The day Lin Mee blew up her house, with husband Wei inside, she made sure their daughter, Ming, was at a sleepover. And that was the very day Ming, 15, decided to “go all the way” with her boyfriend, forever conflating her transgressive act of lying atop him in his small attic room, pumping away with all her might, with the death of her father, and presumably, her mother.
Since she was far from being a chemist, Lin’s mixture was a bit unstable and she found herself flung far and wide into the wood which ran behind their house. Broken, burnt and bruised over whole sections of her body, her windpipe scarred, she could only crawl about like a wounded toddler, uttering nonsense syllables. All sense had been knocked out of her by the blast.
Though Lin’s body was never recovered (not even a shrunken-head type corpse like her father’s), Ming was sure Ma was gone. She felt she needed to be punished so when she was shuttled off to the People’s Rest Home for War-torn Victims and Others, she resolved never to see her boyfriend again—especially since he showed no intention of curbing his wildcat ways, not while there were still virgins in the town to be had.
And that’s how all was lost for the Mee family one spring evening in June.
Or was it?
One Year Later
Ming, on Wednesday market day, inevitably found herself facing The Veil. Even if Ming had gone shopping for thread, she would be drawn to the little stall in the furthest back corner. The Veil stood rearranging the apples and pears and peaches and plums, hiding their imperfections from view, trying to deceive the customers into thinking they were buying perfection straight from the Garden of Eden. (Of course no one was fooled.) Ming patiently picked up each piece of fruit to reveal the bruise, the wormhole, the flaked-off skin.
“No touching, Miss,” the Veil softly admonished her, in her peculiar rasp of a voice, casting a backwards glance towards the depths of the stall.
Finally, one day Ming confronted her. “Why do you look back there? No one’s here but you.”
“Oh— just a nervous habit. You’re right. Go ahead.”
Unaccustomed to being rewarded for her insolence, Ming hesitated but then settled on a deep purple plum and held it up.
The Veil shuffled her feet, glanced around again, then whispered, “Just take it.”
“On the level? You’re not going to start yelling ‘thief’ or anything?
Ming did a double take, but her friend was waiting so she grabbed her prize somewhat guiltily, and ran. They had limited time for this outing; they were due back at the Home for lunch in 10 minutes and it was a 15-minute walk at best. They’d have to run all the way.
“Why do you always go to that creepy old lady in the back?” asked her friend.
“I guess. . .I don’t know.”
“There’s something about her. She’s so mysterious. I want to ask her things.”
“No one goes there much—you’re weird. Hey, we gotta run for it!”
Ming put the plum in her jacket pocket and they scampered off up the hill like two young goats.
The Police Commissioner stepped out of the shadows then and made his way back to the station.
Lin took off the veil when she reached her home, a beaten down shack on the edge of town that she shared with Huan. He had taken her in when he found her bleeding and dazed in the wood. Something told him he shouldn’t bring her to a hospital. With one year of dental school behind him, he had enough skill to treat her wounds and prevent infection. While doing this, he noted old fractures, bruises, burns and scars here and there on her body. He was not really surprised. In a small town like theirs, everyone knew what a brute Wei had been, often slapping Lin in public to shame her. And she, so tall and slender as a wisp of air. Huan bathed her, he rubbed oils into her once porcelain skin, combed out her thick black hair and so he came to love her.
Huan had more schooling than most in the village and was therefore somewhat suspect. He’d run out of money for school and turned to farming a small lot behind the shack. He had just enough to get by, but when Lin arrived last year, he realized he needed more to feed two mouths. He let it be known that he would pull teeth, and with Lin selling fruit in the marketplace these last few months, they managed to survive.
“I saw her again, today,” Lin mentioned as they sat down for their late lunch.
“She’s so pretty and bursting with energy. And so sassy!” Lin laughed.
Huan wondered—as he always did—if he should tell her.
“Lin, you still remember nothing? Where you come from? How you got burned?”
“You know, Huan, that I don’t!” She traced the scar that ran from her forehead across the bridge of her nose to her right cheek. “Why are you always asking me that???”
“Sorry,” he said, getting up to clear the table.
“And no one’s come looking for me. So—‘Here is all that matters.’ Right? That’s what you always say.”
She took a moment to admire Huan who was tall and rangy, splintered in spots like a much-used chopstick, but dressed neatly in a loose white smock and faded grey pants. He wore the red bandanna she had made him to keep his hair out of his face. She came up beside him at the sink, resting her head against his strong shoulder. He kissed her gently on the cheek.
He hoped no one was looking for her, but he couldn’t be sure.
It was Huan’s idea that she wear the veil—to let the burned skin heal, he told her. He heard through the grapevine that the fire had been deemed “not accidental.” Better for everyone if the townspeople and that pesky Police Commissioner thought she’d perished too. With the world becoming more diverse—even their small mountain village—people would assume The Veil had a religious reason to cover up and they’d be too polite to ask. Or so he had hoped. So far his luck was still holding, but for how long?
Huan was not the only one to worry about the young girl’s pull. Lin, when she was half dozing at her knitting, would at times feel the lid of her memory box creak open. Cloudy turbulent emotions swirled around inside the box in a veritable dust storm. Images of people she’d never seen: a thick-necked stomping man whose sight blew sand in her eyes, someone coming up behind her and choking her, but also at times a cooing fat baby, holding out her arms so she could be lifted out of the bath. This baby terrified her; this baby made her smile and yearn to hold her in her arms. Lin was no fool. She slammed shut the lid and locked it tight. Here is all that matters, she repeated to herself. Am I not happy?
The next day Huan heard that the Commissioner was looking for him. He thought of packing Lin up and moving with their few possessions to some distant city across the mountains. Before he had time to think it through, the Commissioner showed up at his door, neatly attired but with a few noticeable food stains on his shirt front. Since his wife ran off with the baker a few months before, the Commissioner had been sore pressed to keep up his usual sartorial standards.
“I need to have my molar pulled. It’s killing me. You will do it!”
Huan knew the Commissioner prized order and ceremony above all else. His wife’s shameful desertion, his only son fancying himself a teenage James Dean, strutting through the town, an embodiment of smoldering sexuality, rumors he had gotten at least two schoolgirls pregnant, this unsolved case of arson—the Commish was on a mission to straighten things out.
Huan’s chin trembled as he ushered the Commissioner into their shack, “Sit down, Commissioner. Would you like some tea?”
As Huan busied himself with the tea things, he searched frantically for a way out for himself and especially Lin. Surely the Commissioner knew he wasn’t a full-fledged dentist; surely the Commissioner had enough money to get first-rate care for himself?
Sure enough, as they sipped their jasmine tea, the talk turned to the biggest mystery the town had ever known.
“We have a lead on the arsonist. That Mee woman.”
“Wasn’t she killed in the accident, Commissioner?” Huan asked hoarsely.
“Maybe. That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Hmmm.” The Commissioner would say no more, then, “The Veil leaves here, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she’s not very well, you see, I sent her out to get some fresh air, which is beneficial to. . .”
“Never mind that. Next Wednesday I come back. Make sure she’s here.”
“Oh, she’ll only get in the way. . .”
“No. I’d like a woman around for this.”
The Commissioner left and Huan knew he had no choice.
Ming had her own memory box, sealed tight, but she knew the contents by heart: Terror of her father, hulking nearby, never touching her but always knocking her mother about; her mother, frail and delicate, smelling sweetly of spices; her mother who she hated for her incompetence; her mother who could never do anything right to please her husband! She had planned on running away for good, with her boyfriend, but her mother had ruined everything!
At the bottom of the memory box were other snapshots: her mother singing a lullaby, braiding her hair, rubbing oils into her skin, tickling her ears by whispering funny stories in them. These were old dusty memories she didn’t look at often. And there was one corner of the box she could not even glance at, a memory she had tried to erase. . .
Wednesday came around quickly. Lin left for the market, promising to be back by the time the Commissioner arrived, to serve as his nurse. As she was setting up the stall, Ming came by.
“You’re early today.”
“Yes. The teacher is sick today so they let us out for the afternoon.”
Lin’s face lit up. “How very pleasing!”
Ming let the syllables wash over her. There was something chillingly familiar about the words. She looked at the woman’s hands—they were always sheathed in white gloves.
“Come home with me? I live right around the bend. Please. I’ll make you some lunch,” pleaded the veiled woman.
Ming felt dizzy. Her eyes kept painting another’s face under the veil. She wanted to see that face more than she wanted anything else, even if it was the face of a murderess. She said, yes.
2 p.m. and the Commissioner was in the chair.
“Where is that woman?”
“Why don’t we just get started, Sir? She’ll be here any moment.”
The Commissioner begrudgingly agreed as he was in a lot of pain. Just then, the Veil came in, the schoolgirl trailing behind.
Huan paled and dropped his instruments on the floor.
Lin was chirping happily about this thing and that, oblivious of the dangers. She took off her veil and faced her audience.
Huan hoped the scars and the damaged voice would safeguard her. Truth was, Ming wasn’t sure who she was looking at. But the Commissioner had a pretty good hunch.
Lin moved around the small room, fixing the plates with rice and little bits of stir fried pork. She happened to look over at Ming and something in Ming’s posture made her think again of that fat gurgling baby wanting to be picked up. She couldn’t help herself. She went over to Ming and put her arms around her neck. She kissed her cheek. Tears were coming down Lin’s face, wetting her apron.
Ming’s first impulse was to push her away; she tried. But Lin did not seem to notice. And Ming suddenly breathed in the smell of this woman, the air redolent with the scent of cloves, ginger and cinnamon. She breathed deeply and held on. Tears started to spring out of her eyes too.
Huan was holding his breath. The resemblance between the woman and the girl was astounding. Surely the Commissioner. . .
The Commissioner was looking at Ming now. White-faced, he started to pace the small shack. His reputation! Things were slipping out of his control. He was known for tracking down miscreants and for removing them. The party bosses had counted on him until recently when he’d had to call in favors.
These problems—this unsolved house burning that killed Wei Mee and his wife. Why was her body never found? They’d found just bones which turned out to be from the thigh bone of a yak – was this some kind of joke?
The Veil – she’d appeared recently – from where? He needed to check it out, take action, show the party he was still in the game.
The Commissioner coughed into his hand to get their attention. To Ming, he said, “Who is this woman you’re with?”
Ming shook her head. “How should I know? I met her in the market today and she asked if she could make me lunch.” She looked at Huan who gave her a small nod.
To Lin, he said, “Why are you crying?”
Lin said, “This pretty girl doesn’t mind that I am not good to look at. She is not afraid. I was so worried about that. She forgives me my scars. Right, Ming?”
“Hey,” said Ming, wiping the tears on her sleeves, I thought someone said something about lunch. I’m a growing girl!”
Glad of the distraction, The Commissioner sat down to eat. He pulled down the brim of his hat instinctively and kept his eyes on Ming. Wasn’t she the Mee girl he’d placed in the Home? Her cover story was that she’d spent the night with her friend. Not quite! The baby came along three months ago. He’d spirited her away to his cousin, one commune over. He sensed he might be in a lot of trouble. If he could only make it six more months, he could retire. But if the bosses found out—
They ate in silence; Huan pulled the tooth (no charge).
The Commissioner would not leave. He just sat there, staring at the women in turn, drinking enough tea to float an armada.
Ming squinted up at him, in a menacing way. She’s realized her advantage, he thought, in a way she hadn’t three months before. He read her message.
So he decided, Here is the only thing that matters. They could all keep their memory boxes sealed shut for the moment.
In the months following, the Commissioner started visiting at unannounced times, always bringing generous portions of “leftover” food. Huan even gained a little weight. Ming was spending almost every lunch time with Huan and Lin Mee. She would pick Lin up at the market and walk back home with her. Lin was teaching her how to cook, even sew, which Ming had always hated, and Huan showed her how to strum chords on his guitar. The house smelled of cinnamon and other spices and he witnessed lots of kissing, hugging, stroking and singing.
Finally, the Commissioner saw a way to arrange things just so. Huan and Lin added a room onto their shack and Ming moved in. Her friend visited often. Lin Mee removed her face covering.
The townspeople gawked a bit but asked no questions.
Then one day the Commissioner brought the baby and the baby never left again. She called Lin, “Grandma,” which Lin loved.
The Commissioner managed to retire with all his honor intact and the first thing he did was to pack his wayward son off to the capital to do his damage there. “Good riddance to you,” he said as he shoved him onto the train.
Things were orderly again and neat and better than before.
“Case closed,” ruled the Commissioner, as he played with the baby.
Do you know that Lin Mee never burnt down another house and never knew she had in the first place? She was forever happy living in the Here, caressing this strange girl and her baby, while singing lullabies of faraway times.
When Michael finds it impossible to think about anything else, he knows it’s time to visit John, his doctor and old friend from college. The itching is starting to interfere with his life. Lately, he goes to bed itching, wakes up itching, and several times during the last week he’s had to excuse himself from meetings at his law office so he could go scratch.
“It’s some sort of rash,” Michael tells the receptionist at John’s office when he finally calls to schedule an appointment.
“Where exactly is the rash?” she asks. “I need to note it on your chart for the doctor.” Just then, Stephen appears in the kitchen doorway waving a flyer about wood flooring that he’s just picked up at a building supply store for Michael to look at.
After dating for three years, Michael and Stephen are finally going to live together. That’s what all their friends said when they broke the news: “Finally!” and “It’s about time you two got married,” even though at this time, for two men, marriage isn’t something that’s going to happen. No matter. They’re a couple, and that’s what couples do; move in together. Or in their case, more specifically, Stephen is moving into Michael’s house, the house Michael shared with Kevin before he died.
But before that happens, they’re adding some extra space for Stephen, a room with plenty of light, with hardwood floors to match the rest of the house. Stephen, an architect, wants to use it as a home office. He spends most of his time at Michael’s anyway. But before they make it official by moving the last of Stephen’s clothes, books, and furniture that will “work” in Michael’s house, Stephen wants to have the room completed. “So I know right away there’s something that’s just mine, that I can put my mark on.”
Michael readily agreed, letting Stephen work out the specifics.
One of the specifics is picking out the floor, something Michael would just as soon leave to Stephen, just as he’s left everything else about the room to him. But Michael’s input is important, Stephen insists. The room has to look like it was always part of the house: seamless.
“Just like I want to be,” Stephen said, intending it to be a joke. But Michael knew it was important to him.
For now, though, it’s the itching and not the floor that consumes Michael. He thought he had a good half hour to make the call, get off the phone, and start dinner before Stephen came back. But he’d wasted the first twenty minutes dialing the phone, then hanging up, telling himself that the whole thing would probably clear up on its own anyway. Why go through the hassle of taking time off from work and the $10 co-payment for nothing? But he couldn’t go on like he had been, trying to get in a few good scratches when no one, especially Stephen, was looking.
“Where is it?” Michael repeats, trying to buy time, hoping Stephen will assume it’s a work-related call and go find something else to do. But instead, he puts the flyer in front of him and waits by the kitchen table, his arms folded.
“We have to decide soon,” Stephen whispers.
“The rash. The one you want to see the doctor about?” the receptionist says. Michael can tell she’s getting impatient.
“Um, it’s . . . sort of all over.” He picks up the flyer and nods at Stephen.
“All over. I’ve noted that. We’ll see you tomorrow at 11. Okay?”
“Thank you.” Michael hangs up the phone.
“What was that all about?” Stephen asks.
“Just . . . a contract thing that needs to be cleared up. It’s—I mean the contract—it’s a mess all over.”
Stephen shakes his head and smiles. “You lawyers. Getting all worked up over a bunch of gobbledygook.”
“I know.” Michael says. He crosses his legs, trying to create some friction. Anything that will make the itching go away.
The next morning at the doctor’s office, Michael sits on the edge of the examination table in a paper gown with nothing on underneath. He glances at his watch. John is running 15 minutes behind schedule. Finally, Michael hears a single rap on the door and John breezes in, bringing cold air with him. Michael clenches his legs together to keep it out.
“Good to see you, Mike.” Michael and John shake hands. “How’s the law business treating you?”
“Not bad. Busy, I guess.”
“Keeps you out of trouble, at least. Now what’s this about a rash all over?”
“Actually, it’s more . . . localized than that.” Michael swallows. “It’s on my—”
“That’s strange. It doesn’t say that here.”
“Well, when I called to get the appointment I really couldn’t—”
“Say no more. I get the picture. You probably had your secretary breathing down your neck right when you were talking about it. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?”
Michael swallows again, this time harder, and nods.
John snaps on a pair of rubber gloves. “Why don’t you hop down here and we’ll have a look.”
Michael lowers himself off the table and pulls the gown up to his waist. “I’ve tried everything for it, different creams and stuff, but nothing seems to work. The itching is making me crazy.” He stares straight ahead as John lightly touches and then turns him. For some reason, he finds himself thinking about the first time he saw John in the shower during college, even though he had never thought about him in a sexual way before. He tries not to picture it and instead tries to concentrate on something neutral, like his schedule of appointments for the afternoon, and what to make for dinner.
Finally, John takes his hands away and tells Michael he can relax. “It doesn’t look fungal to me, though I can tell you’ve been scratching the daylights out of it.”
“A jock itch. That’s usually what these types of things turn out to be, but not here. You’ve got a little bit of swelling.”
Michael feels something move in his stomach. A swelling. A growth. Prostate cancer, he thinks, or maybe testicular cancer. There’d be radiation, and then chemotherapy, just like his mother had. Maybe it was genetic. And maybe I’m sterile now, even though he had to admit that the odds of him ever fathering a child were slim to begin with. I should have had more checkups. Maybe there was nothing he could have done, things would have run their course anyway.
“You look a little pale,” John says. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“You said I had a growth.”
“A little bit of swelling, not a growth. From all the scratching. That’s all.”
Michael sits down on the chair next to the sink. “So what do I have?”
“Well, it looks to me like you’ve got your garden variety genital warts.”
“Warts?” Michael thinks of something big and ugly on the end of a witch’s nose. “They don’t look like warts to me.”
“I know they don’t. But they’re warts all right.”
“How did I get them?”
“They’re sexually transmitted. They’re pretty common, unfortunately. They usually don’t itch, but sometimes they do. They’re fairly easy to treat, but since it’s viral, they can sometimes come back.”
For a moment Michael almost wishes it was cancer. At least that would be easier to explain. “But how . . .”
“I just told you. You really need to tell whoever you’ve been with just in case, so they can get checked out.”
“Stephen,” Michael says softly.
“The guy you’ve been dating for a while now? The one I saw you at the concert with, the architect? He had some pretty big plans for that house of yours. Must be nice to have your own live-in specialist—”
“No, it’s not him. And we don’t live together. It’s . . . somebody else.”
“Well, whoever it is, you really need to let them know, too. It’s not fatal or anything, but they should get treated, too, so they don’t spread it around. Okay?”
Michael thinks about Stephen, how he’ll tell him.
“I’m going to be using this solution to treat them. It’s going to sting quite a bit, I’m afraid, and you’ll probably be uncomfortable for a day or two. But I’ll give you some Tylenol with Codeine in case you need it.”
Michael stares at the floor and doesn’t say anything.
“Mike? You okay?”
Michael nods. “Let’s just get this over with.”
After Michael first began dating Stephen, the two of them had several discussions in which they each revealed their sexual histories: who’d they’d been with, for how long, what they had done. For Michael, there wasn’t much to tell. He’d come out in the “golden days” of the late seventies, before AIDS, but when he looked at the numbers he hadn’t been with that many people. Michael had never been sure why that was. He’d certainly had many opportunities; men had been interested. But at the last minute he often backed out. As he got older he often wondered if his hesitation had perhaps saved his life, though it seemed perhaps a bit overdramatic to put it in those terms.
When Michael met Kevin, who was HIV positive, he thought again about the opportunities he’d had and lost, and about what Kevin had done with his opportunities. It wasn’t a subject that Michael felt comfortable bringing up. “It just happened,” he told Michael, and there was no sense in trying to figure out who it was who gave it to him. “I can’t waste my energy thinking about him.” Still, Michael often wondered if the man was still out there and what had happened to him, even if Kevin claimed not to. Sometimes when they were together, Michael felt the man’s presence hovering over them, watching. While their precautions protected them—protected Michael—from certain things, they weren’t enough to keep him away.
By the time Stephen came along, AIDS as a topic of discussion had receded somewhat, though they both revealed their respective HIV statuses—both negative—on their first date, Stephen with a certain amount of pride. Like Michael, Stephen hadn’t done much during the seventies and eighties, and what involvements he did have, had been mostly long-term. But when their relationship became more serious, Michael, perhaps out of habit from being with Kevin, thought they should still be careful. Stephen agreed, though he said he hoped that one day perhaps they could again act like it was 1978. But only with each other, of course.
Michael met Kyle, the source of the itching, when Stephen was out of town at an architecture conference in Chicago. It certainly wasn’t planned, he told Dale afterwards, their mutual friend and witness to what happened that night. But then again, maybe it was, and Michael just didn’t know it; some things are inevitable, even if you can’t see them coming.
Michael had gotten together with Dale for a drink at Mauve, a new gay bar that had just opened up in downtown Minneapolis. Dale, who was 39, still single and looking, hoped a new place might bring out some new faces.
“And you’re about to get hitched,” Dale had joked, when he and Michael made plans over the phone. The word made Michael think of the ’60s TV shows he used to watch on Saturday nights: Hee Haw, Green Acres. “Better get out and have one last look.”
Michael laughed, but there was something about it that did feel final, like it was some sort of last chance. He wondered if this was how straight men felt, if that was why they had bachelor parties with girls in bikinis jumping out of cakes.
It had been a long time—a number of years, in fact—since Michael had gone to a gay bar. Whenever Michael suggested he and Stephen go, just for something different to do, Stephen adamantly refused. “Been there, done that,” he said, an expression Stephen used frequently that Michael had grown tired of. “But you go ahead, if you really want to. Just be sure to disinfect yourself before you come home and get into the same bed with me.” Stephen was talking about the way bars made you smell, which was something Michael had never much cared for, either. Still, what Stephen said made Michael feel unclean and sleazy for even bringing up the idea of going to a bar, regardless of whether they really went or not. And worse yet, a part of Michael felt Stephen was being a hypocrite. The bars, at one time, had been just as important to Stephen as they had been to Michael, even if he wasn’t willing to admit it.
It was a Wednesday night and, even though it was the new hot place in town, it wasn’t very busy, as some bars often were even in the middle of the week. At least that was the way Michael had remembered it. Michael and Dale sat on stools at the bar, something Michael had never done even in the bar-going days of his early twenties. Instead, he would always find a wall to hug, where he wouldn’t feel on display but could still watch and hope to be noticed. Now, sitting at the bar made Michael feel, at 40, finally grown up— like Frank Sinatra in a 1950s movie drinking a scotch and soda, even though Michael was having a Cabernet.
Kyle was sitting three stools down from them, alone, sipping an odd-looking pale blue drink that Michael assumed was some sort of martini. Michael was trying to listen to Dale—who was going on and on about whether he should buy a condo now or wait to see if interest rates came down, and how lucky Michael and Stephen were to have two incomes, “one of the many benefits of marriage,”—when he realized Kyle was looking at him. Michael remembered many times in the bars when he hoped a man was cruising him but then realized he was looking at someone next to or behind him, and the emptiness he felt when it became clear that it wasn’t him that the man had selected.
But this time there was no mistake. The man looking at him was at least ten years younger than Michael, and handsome in that off-hand, spiky-haired, unshaven but still well-groomed sort of way, like the summer clerks Michael often supervised at his law firm. Every so often, Michael looked away, testing the young man to see if he was going to back down. But when Michael would return to him, he was still there.
Dale stopped talking and waved his hand in front of Michael’s face. “Hello? I’m supposed to be the one who’s cruising. You’re already married.”
Michael turned to Dale. “God, I really wish you’d just lay off that word. Your parents are married. The straight guy who does your taxes is married. Stephen and I will never . . .” He couldn’t finish. He covered his mouth as if he was afraid of what he might say next.
Dale put up his hands. “Well, excuse me all to hell. It seems to me that when you’ve spent every night and every weekend with the same person for the last three years, then invited them to move into your house, you’re pretty much married, the lack of hetero legalities notwithstanding.”
Suddenly, Michael felt tired of Stephen and his standing haircut appointments. Tired of looking at the architectural drawings Stephen had done for the addition to the house. Tired of the neat little square boxes, going over them again and again, trying to figure out if they needed more plug ins. Tired of the way he folded his underwear instead of just throwing it in the drawer. Tired of Stephen assuming they would live happily ever after, once he moved in, took over, and turned Kevin’s house into the showplace he knew it could be.
He rubbed his forehead, took a sip of his drink, and wondered what he had done, what he would do, what he would feel when he picked up Stephen at the airport the day after tomorrow, and whether Stephen would notice the tight smile he would have when they talked on the drive home. He could see all of it, and it made his stomach ache. But for now, he knew he needed to say something, amend his statement the way he amended contracts day after day, and smooth it over. He hoped that Dale, who was, let’s face it, more Stephen’s friend in the first place, might understand. Even if Michael himself didn’t. But Michael didn’t say anything.
“Well?” Dale finally said. “Do you want to tell me what that was all about?”
Michael shook his head.
“I think I’ve had enough for one night. And I think you have too.” Dale drained his beer, got off his stool, and pulled on Michael’s arm. “Come on.”
Michael shook his head again. “I’m going to stick around. Maybe have another. You go ahead.”
“What are you up to?”
“Nothing! Can’t I have a drink at a bar?” He tried to sound casual while also trying to catch Kyle’s eye. Michael wondered if he’d heard what had happened, then decided he didn’t care. Just so long as he didn’t leave.
“Please don’t do anything stupid,” Dale said.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.” He stood up, kissed Dale on the cheek, and sat down again. “Now go.” Dale hesitated. “Go,” Michael said again.
After Dale was gone, Michael ordered another drink. When he finished the bartender set another in front of him. “From the gentleman,” he said, tilting his head in Kyle’s direction.
Michael felt his cheeks and ears burn. He tried to remember the last time someone had sent him a drink at a bar, or if it had ever happened in the first place. He lifted the glass in Kyle’s direction, smiled and took a drink, something else that seemed copied from an old movie. Kyle gestured for him to come over, which Michael did.
After introductions, the two of them made what Michael had always thought of as “bar talk,” like where they lived, what they did for a living, and so forth. Kyle was a graduate student in Asian Studies at the university, had just returned from a semester in China, and was working as a clerk in a sporting goods store in one of the malls. Michael talked about his law practice, his cases, his partners (law, not romantic), all of which seemed dry and lifeless compared to being 25 and excited about teaching Japanese to college students someday. But even if Michael’s story had changed, some things hadn’t. If he closed his eyes it could have been twenty years ago, going through a familiar dance and seeing what would happen in the end.
“So, are you seeing anyone?”
It came suddenly from Kyle, early in bar talk, which caught Michael off guard. It seemed to him, in the past, that question was usually saved for the end, when the preliminaries had finally been exhausted, and there was nowhere else to go. Some things had changed after all, and it pleased him. Why had they always dragged things out back then? Why waste everyone’s time? But then he realized he’d have to answer the question now, sooner rather than later.
“No,” Michael said. “I’m not. Not . . . really.”
“What do you mean, not really? Either you are or you’re not.”
More of the new directness, Michael thought. “I’m not,” Michael said. There. Done. Everything else was pushed away: Stephen, the house, what was supposed to come next. Michael liked how it felt.
When Michael gets home from the doctor’s office, before he even puts down his briefcase, he takes three of the Tylenol with Codeine tablets John had prescribed for the pain he said Michael could expect. He takes off his suit coat, loosens his tie, and collapses on his bed. Suddenly, he remembers the last time he’d taken Tylenol with Codeine, when he’d had his wisdom teeth taken out when he was a sophomore in high school. He was sick to his stomach and dizzy for two days afterward.
An hour later, Michael is moving between the bedroom and the bathroom, where three times he hunches over the toilet with the dry heaves, trying to keep his tie out of the water, and thinking he should call John, when the telephone rings.
“What took you so long?” Stephen says, before Michael had a chance to say hello.
“Nothing. I was just . . .” Michael swallows several times to keep from retching.
“I’m not feeling so good at the moment. I finally went and saw John today.”
“For your problem?” That was what Michael and Stephen had been calling it. When are you going to do something about your problem? Stephen would ask. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
“He . . . took care of it. But now, it seems to be worse. I mean, it’s better, in that he took care of it, but it’s like the disease being worse than the cure.”
“That’s the way it usually should be.”
“The other way around, I mean.” Michael didn’t want to get into the specifics over the telephone, though he was already thinking, between gagging fits, about what he was going to tell Stephen, how he was going to tell him.
“You’re not making much sense.”
“I know. That’s what happens when you become—become . . .” Michael can’t find the right word.
“Delirious. Delirious with pain.”
“I think I’d better come over.”
“No. I mean, I’ll call you when I’m feeling better.” Michael hangs up the phone, covers his mouth, and hopes he can make it back to the bathroom in time.
As Kyle and Michael left the bar for Kyle’s apartment, Kyle remembered that his roommate’s girlfriend had planned to stay over. Kyle’s roommate was straight and was fine with whoever he brought home, but it was more of a “space” issue, Kyle explained. “We sort of have this unspoken agreement that we’ll take turns with people.”
“It does sound like it could get a little crowded,” Michael said. They stood in the parking lot, trying to figure out their next move. It was an opportunity for Michael to back out and to tell Kyle he didn’t think it would be a good idea for them to continue the evening. But things were already in motion. He gave Kyle directions to his house in case they got separated.
As he drove, Michael watched Kyle in the rearview mirror and, though he had just invited him over, part of him hoped Kyle would turn off and change his mind. It had happened to Michael once before, when he was 22 and had invited the most handsome man in the bar home. It wasn’t something Michael usually did. It took him four visits to the bar to finally summon the courage to ask the man, who Michael could barely remember now, if he wanted to come to his apartment for a drink after the bar closed. After they left the bar, Michael kept the man in his rearview mirror, but the next time he looked he was gone. Michael pulled over and waited, thinking the man had probably gotten caught behind another car or was stuck at a stoplight, and would eventually catch up. But after ten minutes, standing in the January cold outside his car, he knew the man wasn’t coming.
In bed, unable to sleep, Michael went back over the evening: approaching the man, the conversation, dancing, buying him drinks, finally getting up enough nerve to make his move. For days after, he couldn’t stop thinking about it: about the man and what went wrong. When he saw him at the bar a week later, he asked him what had happened. “Sorry about that,” he said to Michael. “I guess I just didn’t feel like it after all.” And then he walked away.
But Kyle stayed close behind, so much so that Michael was worried they would collide if he had to stop suddenly. When they arrived at Michael’s house, Kyle parked in front and waited for Michael to get out of his car. Michael walked back to Kyle, who rolled down the window.
“You made it,” Michael said, forcing a smile. “This is it.”
“Nice place, compared to a cruddy studio in a crappy old building. Your own house . . .”
“Actually, it was Kevin’s first. But it’s mine now.”
“My lover. He died a few years ago. He left the house to me. He was an academic type, just like you.”
“Gosh. I mean, I’m sorry, that must have been hard. I mean, I haven’t lost anyone like that, so I suppose I really don’t know what that would be like, I would think—”
“Should we go in?” Michael interrupted. “It’s freezing out here.”
They had a couple of glasses of wine and looked around the house a bit, which made Michael’s throat ache, thinking of Stephen and the plans. Later, sitting on the sofa, Kyle talked more about his plans to finish graduate school, and Michael his latest probate cases, which he tried to make sound interesting. Before long, they were running out of things to talk about, which presented Michael with an opportunity to suggest that they call it a night, still time for him to send Kyle home before anything happened. Maybe it had been enough, getting this far. I finally got the handsome guy to come home with me, without him bailing out at the last minute. No harm done. Michael shifted his weight away from Kyle, preparing what he would say next about the lateness of the evening, and Kyle’s drive to the far side of the city, when Kyle quickly reached over, took Michael by the neck, and kissed him.
Something felt rehearsed about it, Michael thought, like Kyle had measured the distance between them on the sofa. He had waited until there was a long enough break in the conversation for him to act without waiting too long for there to be an awkward silence that one or the other of them would feel obligated to fill; waited until just after he’d sipped some wine so his mouth wouldn’t be dry from talking. There was something sad about it, too. Sad because Kyle had probably been working towards this moment, thinking about it for hours, and here Michael was, analyzing it, picking it apart, and trying to find a loophole in yet another contract, when Michael himself was no better, calculating in his own way how he would get rid of Kyle.
Still, it was not a bad kiss. It was full, confident, even if Kyle didn’t necessarily feel that way. Michael relaxed into it, yielded, as did Kyle. Kyle backed away and looked at Michael. Now it was Michael who moved, putting his hand alongside Kyle’s cheek, pulling him back towards him.
Later, Michael was awake, looking at Kyle, who turned over and opened his eyes, as if he knew Michael was watching him. “What’s the matter?”
“Can’t sleep, I guess. Sorry to wake you up.”
Kyle sat up in bed. “That’s okay.”
“I’m just really . . . sorry.”
“What’s to be sorry about?”
“This.” Michael gestured to the bed.
“Because we couldn’t . . . ? It’s no big deal. Sometimes that stuff just happens. It doesn’t mean anything. I was just glad you didn’t get mad and kick me out, even though it was you.” Kyle laughed and leaned over and kissed Michael, who gently pushed him away.
“It’s not because of that. Though it’s a little embarrassing, to tell you the truth. I really wanted to, but—”
“It’s because of your boyfriend, isn’t it?”
“How—” Michael felt as if he’d just been slapped without any time to prepare for the blow.
“I just do. The minute I saw you sitting at the other end of the bar I knew what your story was.” Kyle held up his hand. “Don’t ask me how, I just did. I’ve developed an eye for it, I suppose. It seems to be my specialty, liking married guys. And I don’t just mean for real married guys.” Kyle chuckled. “Straight, gay, it doesn’t matter. You’re all the same. But I figured, what the heck, if it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me. Sometimes it’s easier just to go along with it.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael said. “I should have told you the truth. I don’t know why—” It was true. Michael didn’t know.
“I should go.” Kyle sat up on the side of the bed and pulled his T-shirt on. “You’re obviously not up for this.”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning. You may as well stay. I won’t do anything.”
Kyle laughed softly. “I know. That’s the whole problem.”
Michael put his hand on Kyle’s back. “Stay.”
Kyle turned around and looked at Michael.
“Is it all right if I just hold you?” Michael asked. But Michael didn’t wait for Kyle to answer. He took him in his arms and waited to see what would happen next. After a while, Michael got tired of waiting, and it seemed that Kyle did, too.
“You look awful,” Stephen says when Michael opens the door. He’s brought a half-dozen wood flooring samples for the two of them to look at, now that Michael has had a couple of days to recuperate. They need to make a final decision so they don’t end up ordering something that’s out of stock and then getting something else that they really don’t want.
“Thanks so much for pointing that out,” Michael says. “You should have seen me a couple of days ago.”
“I wish I could have, but you told me to stay away. Remember? I may not be much of a nurse but I would have brought you ice cream or something.”
“I know, but it was just better to . . .” Michael’s stomach, which he hoped was finally settled, lurches again. “Why don’t we look at this stuff? I know we need to decide.”
Stephen lays out the tiles on the living room floor, side by side, careful of the order, and moves a floor lamp closer so they can get a better idea of the range of colors. “Remember, this is artificial light, so they’ll look different in the daytime,” he says. “We probably shouldn’t decide on anything definite until we’ve seen them in the morning, or certainly no later than one or two in the afternoon.”
“Any of them would work for me,” Michael says, after a few minutes of staring at the tiles. He has a hard time telling whether there is any difference between them, and besides that, he wants nothing more than to lie down on the couch again and close his eyes.
“I hate it when you do that,” Stephen says quietly. He gathers up the tiles and starts throwing them back into the box he’d brought them in.
“Be so . . . noncommittal about everything.” Stephen throws more tiles, but harder now. Michael is afraid they’ll break and then Stephen will have to pay for them, but then he realizes they’re wood. “It’s your house we’re tearing up.”
“But it’s your room. So we’ll have more space for you.”
“But you could show a little bit of interest in it. Or at least pretend, for my sake.”
Michael starts to say something, then realizes his hand is inside the front of his sweatpants. He imagines scratching, the relief, not being able to stop. Instead, he pretends he’s just adjusting and casually puts his hand back in his lap. “You haven’t started itching, have you?”
Stephen laughs. “You must think I’m a total idiot.”
“I know. I know what it is. The minute you told me about it. And those pajamas you’ve been living in. I’m surprised you haven’t been wearing them to the office.”
“So why didn’t—”
“I thought I’d just let you have your little thing, then you’d be over it, and we could get on with it. With this.” He waves his arms, gesturing to the room. He turns and faces Michael. “Let me ask you something. Why in the hell do you have this big house?”
Michael doesn’t answer.
“I know. Don’t say it. It was Kevin’s house. He gave it to you. What were you supposed to do?” Stephen puts his coat on and turns around. “And why do you have to be so goddamned unimaginative?” Stephen shouts. “If you’re going to screw around, do it in a big way, don’t just get some little itching thing. That way you and Kevin . . .” Stephen covers his mouth. “That was wrong. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .”
Michael feels Stephen’s voice ringing in his ears, the metallic sound of it. “No,” he says. “Get mad. You need to get mad more often. Really let me have it.” And he does think of Kevin, but not his dying. Instead, he thinks of the Kevin who thought hardwood floors were too much work to keep clean, why not just carpet everything and be done with it? And how everything would be different now. “If you did, then maybe we can . . .”
“I need to go,” Stephen whispers, breathing hard. He picks up the box, then changing his mind, lets it drop it to the floor with a clatter.
When Kevin didn’t have much longer, he asked Michael, who had finally finished law school and passed the bar exam, if he wanted the house. Michael immediately said yes, even though he was apprehensive about the responsibility. But Kevin said that if he didn’t take it, it would just go to Kevin’s parents, and they’d sell it to strangers. “Of course it’s not free,” Kevin said. “There’s the small matter of the mortgage. But now that you’re a rich attorney that shouldn’t be a problem.”
So, they talked to another lawyer—someone else with more real estate experience in the firm he’d just joined—and it was all arranged. Kevin’s parents, who had helped him with the down payment when he bought the house, were happy that Michael would be keeping it and promised to come up from North Carolina to visit so they could see it again. They did send Michael a Christmas card each year, but after the funeral he never saw them again.
In a way, Michael was happy they never came. He knew they would be disappointed. Michael did all the necessary upkeep: mowing the lawn and trimming the shrubs, replacing the water heater when it died, and re-caulking the tub when he discovered a leak that threatened to rot out the bathroom wall. But something was missing. It was more than just Kevin, who Michael, of course, thought about every day. It was a sense that the house was cared for, loved. The emptiness showed, Michael thought, though he couldn’t say exactly how or why.
When Michael first brought Stephen to the house, Stephen fell in love with it right away. He quizzed Michael about when it was built and by whom. He couldn’t stop staring at the dining room light fixture that Kevin had found at an estate sale and had installed himself, and he tapped the walls and wondered what kind of plaster was used. Most of Stephen’s questions Michael couldn’t answer. If Kevin were here he could tell you, he said more than once.
After a while, though, it made Michael feel better about owning the house, knowing that someone else cared about it as much as Kevin had. It took the pressure off. But at the same time, he was sad that Stephen and Kevin never met. Michael found himself imagining the three of them together, Stephen and Kevin talking about the house while Michael sat back, watched, and smiled, knowing that they not only had the house in common, but him as well. But then he realized that couldn’t have happened, even if Kevin had lived. He couldn’t have had them both.
The next day, a Saturday, Michael tries to put the same tiles out again, back in the order Stephen had them. But he’s groggy, having had a glass of wine with a cold pill to help him sleep, which he did until almost 1 o’clock. He knew Stephen wouldn’t be back that night, and he wanted to knock himself out, not itch, not think about Stephen and what they’d said. Was the mocha tile next to the beige, followed by the autumn orange? The light in the room has changed with the afternoon, it’s softer than before. Or maybe it’s gotten cloudy out, filtering everything. Michael doesn’t know. He needs Stephen there, to point out the difference.
He becomes so absorbed in remembering that he doesn’t hear the door, doesn’t hear Stephen behind him, watching.
“You’re hopeless,” he says. “And you’re just going to make yourself sick again.” He kneels down next to Michael and takes over, lining the tiles up as before.
“It’s still itching,” Michael says. “It was supposed to be getting better.”
“I can’t help you with that. I only know floors.”
“I thought you knew everything.”
“I only act like I do. I can’t do that anymore.”
Michael’s knees are stiff from squatting. He sits on the couch, rubbing them, though what he wants to do more than anything, once again, is scratch. He closes his eyes, his head is pounding, no doubt from the combination of coffee and a Hershey bar, which had been his lunch. A good way to get a migraine, his doctor had once told him, when Michael complained about how often he got headaches. But he couldn’t resist the combination.
“Maybe we can look again,” Stephen says. “When the light’s better.” He gathers up the tiles and puts them back in the box. “And when you’re . . . yourself again.”
Michael smiles. He hopes it happens. Soon.
Michael changes into his pajamas and crawls into bed, a wet washrag on his forehead. When he opens his eyes he calls for Stephen, but he doesn’t answer. He’s left one of the tiles behind, the mocha one, next to Michael on the bed. Or is it mission brown? Again, Michael can’t tell the difference. He picks it up and holds it at arm’s length. He pictures it covering the floor, in neat squares, reflecting sunshine, comfort. But an entire room of it, one after another? Will it work? It could.
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