives.
Ni Elmo Ellezo
May mga taong umangat lang sa buhay,
parang naging katulad ng bahay na bato ang puso.
Kasing tigas at wala ng pakiramdam sa iba.
posteng bato na naghihiwalay sa kanilang sa sarili
sa reyalidad ng malawak na mundo.
Bingi sa mga ingay sa labas.
Binulag ng mga bakod at posteng bato,
ayaw tumanaw sa kabilang bahagi ng mundo.
Gwardyado, akala moy kaaway ang mundo,
Ayaw makibahagi oh umambag sa mga walang laman ang kaldero
Ayaw makipagkapwa tao.
Naka-kandado pati ang kanilang mga puso.
Tanging paraan na silay mamulat ay delubyo.
Kapag tinumbahan na ng mga posteng bato.
Kapag binaha na katulad ng mga nakatira sa estero.
Kapag nagutom, namatayan na katulad ng mga ordinaryong tao.
Anong klaseng mundo ang nililikha nitong mga posteng bato.
Mga kaaway ang mahihirap at walang tiwala sa kapwa tao.
Makasariling pag uugali at walang pakialam sa mundo.
Sana maibalik ang aking pagkabata.
Walang mga poste at bakod na naghihiwalay sa sinasabi kong kapwa.
Kung saan ang daigdig ay pinagsasaluhan ng lahat.
May pagkakaugnay ugnay, tiwala at pakikipag kapwa.
Munti kong panalangin ay mawasak ang mga posteng bato.
Mga posteng batong isinasara ng bakal at mga kandado.
Mga posteng batong nagpapamanhid sa kalagayan ng dumadaing na mundo.
Ang posteng batong naglilikha ng taong bato ang puso.
“Babae po ako. Ngunit babae rin ang gusto ko. Pang-lalake man ang kilos at anyo. Sa babae pa rin naman ako nagbabanyo.”
Pilit kong iniisip
Kung inisip ko at pinilit
Kung nagbago ba ang ihip
Ng hangin noong ako’y isang paslit
Ang paghanga sa kapwa babae
Ang kilos, lakad at pananalita
Na animo’y lalake
Na nagsimula noong ako’y bata
Tinanong ako kung ako ba’y humanga
Sa mga guwapo at pogi
At ang sagot ko’y oo nga
Pagtangi ay sa babae lagi
Ni minsa’y hindi kinilig
Kahit na noong panahong
Maliit pa ang mga bisig
Suot ay bestida at hindi lontang maong
Matagal na proseso
Matagal na nilihim
Dahil sa sariling paninimdim
Hanggang ako’y namulat
At seryosong nagkagusto
At sinimulang isulat
Nilahad, ipinusta pati pamato
Wala naman kasing nagturo
Naramdaman na lang
Tapos para akong tuliro
Noong ako’y pitong taong gulang
Kaibigan ko siya
Sa ikalawang baitang
Kapag kasama’y masaya
Kapag naka-akbay ay lutang
Marami nang napusuan
Panahon na ang lumipas
Gusto’y babae pa rin naman
Sa pagkatorpe’y walang kupas
Madalas sakin ay tinatanong
Kahit hanggang opisina
Siguro sila’y hilong talilong
Kung Ma’am o Sir ang itatawag twina
Babae po ako
Ngunit babae rin ang gusto ko
Pang-lalake man ang kilos at anyo
Sa babae pa rin naman ako nagbabanyo
Lesbiyana kung ako’y tawagin
Tomboy sa kanto namin
Ate sa kapatid ko
Tita sa mga pamangkin ko
Eto ang aking SOGIE
Lesbiyana – Sexual Orientation
Babae – Gender Identity
Butch/masculine – Gender Expression
Hindi napipilit ang puso
Kusang tumitibok sa ritmo
Hindi ito parang damit na nakiki-uso
Hindi sinisino kahit amo
Masarap sanang maging malaya magmahal
Malaya sa mga matang mapanghusga
Malimit pang nasasabihan ng hangal
Madalas pang tumanggap ng pang-aalipusta
Pantay-pantay na karapatan
Dinggin sana ang aming hiling
Hindi espesyal ang aming panawagan
Sugat ng diskriminasyo’y laging nasasaling
Lungkot ay aking ramdam
Kapag hindi niyo maintidihan
Sana hindi niyo maranasan
Ang araw-araw naming pinagdadaanan
Kapag maganda o guwapo sa paningin
Sayang ang palaging sinasabi sa amin
Pero bakit sayang ang sasabihin?
Ano bang nasayang sa amin?
Isa po akong babae
Mahigit apat na pung taong gulang na
Mukha lang pong lalake
Isa pong lesbiyana
Good As New
On the things that we’re willing to do to support the people we love…
I push the key into the slot and twist it until I hear a click.
The door opens and I see there’s just the odd bill, and upon reaching in, I found a couple of letters. I stuff them inside my bag and I close our mailbox.
“Good morning, Gunther!” I turn around and see my neighbor, John, and his Bullmastiff, Boomer. “Anything interesting in there today?” He grinned, showing a perfect set of pearly teeth.
“Nah, man. Just the same old
stuff.” Boomer approached and nuzzled against my hand. I reached over and
petted him. “Boomer’s being especially friendly today?”
“Yeah. We’re on our way to the park. Do you and Erik wanna come with? We can get some coffee on the way.” He was built like his dog. Thick, with a boxy, compact body with massive, muscular arms and legs with almost no neck to speak of; he stood there with that bright smile of his. Dark brown hair cropped neat and short, with a full beard that came almost to his big, blue, puppy dog eyes.
“Sorry, man, I’m working tonight. Maybe next time.”
He grinned, and scratched Boomer’s ears, “No worries, next time then. See you later!” He pulls on Boomer’s leash and they make their way out of the building.
On any given day, I’d have gone out that door and walked his dog with him. On any given day, I’d have gotten coffee with him, and I’d know how he takes his coffee after years of living next to each other. On any given day, I’d have chatted and laughed with him in the park. But not today or any other day, I suppose. Not if he knew what I did for a living.
I see him standing outside by the curb, looking at his phone, and for a moment I allowed myself to hope, but as he started to walk away, I started to go up the steps to our apartment.
“Gunther, is that you?”
“Yeah!” I yell out as I drop my keys in a small azure dish on the table by the door. The apartment smelled of a heady mix of coffee and sandalwood.
Erik pops out his head of the kitchen. “Anything in the box?” I shrugged “Just the usual. I’ll leave it on the table and sort it later.” I went to the couch and slumped into it with a belabored groan.
Erik comes out of the kitchen and chuckles as he sat down on the couch with two mugs of coffee. He sets on in front of me on the center table, and sips on the other. “Rough night?” I moan in response. He began to leaf through the morning paper as he sipped his coffee. He turns to me, “John dropped by this morning, by the way, him and that dog of his. He was wondering if we wanted to go out tonight.” He paused for a bit. “I really think he wants a threesome with the both of us. What do you think? He’s not unfortunate looking.”
I sit up and take the mug he set in front of me.
“Well, threesomes are extra, you know.” He looks at me above his horn-rimmed glasses. “How much extra?”
“Wouldn’t you wanna know…”
“Well, for future reference.”
I stretched out and curled up on the couch like a lazy cat. “I wish I could lie down here forever. I have another appointment later tonight.” Erik stands up, and a takes both mugs. “You better rest, but try not to stay in bed all day. I have an appointment with Dr. Jacob today. I think I’m getting better.” He shuffles off to the kitchen and I could hear the water running as he washes up. I get up and follow him. He was hunched over the sink and I sit by the small banquette.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Much better.” He looks back down on the sink. “I really wish you’d stop doing this, though.” He said as he kept on washing dishes. “You’re a smart guy. I’m sure there’s something out there for you.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, the money is good, and it’s fun. I will get out eventually, of course.” I took out a cigarette from my pocket and lit one. “And where is this coming from?”
“It’s coming from a place of caring, asshole. I worry about you.”
I took a hit on my cigarette and let out a long steady stream of smoke. “I’ll be fine. You know how I work.”
He sighs and he finishes the dishes and turns around, dishcloth in hand. “I know, but that does not change the fact that what you’re doing is fairly risky. I don’t want you getting sick. Especially not on my account…”
“I’ll be fine. We’ve been through this.”
He throws his hands up. “I’m
just saying there are opportunities out there…”
“Geez, Erik, again: where is all this coming from?”
He looks down at his shoes, his hands absent-mindedly drying a mug. “I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”
“Well don’t, Erik.” He looks at me, and I look straight into his eyes. “If you have a problem with what I do, by all means let me know.” I put out the cigarette and toss it in the ashtray in the middle of our breakfast nook. “I appreciate the concern, but I am fine.” He looks at me and softly mutters okay.
I stood and left him there, still holding on to the mug, and went to my room, closing the door behind me.
My hand makes contact on his slick skin of his bare buttocks with a loud thwack, and waves of pleasure bubble up and escape from his lips like wisps of steam. I feel myself totally engulfed by his warmth. The air in the room was heavy with the scent of musk and sex.
“Harder! God, fuck me harder!”
I grumble in response as I instinctively adjust my hips to gain better leverage as I bring my weight forcefully, but gracefully, down on him. I feel his insides twitch and contract like it was sucking me further and further in. With every down stroke, I could hear the bed creak in protest, the chains that held his arms taut, spread out before me, jingled like the sleigh bells, their tone high and crisp.
I held on to the tense muscles on his shoulders, contorted in the struggle against the leather cuffs that bound him, and my relentless and unchanging rhythm on top of him. His eyes undoubtedly burning under that heavy blindfold that was clasped behind his head, he turns his head to the side with a look of abject bliss and pain on his face.
I bury my hands in the silk sheets that covered the bed on both sides of his torso. I feel my breath quicken as I change my position. I hear him gasp as I pull all the way to very tip of my cock and pull out with a soft pop. He whimpers into his pillows.
I take the bottle of lube from the nightstand and pump out a couple of globs on my fingers, and smear it in between his buttcheeks. He moans in pleasure as my fingertips grazed his raw, pink asshole. I wipe the rest of the lube on myself. I spread him apart and come up to the side of his face. I slip myself in between his thighs and lay myself down on his broad, muscular back. I feel the sweat from him stick to my chest, the soft hair on his back was matted into swirling, abstract forms that sharply contrasted with his pale complexion. I place my lips near the side of his face. He is shuddering in anticipation. He wants me. He wants all of me. I whisper into his ear.
I hear him suck in air.
“Goddammit! I want you to make me bleed!”
I smile, as I always do at this moment, and I whisper; “Okay.”
I reach across him and undo the buckle on the leather cuff on his left wrist, and then the right. I flip him over and pull his hips closer, carefully guiding his legs on either side of my torso as I position myself between them. I take a deep breath and bear down, hip first in a massive thrust that knocks the wind out of him momentarily. A small groan escapes his throat, a low rumble that I felt more than heard, his shuddering body under mine. I feel his body writhe and undulate like a coiled serpent as the lines between us blurred. I started to feel that familiar fire start to creep under my skin, in every nerve, flowing with my blood. I feel that creature within me stir. I feel the familiar flush in my cheeks as I begin to slowly lose control of my thoughts.
“Do it, you fuckin’ pussy. DO IT!”
I reattach the chains that dug into the wooden posts of his bed to his restraints. Reaching behind his head, I unlatch his blindfold. He opens his eyes, but squints, blinded by the sudden burst of light. He arches his back and turns to look at me, his eyes still adjusting to the light. I raise my hand high and seeing his eyes slowly register, I bring it down hard and feel the snap of my fist make contact with his nose. The sound echoed in my head, that sharp crack that shattered the relative calm of my mind. He gives out a howl, a low pitched moan that makes my ears ring. I hear him let out a cough, and a fine, scarlet mist filled the air of the scent of blood.
“Fuck, YES!” He lets out a guttural grunt and I feel him tense up under me as he struggled against his restraints. “Hit me again!”
I felt the creature claw its way up my throat. I reach down and feel his hair under my fingers. I clench my fist and pull his face up from the mattress by his hair. I see his eyes shut tight; his nose crinkled as sopping noises filled my ears when he tried to breathe through his flared nostrils. I move my face closer to his and see a drop of blood trickle down to the corner of his mouth.
I snake my arm around his neck and roughly pull him up. His hands balled up into fists, straining against the chains that kept him immobilized. Beads of sweat formed on his temples, trickling down his face. He struggles against me, he resists. I breathe in his scent, that metallic scent mixed with the salt on his brow.
I feel it, the creature, peering out from my own eyes, his claws prying my mouth open. His serpentine tongue, pendulous and rough as a rasp, falls out between my teeth and as he whimpers, gasping for breath, the creature’s tongue caresses the side of his bloodied face, like a tiger tasting its prey.
And I distinctly remember thinking: this one tastes, oh so sweet.
I push the key into the slot and twist it until I hear a click.
The door opens and I see there’s just the odd bill, and upon reaching in, I found a couple of letters. I stuff them inside my bag and I close our mailbox.
I go up to our apartment and let myself in. I feel exhausted: More so than any other night in recent memory. Maybe Erik is right. I really ought to consider another job: this is starting to feel like a lot of work. I place my keys in the small dish and notice that the kitchen lights are on. The smell of coffee hung in the air like a fine veil.
“Gunther, is that you?”
“Hey, yeah.” I step into the kitchen, and Erik was sitting there, a bottle of vodka and a mess of soda bottles on the table. “Hey.” He mutters, a tired smile plastered across his face.
“Don’t you have therapy tomorrow? It’s almost three in the morning.” I began to pick up the empty soda bottles and place them next to the sink. He shrugged his shoulders, and poured himself another drink. “Come, sit a while and have a drink. I imagine it’s been a wild night for you.”
I take off my jacket and sat down in front of him with a glass I took from the dish rack. His smile never left his boyish face. I poured myself some vodka, topping it off with a splash of club soda. I took some ice from the small bucket in the middle of the table and drop a couple into my drink. I reached out to get another ice cube and gingerly ran it over the swollen knuckles on my right hand.
He just sat there, watching me through that shit-eating grin.
I took a sip of my drink. “Yeah. You can say that. I guess.”
“You really ought to do something about that. He grunts as he got up and went to his bedroom. I look out the kitchen window. It’s so dark out you can barely make out where the skyline ended and the night sky started. In the distance, a police siren echoed off the narrow alleyway.
Erik comes back and pus down a small first aid kit on the table. He went to the sink and ran some water over a small towel. “You okay?” He asked as he took my hand and began to wipe it with a damp towel. It felt cool on my skin, and I relax a bit. “Yeah. I’m fine. You should see the other guy.”
He gave out a small chuckle. “I know that was meant to be a joke, but seeing that it’s tie-me-up-Thursday with Creepy Charlie, I will let that pass.”
He laughed, that sonorous laugh that made me fall for him all those years ago. Before all of this, before the medicines, before the hospital visits that left him drained and unable to speak for days.
He popped open a small bottle of mercurochrome and soaked a cotton ball. He started to dab it over the area where the skin split on the knuckle of my index and middle finger. The dark amber liquid seeped into my skin, and turned the top of my pale hand a brilliant shade of orange.
“Jealous? No.” He dressed my hand, gently turning it over to anchor the adhesive tape between my fingers. “I just worry about you. All the time.”
He turns over my hand and held it in his. I feel the warmth of his palms on mine. He leans down and gives the back of my hand a soft kiss. I feel the warmth of his breath on the back of my hand, and it crept up my arm. I close my eyes. At that moment, all the questions melt away. Why I do the things I do has always been clear. What I can and cannot betray or abandon has always been the same.
I open my eyes and I see him there.
He still held my hand. In hands that will always be warm, hands that will always be there. He smiles, as I myself find smiling in turn.
“There. Good as new.”
And I was.
Edges perfectly aligned
What do you do to recover from a failed relationship? For some, it’s by finding another lover; for others, by first forgiving oneself; and still for others, a combination of both… and perhaps doing even more. In all instances, though – as Ryan Robert Gutierrez Flores writes – there’s that desire to be “touched” again…
The rain started to come down hard and heavy outside. Big, fat drops started to form rivulets that cascaded down my windowpane. I flipped the light switch on the lamp on my desk. I need to finish this, I think to myself, things may be so royally screwed up in my life, but at least there’s work. It’ll never be finished, it will never leave you, there’s always work.
I’ve been staring at the same blueprint on the screen of my computer for the past four hours. The coffee that sat on my desk for the same amount of time has all but congealed, leaving a ring halfway up the insides of my mug. I take off my glasses and set them down. I picked up the coffee cup and place it in the sink. I see that the coffee pot is empty.
I open the fridge and take out the coffee can and begin to make a fresh batch.
I need to finish this.
I return to my desk and pick up my phone and check my messages. Apart from the usual follow-ups, and odd spam message, there’s nothing much to see. I open up a dating app on my phone and begin absentmindedly browsing the men that populated the feed. The usual parade of toned, muscular, and half-naked bodies with the same dead eyes flew by under my fingertips.
I see a familiar face. Gunter. His dark eyes, bright with mischief, stares back at me behind glass.
I need to finish this.
I dial his number.
“I was wondering when I was going to hear back from you.” He removes his coat and hangs it on the rack next to my apartment door. “How’s your partner.”
“Well, ex-partner.” I say as I led him to the living room. I clear away the rolls of paper that littered the couch and the coffee table. “We broke up last fall.” I go into the kitchen and come back with a cup of fresh coffee and I set it down in front of him.
He sits and takes the cup in his hand. “I’m sorry to hear that. How are you holding up?”
I gestured around at the mess of papers and blueprints that surrounded us “My new calling in life is to be a heartless workaholic.”
He laughs. His pearlescent teeth remind me of pure Carrara marble. The joke isn’t even that funny, I know. But it was nice to hear someone else’s voice in this void of an apartment.
I sit across him. “How have you been?”
He stretches his arms: his dark, lumpy cardigan sweater clung to him like an oil slick. “I’ve been doing well. Out of town engagements are usually slow during this time of year, so I welcome staying in the city for a bit.” He looks around. “What happened with Mike? I like him.”
“Well, it’s a long story full of sighs.” I took a sip of my coffee.
“I have nowhere to be.”
I look down at my cup. “He is in love with someone else. He just doesn’t have the words to say it. I figured the only way for him to own up to his feelings is for me to remove myself from the equation. Besides, it wasn’t really meant to last.” I set the cup down on the table. “So I broke it off. He didn’t take it well, but I figured that it’s for the best.”
“It’s not that long a story after all.” He sets his cup down in front of him. “And not too many sighs, it would seem.” I shoot him a smirk. “You did what you had to do. Nothing more.”
“That’s the issue. It did mean more to me, at least at first. After a while you start to lose things. Parts of yourself; they’re like joints of wood that come apart. They become unglued and drift away until there’s nothing left. Your entire self chipped away by small, daily indignities.”
He stares at me with those dark eyes.
“It meant more to me.”
He smiled, “I know it did. I didn’t say it didn’t.”
I stood up and took his empty coffee cup. I went over to the kitchen and place it in the sink. I come back and see him standing, looking at the photos on the wall. “You were adorable as a child.”
I blush a little, and I tugged open a drawer next to the couch. I took out the box of weed I keep for particularly stressful days and begin to roll out a joint. “I was a terrible child.” He looked at me and I held up the joint for him to take.
He lit it, and took a deep hit, the smoke curled around his beard like a thick fog.
“Ever the disappointing one.” I took a hit and feel the warmth rise from my chest. “Even after getting into RISD, I was a disappointment since RISD wasn’t Cornell.” My father couldn’t even be bothered to attend my graduation, I thought to myself.
“This your dad?” He points to one of the photos on the wall as he took another hit on the joint. “I see the resemblance. He’s hot.”
“Yeah? Well, he’s not exactly straight. He doesn’t think I know, but I know that his associate partners at his firm weren’t exactly hired for their intellectual qualifications. So if you want him, I say go for it. You’re just his type.” I take out my phone and look at him on top of my glasses. “I can give you his number.”
“Well that’s too bad since he’s not.” He sits, cross-legged, between my legs and hands me the joint. I feel his hands slowly and tantalizingly go up my legs and go past my knees, his fingertips barely grazing my skin as they move and rest on my thighs. “I prefer to have them younger.”
“Of course you do.” I take a hit. “Not too young though, I hope? You won’t last three minutes in jail.”
“Well, let’s see.” I feel his fingers through the soft fabric of my underwear. He traces the outline of my cock with his fingertip. I let in a gasp as he takes a hit: his fingertip feels electric and it springs to life, twitching against the soft pad of his finger. “Response time is satisfactory. I’d say you’re just the right age.” I take a hit, “I like your method, kid.”
He stood up, towering over me. Those eyes narrowed into little slits. He reaches down and plucks the joint from my fingers. He takes a hit. Smoke begins to fill the room and my head begins to shift ever so slightly. “That’s enough from you. My turn…” He purred. My eyelids began to droop. He pulls off his sweater up over his head. I catch a whiff of his scent. It hits me like a ton of bricks. I reach up to touch him. Any part of him.
“Put that goddamn hand back where it was.” He growled. His bulk casts a long shadow over me; I can see the tattoo that adorned his shoulder and rips across his broad chest, obscured by the light, in shades of gray and blue. I see his chest flex as he undid his belt and let his pants fall on the floor with a dull rustle.
I look up at him. I can’t see his face, but he stood there, looking down at me. He stood there his head cocked to one side for a while. I close my eyes. And I take a deep breath. I feel him come back down, and the soft bristle of his beard makes contact with my chest. I feel him breathe, long, deliberate breaths, taking in my scent. He makes quiet, low guttural noises from his throat. I feel his strong hands reach around my back and he lifts me straight out of the armchair. I feel those powerful muscles against my body, as hard as tensile steel, as he carried me to the bedroom.
He lays me down gently on the bed, and propped himself on top of me with those thick arms covered with the swirling patterns of his fine, dark fur. I open my eyes and I see him staring at me straight down. His face, with the rugged, square features, softened in the dim light of my room. He leans in and kisses me softly.
I feel the heat coming off of him. His fingers like lit tapers on my skin. The colors of the walls began to thrum as I felt myself stiffen even more in my boxer briefs because of his expert attention. I lose sight of his hands for a moment and I feel soft tendrils move up my stomach, under my shirt. I open my eyes as I take yet another hit, and another, and another until nothing remained but those dark eyes staring intently at me.
I open my eyes. I must have dozed off.
The first thing I notice is the silence. The rain must have stopped at one point. I see the moon rising high in a perfectly clear night sky outside the window, and the long shadows it cast across the floor, over our clothes and the carnage of our clumsy way to the bed.
His arm was around me. His eyes still closed. His breathing heavy.
I look at him, his face bathed in moonlight. The beautiful way his beard was so thick and soft, and always smelled faintly of the cigarettes he swears he never smokes.
My bedside alarm clock reads 2:24am. He spent the night? That was nice. He never had before. I don’t mind. I welcome not being alone tonight. I closed my eyes and tried to fall back asleep. I turn around to face away from him.
“No.” I softly whispered. “I am glad you’re here.”
He pulls me close. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
I rolled around to face him again. I buried my face in his furry chest. I can smell the faint traces of his cologne, and the pleasant stickiness of his sweat. It was a heady scent I breathe in deeply.
“Why?” he asked as he gently ran his fingers up and down my back, raising goosebumps as they traced the outline of my spine.
“For being here. For listening, I suppose.”
I feel his fingers under my chin and he lifts my face up to his. He kisses me deeply, urgently, desperately. The kind of kiss that makes your toes curl.
I need to finish this.
The kiss ends, my lips still tingling as he pulled away. I keep my eyes closed.
No. Not yet. Please.
I know he had to go. But I desperately cling to him, my hands refused to let go of him. I feel his cheek rest against my forehead, his beard, soft against my face.
“Don’t be so sad, Gabe. I hate to see you like this all the time.” He smoothed out my hair, his touch soothing. “You did what you had to do. Mike will be fine. You don’t have to carry this around with you.”
I couldn’t help it. In my silence I feel the sky open up and the rain started to pour again. Big, fat drops that fell one after the other, stream down my face. It rained so hard, my face still buried in the soft thicket of his chest.
“You have to forgive yourself sometime.”
He gives me a soft kiss on my cheek as my sobbing ebbed. His lips on my face was warm like the sun. He pulls away and I feel his weight leave the bed as I settled back into my pillow. My eyes still closed, I hear him come back from the bathroom and the soft jingle of his belt as he dressed. I feel his hand settle on mine, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.
In the relative darkness of my room, I hear the sound of the world outside; the sound of the city that never sleeps. I listened to the distant sound of a dog barking, the even more distant sound of a police siren.
From where I lay, I could see the faint glimmer of the light from the streetlamp as it passed through the edges of my curtains. I look over to my nightstand and I reach over to switch on the lamp. A seeing what was there makes me feel it: A sensation I haven’t felt for weeks. I felt the corners of my lips curl up into a smile. I settle back down into bed and I allow myself a moment to laugh.
I let it escape; gales of relieved laughter that made me feel lighter than air. I take another look at the nightstand.
There it was, the same bunch of dollar bills that I left out for him, untouched. Still neatly folded together, their edges perfectly aligned, with Benjamin Franklin’s tight-lipped face staring right at me.
Come Up For Air
Ryan Robert Flores eloquently writes about what it’s like to love, and then lose that love; and then wallow in the pain that comes and lingers afterwards, even as others are starting to ignite the loving again…
“Knock, knock! Michael, are you decent?”
“As decent as I’ll ever be, asshole.”
I push those heavy doors with my shoulder as I balanced a cake and a bunch of flowers. “Surprise, Motherfuck-“ he wasn’t alone in the room after all. Standing by the bed was Michael’s mother, Polly, and a bunch of other people and little children I didn’t know.
“James, you’ve met my mother. Guys, this is James, my roommate. James, this is everybody.”
“Hey everybody. Don’t mind me; I’ll just put this in the fridge, and these in some water. Michael, the rest of the gang is on the way, I’ll wait for them downstairs at Starbucks.” I went about arranging the flowers as quietly as possible.
“Uncle Mike, does it hurt?”
“No. It doesn’t hurt. The doctor was great. I don’t feel a thing.”
“I’m glad. Will you come over for Thanksgiving next week? Sandy said you won’t be able to make it.”
“I did not! I just said Uncle Mike might not make it because he needs to rest. Right mom?”
“Don’t worry kids, I’ll be there. Save my seat.”
Polly went over to where I
was arranging the flowers. “So James, I hear you’ve broken up again with your
Goddammit Michael. I smile, “Yeah. It didn’t work out. He needed to move out west. It’s just as well. If I went with him, I wouldn’t have been there in the apartment when Michael had the heart attack.”
“That’s true. Thank you for taking care of him James. The family really appreciates it.” She picks up some stray leaves that fell on the table and throws them away in the small trash bin in the corner. “I told Michael to stay with us uptown, but he insists on staying at your place with Gabe. Speaking of which, where is Gabe?”
“He’s probably at work. The flowers are from him.” I lied.
“I would’ve thought he’d be here.” She said pointedly.
“Well, he’s been very busy lately. Honestly, ever since they started developing that parcel down at West 23rd Street, even I hardly see him.”
She shrugs and takes the vase and brings it over to Michael’s bedside. “Come children, your uncle needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow. Say goodbye and get your coats.” Polly comes over and gives me a hug, and out the door they went, in single file.
I turn to Michael. He was looking at me sheepishly. “You told your mother about my breakup? Why?”
“I was not aware that it was classified information, buddy.”
I sat by the edge of the hospital bed. “I mean it wasn’t classified, but I would’ve thought it was something that you could, I don’t know, keep to yourself?”
“You still miss him, don’t you?”
“Of course… Of course I do.”
He looked at his toes peeking out from under the blanket. “You know there’s still time, right? Why don’t you call him?”
“After what was said? I don’t think so.” I felt his hand on mine. “Look, buddy, at least you can try to see if you can take it back. He’s a good guy, if not slightly flaky. You two were great together.”
“Oh he was a good guy, alright, but I don’t know. I felt a little relief when he left. That can’t be normal for great relationships, right?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
I take my phone out. No messages.
“Enough about me, silly. Where’s Gabe?”
He shrugged his shoulders again. “I don’t know. He’s at work, I think.” He tried to lift his arm, reaching across his chest to scratch his shoulder, but he winces in discomfort: the tubes get in the way. I reach over and scratch his shoulder through the fabric of his hospital gown. I feel a low rumble from his throat as he closed his eyes. He takes a deep breath and I feel the rough brush of his beard against the back of my hand.
I just sit there, scratching his shoulder, until I hear his breathing slow down. I sit there, staring at my phone. I look over at Michael, now fast asleep. I stand up and quietly slip out of the room.
“Good Lord, what the fuck did they feed you at the hospital?”
“Fuck you, buddy, shut it and keep pushing.”
My knuckles are already turning white at the effort of pushing Michael’s wheelchair up the steep ramp of our apartment building. After much grunting and possibly a couple of burst blood vessels, we finally get into the lobby. “Goddammit dude, you are fucking heavy!” He laughs, “More of me to love, buddy. More of me to love!”
I smirked at him. “Great. Tell me, have you gotten that out of your system, big boy? Remind me again why I’m doing this, when you have a perfectly healthy boyfriend running around the city?”
“Because you love me. Don’t deny it.”
I snort in reply as the elevator doors opened and I wheeled him in. “Besides, Gabe is busy.” I give out a melodramatic sigh. “He always is.” The elevator stops on our floor, and I wheel him out to the hall. My phone rings and I stop abruptly.
“Easy does it! Hey!”
“Sorry, sorry. Wait let me take this.”
“Can we at least get inside first?”
“Shhhh… Come on dude, this is a boy.” He snorts and starts fiddling with his phone.
I push the talk button, and bring it up to my ear. “Hey. What’s up?”
“So I was thinking, maybe we can try out this new place I found in Chinatown? I heard you say that you felt like having crab, and this is apparently one of the best places in the city.” I felt a smile creep across my face at the prospect of a date. “Oh yeah, Yes I did… I mean, I’d like to try it out.”
“Great. What time are you free later? I can drop by to pick you up, or would you prefer to meet there?”
I look at Michael and he’s still busy with what seems to be a particularly intense round of Candy Crush.
“I think I’m good by seven o’clock? I just need to have my roommate settled and I can be on my way. Just send me the address and I’ll meet you there.”
“Alright, I’ll text you the address and I’ll see you later.” I put the phone back in my pocket, and I start pushing Michael’s wheelchair towards the end of the hall. He puts his phone away as well. “So… Is that a date?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, nosey, but yes.” I open the door and push him into our small living room. “We’re going out later.”
“I heard. Which dirty dating app did you use to meet this one?”
I feign shock. “Wow. What did I do to deserve this much judgment?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You haven’t exactly been hunting in the better side of the woods lately.” I help him get up from the chair, and we start moving towards his bedroom, his arm around my shoulders. “I hope he at least has a job?”
“Oh, listen to you, mister. Seriously? But if you really must know, yes, he has a job.” He sits on the side of the bed with a grunt as I take off his UCLA t-shirt, and help him put on a fresh one. He lies back as I take off his pants and shoes and lift his legs unto the bed. I open up his bag and dump his medicines unto the bed. I took a small basket from the dresser and sat down beside him and start sifting through the half dozen or so plastic pill bottles. “He’s a professor.”
“Oh, is that your new thing? Reliving a sordid teacher-student role-play fantasy of yours?” He stretches his arms and begins to absentmindedly toy with one of the bottles of meds on the bed.
“Of course not.” I admit it wasn’t too convincing. It was, indeed, my thing.
“Bullshit, buddy. I know how extra credit turns you on. What does he teach?”
“Economics, I think.” I grab the bottle from him and put it inside the basket. “Now, I know you had a heart attack, and not a stroke, so I trust you would know which medicines to take and when. They’re all here and I’ve refilled your water bottle. You have some crackers to tide you over, at least until Gabe comes home. The remote is right here between your pillows should you want to watch TV. Do not get out of bed, except if you need to go to the bathroom.” He nods, “And you need to get ready for your date?”
“Yeah.” I stand up and pull on the blanket to tuck him in. “You have to rest.”
“Yes, Mother.” He closes his eyes and turns to his side. I remember him tell a joke that only sociopaths sleep on their backs, and I smile. I wonder if there’s any truth to that. I turn off most of the lights in his room, and I gently close the door behind me.
I woke up with the sun in my eyes. I felt around the top of my bedside table for my phone and checked the time. It was almost 11 in the morning. I slowly get up, slipped on some boxer shorts and went out, letting out a huge yawn in the process, and close the door of my room behind me.
Michael. Crap. I wonder if he had breakfast already. I make my way to his room, and open the door.
He was lying in his bed, his face covered by his CPAP machine. The tube snaked its way to his bedside table littered with Oreo wrappers. Gabe was nowhere in sight. I walked up to him and sat by the edge of his bed. I carefully place my hand on his arm and gently shook him awake.
“Hey you, wake up. Do you want some breakfast?”
He opened his eyes, and took off his mask. “No.” His voice was still hoarse. “No, I’m fine.” He turned and lay on his back. “How was your date? Did you get an A?”
I smiled at him. “Silly bear.” I pushed a couple of strands of his hair away from his eyes and smoothed it out. “It went well. The restaurant was good. I didn’t care much for the crab, but the rest was actually quite yummy.”
He closed his eyes again. “Do you want to rest some more? I was just about to make something for myself, and I was wondering if you were hungry.”
“He spent the night?” His eyes still closed.
“Yeah. Well, I mean, after dinner, we got some ice cream and headed here. But he left a couple hours after.” I noticed that the sheets on the bed were undisturbed on the other side. Gabe’s side. I look at Michael. “Gabe didn’t?”
He opened his eyes and smiled a sad smile.
“No.” he sighed. “No he didn’t.”
I moved to sit beside him, and cradle his head to my chest. “I’m so sorry.” He cried, quietly, I could feel his tears, hot against my skin. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, don’t cry. Michael don’t cry.” I whispered in his ear. He just sobbed, silently. I feel his strong arms around me shake as he tried to contain his sobs in vain.
I ran my fingers through the tufts of his hair. I slowly rocked him to the slow rhythm of my breathing. His sobs became fewer and further between. I felt his grip on me loosen. “I’m sorry.” I shushed him then and pressed him even closer. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.” I say. “Everything’s going to be okay. Stress is bad for you. Just try to be calm and take deep breaths. I’m here.”
“Are you really?” He whispered.
“Of course! I’m right here and I won’t go away.”
“Good.” He closes his eyes again and takes a deep breath. “I’m glad.”
“What happened?” I ask him softly. “Can’t it be fixed?”
He pulls himself away from my embrace. “No. I don’t think so.” I pull out a couple of tissues and gently dry his tears. “That’s ridiculous, Michael. You guys have been married for years!” He sighs, his eyes downcast. “It can’t be fixed.”
His eyes lock into mine. “It can’t be fixed because I don’t want to fix it.” His eyes, those clear pools of the bluest blue you can imagine, staring into mine.
“Okay.” I understand. “I’m just here.”
I held him in my arms for what seemed like years. As if we were frozen in time. As if we were drowning in each other, and I never want to come up for air.
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