Forcefully making failed circles
in a pool of gelatin,
pressing arms and legs,
Writing disjointed thoughts
in a small, brown bound notebook,
waiting for divine inspiration.
Math problems strewn
over charts and workbooks,
lying in a pile,
like a pack of wolves defeated.
over cinnamon and piano,
like a field of jagged mountains,
and not like a soup of snowy waves.
He catches glances:
in waves beneath crystalline waves and foam.
The figure sways below;
her long, curly locks blowing gently on her back.
As she rushes toward the surface,
her rounded facial features invite tenderness,
and his eyes are faded marbles,
open and admiring.
Her body is like a statue in a giant granite hall.
She smiles and slinks
with hope behind her irises,
anticipating excitement and novelty.
Her hands press upon the wavy glass,
and his hands meet to make mirrored images.
This is as close as they could ever get.
As they part from the fantastical encounter,
memories of each other very slowly start to disintegrate,
but the loss never leaves them.
Hugo yelled across the house, “I’M GONNA GET A SHIT-AND-SHOWER.”
“Why are you telling me that? Shit-and-shower?”
“WHAT?!” The pitch of Hugo’s voice raised dramatically.
James sauntered in Hugo’s direction. “Hugo, shit-and-shower is not a thing. And why do you have to tell me? I don’t need to know.”
Hugo held a clothes to change into. “I dunno. What if you wanted to use the bathroom or what if you were having people over?”
“Well, that’s nice, but I have my own bathroom and you’ve never seen anyone else over here.”
“True. Shit-and-shower is definitely a thing, though. Think about it: what if you run out of toilet paper? Or I mean, why go to the length of wasting a bunch of toilet paper if you know you need a shower, anyway? Like if it’s the morning and you’re getting ready for work or something.”
“Well, if you run out of toilet paper, you just use something else. Also, it’s annoying when you say ‘Think about it.’ Do you assume I don’t think?”
“Sorry. Well, what do you do when you run out?”
“Newspaper? That’s rough. Newspaper comes first? What’s second?”
“Second is paper towels.”
Hugo’s eyes grew. “Paper towels comes second to newspaper?!”
“No. You’re right. Really, you just buy enough toilet paper, but in a pinch, yeah; paper towels. In really desperate times, newspaper.”
Hugo’s posture was erect. He appeared to be looking down at James, despite them being the same height. “I’d rather just take a shower.”
“That’s kinda nasty, Hugo. Then, you’re getting poop all over the bathtub.”
“Yeah, but you’re using soap. And preferably, you wipe at least a little. I’m not talking about intentionally getting big globs of poo all over the tub. Anyway, there’s already poop all over everything.”
“Don’t say that shit.”
“Really, if you smell a fart, it’s just particles of poop getting in your nose and mouth. There’s poop on everything.”
“I know, Hugo, but why do you have to say that shit?”
“Like, if you take a bath, you’re laying around in your poop. Poop, piss, jizz, sweat.”
James was equally sure of his position. “Do you ever ‘get a shit-and-bath?'”
Hugo realized that James had introduced an impregnable argument, but couldn’t imagine retreating, “Nah, James. That’s nasty.”
“Well, we’re just talking about degrees, right?”
Hugo knew what James meant, but he asked, anyway, “Degrees?”
“Yeah; like, if there’s shit on everything all the time, and if you’re suggesting a shit-and-shower, then you’re not doing anything fundamentally different from a shit-and-bath. It’s just degrees.”
“But you’re not laying around in it.”
“You think that the water and soap gets rid of all the poop particulate that you didn’t wipe off your ass?”
“Well, even if you wipe, you’re not getting rid of all of it.”
“Okay, Hugo. Why don’t you go shit, wipe your ass, and shower? Or whatever.”
“Yeah.” Hugo took a step toward the bathroom while he extended his fingers and thumb, covering his chin. “Do you get poop-boners? I really get poop-boners. Like, a lot. And when I poop, my body temperature lowers or something. I dunno. I feel colder. Yeah. Do you usually get poop-boners?”
James smiled on one side of his face, despite feeling that he shouldn’t encourage Hugo’s inappropriateness, “I sometimes get poop-boners. I don’t know anything about this body temperature thing.”
“It mostly happens when I’m out. Like, if I’m in some office building or Wal-Mart or a hospital or something. I guess maybe your body uses a lot of energy to manufacture and house and maintain all that poo?”
“I dunno, man.”
“I just feel like schools could do a lot more in this area, like, Poop Ed or something.”
“Like Sex Ed?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Hugo appeared to be thinking very seriously on the issue. He didn’t look at James, obviously in a cloud of profound thought.
After a few moments, James broke in, “Yeah. Poop-boners are weird. If there were a God out there, poop-boners would be evidence that God was very weird.”
“Yeah. Like, why poop-boners? What’s the evolutionary function of that? Do people have sex while pooping?”
James disrupted the conversation with unmitigated, boisterous laughter. It took several seconds for him to calm himself enough to respond. “I’m sure that some people do.” James remained distractedly snickering.
Hugo’s sympathetic smile broke down and his brow grew heavy and his eyes were suddenly intense. “Yeah, sexual arousal is strange. Like, you know how nervousness doesn’t feel so different from arousal? I think, sometimes, the thing that is almost so objectionable that you can’t do it is the very thing that most turns you on.”
James walked toward the living room, expecting Hugo to follow, which he did. James sat in a recliner, “Yeah. I dream about some really fucked up sex shit, but sometimes, I wake up and that fantasy is stuck in my head and I’ve been surprised by how much some really fucked up shit can turn me on. When I was a kid, it was even worse. I used to have these very weird sex dreams when I was a kid and they really freaked me out. I didn’t know what to make of them. I didn’t know what they said about me.”
“Same. I used to sometimes do things with men. This was like in elementary and middle school. I mean, I didn’t do very sexual things, mostly basically just making out. Maybe only making out. I don’t remember the dreams so well at this point. I just remember how ashamed it made me feel. Some kids thought I was gay, so I guess I was confused and dreamt of it.”
“Hugo, I’m not gonna judge you for being curious.”
Hugo realized how ridiculous he might’ve seemed and smiled. “I know. I’m sorry. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. Maybe I’m gay. I’ve never been brave enough to try anything.”
James smiled back at Hugo. He was tempted to make a joke, but Hugo was being vulnerable enough.
Hugo looked indiscriminately toward a spot on the wall. “I died a lot in my dreams, too. I would fall a lot — out of all kinds of things — to my death, presumably. I once drove my sister and I up into a tree. In a car, I mean. I was driving a car. Eventually, I couldn’t get the car to keep climbing and the car fell toward a lake, waking me up. I think I was being chased. A lot of the time, I was being chased in my dreams.”
“What do you think that meant?”
“I dunno. I was a depressed little kid. I would run away a lot. I’d pack all my stuff, I’d leave in a huff, and I’d run away for a few minutes before realizing that I didn’t know where to go and I was too chicken to just walk off with nowhere to go. Eventually, my younger sister started to mock me when I’d leave. I’d always tell her I was serious this time.” Hugo was nearly smirking, but his eyes were sad. James realized that what Hugo was describing was important, and Hugo continued, “I didn’t trust my parents. I didn’t trust any authority.”
Hugo ignored James’s sarcastic expression of vindication. “I still sometimes have nightmares, but I hardly remember any dreams anymore. I think I had a lot more nightmares when I was a kid, but maybe a greater proportion of my dreams now are bad ones. Maybe I don’t dream that often.”
“I don’t know shit about dreams. Now these conflicts permeate my daydreams.”
“You imagine people chasing you around and you falling out of things to your death?”
“No. Not exactly. I just imagine confrontations. With everyone.”
“Everyone who matters to me.”
“With me? What would you and I fight about? How does that go?”
“I dunno. I’m just saying I imagine fighting with everyone; even people I love. Even people I don’t know. I imagine having to run from the cops.”
“So you do still imagine getting chased.”
“Yeah. Sometimes. It actually used to be more when I was younger. Now, it’s mostly just arguments about things and how, in weird situations, I might best people.”
“Not everything’s a competition, Hugo.”
Hugo’s face scrunched sideways on the front of his head. “I’m just afraid, you know?”
James peered at Hugo.
Hugo’s eyes eventually met James’s. “I know it’s not about them. I know it’s about me. I imagine crazy things, Jim. I imagine getting into firefights with whole police departments. I imagine going to trial with my bosses and their business owners. I imagine all the things that potential lovers and past lovers might find or have found to be upset at me for and having to explain myself. I imagine being rejected in every possible way, by everyone, important and unimportant. It makes me feel sad, insecure, afraid.”
James’s eyes turned soft, “Why do you think you do that?”
“I guess I don’t expect anyone to accept me.”
Hugo broke the silence: “I had this terrible dream last night.”
She looked up until her eyes met Hugo’s.
“I was in my mother’s house, but it wasn’t her house. I never dream of places as they are. I wonder if people ever dream of places as they are. Do you?”
“I think I do, sometimes.”
Does she know that she does? Why would she respond that way? “Oh. Well, I was in my mom’s house, but not my mom’s house, and I cracked an egg to make a cake. I don’t really know how to make cake.”
“Uh-huh. I know what you mean, though. Sometimes, I dream of places and I’m so sure that it’s that place, but then I wake up and realize it was nothing like that place. Why don’t you know how to make cake? You just do what the box says.”
“Right. It’s just been a long time since I made a cake.”
“Yeah, why would you have made someone a cake? I can see that.”
Maybe that was a slight insult. “Sure. So I crack this egg and the egg is coming out, but it’s way more than a normal egg. It’s just running and running out of the shell, and little bits of shell are getting in the bowl — in the egg, I mean, in the bowl — so I’m concerned as I’m looking at the mess I’m making, but suddenly, I’m doing this in front of a kind of ledge. I don’t know if the ledge just appeared or if I just never saw it, but it’s actually a balcony above a bunch of people who are seated in these rows of black plastic chairs, with an open column in the middle, like some big thing is happening. There’s a stage in front, but instead, they’re just all watching me, I guess. Maybe there was a big-screen TV or something. I dunno. But they’re wearing suits and dresses and shit. They only come to my consciousness… sub-consciousness? Huh. Well, I only become aware of them in my dream because they start applauding me and I feel that helpless feeling you get when people applaud you.”
“Yeah, like you can’t do anything. Suddenly, everyone’s attention is on you and you can’t make them stop. Like, what if you wanna talk or something? Or what if you just wanna walk off-stage? But you’re supposed to stand there and smile and acknowledge it in some way that shows some poise and appreciation or something.”
“You’re right. Shit. That’s terrible, sometimes.”
“I hate being applauded.”
Her head lowered, but her gaze stayed on Hugo. She made a face as though she’d just eaten something surprisingly sour. “I hate people just looking at me.”
“It’s a terrible feeling. Suddenly, everyone thinks they’re doing you this great favor and it’s worse because I then feel guilty. Everyone’s there praising me and all I can think is how I want them to stop. Usually, it’s because I did something for the purpose of getting positive attention, but then I instantly regret it.”
“Like makeup or heels. Well, I guess I wear those to feel good about myself, but that’s not totally true.”
She sipped her tea and gazed at the ceiling.
“Like, would I ever wear makeup or heels or revealing clothing or deodorant if society hadn’t told me I have to?”
“Not just male gaze. Female gaze sometimes seems worse, but it’s informed by the male gaze because it’s the men who’ve been in charge.”
“Of course. Fucking Disney, man. Well, not just Disney, but a lot of it is Disney. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be a woman and to have to deal with that. My friend once recommended I go around in drag one day and see how it works out, but honestly, I nearly shit my pants any time I hear people applauding, so how would that work out for me?”
She smiled, but her eyes and cheeks didn’t move.
Hugo’s mouth opened as he looked around the room, and he walked in a path the shape of a small, strange orb. “You know what I’d really like? I would just love if everyone, instead of applauding, would simply come up to me discreetly and pay me compliments: ‘Hugo, that egg-cracking was so good and you’re so handsome,’ ‘Hugo, you really shut down that internet philosopher with your argument on the hypocrisy of violence. Please have my babies.’ And some people could touch me a little more — well, they all could if they were just more earnestly effusive in their praise of me and if they showed some emotional intuitiveness. I’d love if everyone would just wear weird, fun socks and be sensitive and quietly sure of themselves, if they wouldn’t talk too much, except to talk about philosophy and shit, if they’d appear a little androgynous, and if they’d all just say moderately sweet things to me with no expectations. That’s a world I could get behind.”
“Let’s get that revolution started, Hugo. Do we start with a blowjob?”
“That’s crude. Kiss me first.”
She looked at him with no real expression.
Hugo’s mind could only wander so far from his current preoccupation. “It really shook me. I mean, I woke up and I felt terrible. I almost cried. I wanted to cry and I was frustrated that I couldn’t cry. I laid in bed and —”
“You lay in bed.”
“I thought it was ‘I lie down to sleep.'”
“That’s in the present tense. In the past tense, you ‘lay’ down to sleep. Well, you also lie yourself down. That one’s a little complicated, but the way you said it, it would’ve made more sense to have said ‘lay.'”
“Really? Well, I was just laying there, okay?”
She winked at him.
“It really bothered me. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I wanted to. I mean, look at my eyes. I look like shit.”
“You look okay. You look a little tired, but you’re fine.”
“I woke up, and my heart was beating so hard I could feel it in my shoulders and neck.”
“That sounds scary. You should’ve meditated.”
“Yeah. I mean, I think I kinda tried, but I just kept thinking about things. It made me so anxious. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it upset me so much. People were just clapping for me. That’s not so awful. Then, I woke up and started thinking about how I should be working, about how I have no money, about how I need to be a better father. I thought about Lily. I woke up so scared. I’m such a failure. I fail at everything.”
“Maybe you haven’t always achieved what you’ve wanted to, but I wouldn’t say you’ve failed at everything. It’s all subjective, anyway. And it’s all in the past. It’s not this reality. It’s not what’s happening now.”
“No, I’ve failed at everything. Really.”
Hugo wasn’t understanding her. He’d made several laps around the room by this point, and seemed to be picking up speed. He stopped.
His arms made wide, sweeping movements, making him appear bigger. “I don’t deserve applause. I’ve never deserved any applause. Why would anyone ever applaud anyone? Who deserves it? Why? For what? We’re all self-motivated and nothing we ever do is some great display of anything except our environmental influences and the arbitrary things that make us different from others. It’s not my fault. Nothing’s my fault, but I don’t deserve anything good or bad, either.”
Hugo realized that he’d had these and similar thoughts a thousand times before. It wasn’t helpful. Maybe it felt good to say these things, but he wasn’t solving any problem. He’d thought he might’ve been finding important answers a few times before, but he’d learned better by now.
“Applause is this act that says you should’ve been doing something or you’re better than someone because of what you did. Applause is kind of a violent act.”
Hugo felt self-satisfied, but it didn’t help anything. He sat, distracted from his company.
He made an expression that wasn’t like his usual freakout expression. She was concerned, but she knew that there was nothing she could say to help.
I set the concord grape jelly bottle on the old oak chair
and climbed about it,
pulling my weight up by the wooden bars that formed its back.
My thumbs pressed the seam of the plastic lid,
flipping it open.
The bottle was massive
in my one marshmallowy hand.
I squeezed in the same way I’d seen my parents do.
I’d have laughed at the funny noises,
as tiny samples of purple gelatin sprayed into my wrinkly palm,
but my face’s features lie motionless
as I pondered the source of frustration.
I recalled dad’s ritual:
I snapped the lid securely back
and motioned as though I were throwing the bottle overhead
to get the goo to the tip of the lid.
I tried again.
I squeezed the sweetness into my hand
My face grew, my motions quickened.
I wanted to eat it all,
but too much had materialized,
and the goo began to spill from my palm.
I thoughtlessly dropped the bottle onto the chair,
before it bounced about the floor.
I joined my hands and squeezed —
helpless — as my prize
ran down my pudgy, pale arms.
Later that day,
my little sister and I went into the yard,
where we blew feathered heads of dandelions
and ran to catch each soft, floating white-and-black bird.
We expended our energy,
uselessly following as many as seeds as we could.
“But look, the sex thing is just a distraction. That’s not the thing.”
“Okay, Hugo. What’s the thing?”
“The thing is that the whole situation was completely fucked from the start and it never should’ve happened. He didn’t even really wanna be with her. He didn’t know that, but that’s the truth.”
“Hugo, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would he get with her if he didn’t wanna be with her? And what are you: Miss Cleo? You’re a mind reader now?”
“Miss Cleo? I barely even remember that.”
“She went to prison, right?”
“Okay, so you’re right. I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty, but this isn’t rocket science. He pulled some classic young man bullshit.”
Hugo’s toe started to tap on the floor. “So let me just tell you what happened.”
“Of course. So sorry.”
“Yeah. Well, at one point, she had been talking to both of us, and he got all upset about it. Before that, she’d moved on. She’d told him that she didn’t want to get back with him, but fuccbois do what fuccbois do, right?”
James’s head rotated down a couple inches and returned.
“So he did exactly what he had to do to soothe his fragile, young, stupid ego. He hadn’t been with anyone else, so even though he’d turned this poor, sensitive lady down in so many ways, so many times, even though he’d abused and neglected her, he decided that she was his default option and that was good enough for him to put her back through the ringer again. He told her it was ‘inevitable’ that they’d be together. This was his rationale. I guess he was tired of not fucking or something.”
“It’s hard to go without fucking, man, especially if you’re getting some good ass, but ‘inevitable’ is pretty rough. Not a good look.” James’s eyelids tightened around his eyes. “She went for that?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m sure it was more than just the ass. I don’t blame the guy, but the thing is he hadn’t even been with anyone else. He just kept treating her like shit and I was really in love with her. She was in love with him and with me, which is fine, but he was just being a typical fuccboi.”
“Pretty typical. That’s right. But he just didn’t get with other women because he couldn’t, then?”
“Well, she would say that he wasn’t very interested in other women, but it’s not like women were all over him, either. This guy was young. You know, I guess he did start to miss her. I’m not saying that he didn’t have any feelings for her. Anyway, so he starts telling her all the shit she’s been burning to hear from him for months, YEARS, even.”
James nodded and his voice rose a few pitches and became more nasal, as he mocked, “Oh, baby, I’m gonna change. I wanna be a better man. I’ll do whatever you want. It’s not because you want me to. I want it for myself, blah, blah.”
“Right, but more than that. I mean, she’d been complaining about how he acted for years, so he knew exactly what she’d wanted. He half-acted like he didn’t want to tell her how he felt out of respect for my relationship with her, but the thing is she’d been wanting him to open up and finally show his feelings, and he knew she was in love with him, anyway, so all he had to do was give some indication that something was going on with his feelings and she was gonna push him the rest of the way, making her feel better for him opening up, and letting him say some shit that was really kinda fucked up.”
The corners of James’s mouth bent to form hooks in his face and his eyes flattened out, but he didn’t quite smile. “That’s slick, man.”
Hugo responded, “I mean, it was fucking obvious, but she was in love, so how was she gonna see it? And he probably didn’t even know he was doing it.”
“Yeah. Most people don’t know when they’re being manipulative, and he was feeling desperate and lonely, so he rationalized it. But is ‘manipulation’ the right word?”
“What would you call it?”
“Manipulation. Yeah. But there should be another word. I mean, I think of manipulation and I’m thinking like Scrooge McDuck rubbing his hands together, setting some elaborate trap.”
“That’s true. Still, I think most manipulation happens in people’s blind spots.”
“Yeah. Well, that’s why abuse happens, right?” It occurred to James that the situation was very complicated. “Damn, man. People have to learn this shit the hard way. You can’t convince someone that they shouldn’t go back to their shitty ex, just because the ex was lonely and said he wanted to change. Everyone does that shit. I mean, dudes have to learn to not kid themselves and women have to learn that abusive exes are bullshitters until the jackasses actually grow up.”
“Well, maybe that’s sexist, but I think it’s mostly that way.” Hugo’s eyes met the corner of the room. “I know you’re right. Anyway, it gets worse.”
“Oh. Please proceed.”
“Well, so he’s telling her all this shit and she’s getting roped back in. She’d decided never again, but he’d never pulled any of this heroic shit before because he’d never had to. Now, it’s his only option, right? This time, he’s going to therapy and getting into all this spiritual shit or whatever. Quoting Pema Chodron. They always ended up back together without his having to try. But it’s a matter of his ego, so he’s all in.”
“All in. Absolutely. He can’t let go and he can’t deal with being told ‘no.’ Real fuccboi style. Pema, man. That’s deep.”
“So eventually what happens is she and he are starting to get close and he smells blood. Well, plus, he doesn’t totally know what’s going on with her and me. She won’t admit to him that she’s in love with me, and I guess he’s avoided asking if we’ve had sex, but he also knows she’s getting more emotionally invested in him, so maybe he assumes that nothing’s happened with her and me. It’s more emotionally convenient for him to assume that, I figure.”
“But she won’t admit that she’s in love with you?”
“Well, she told him that she might be or some shit like that.”
“Hugo, that’s kinda fucked.”
“I know, but what am I gonna do? Anyway, so one weekend, she and I hang out for several days in a row and Benjamin’s all butthurt about it.”
“You shouldn’t say that, man.”
“‘Butthurt.’ It’s stupid and homophobic.”
Hugo’s eyes narrow, as he looks around the room. “Hm. I see that. My bad.”
“Don’t say ‘my bad,’ like I’m the fag delegation. It’s cool. Just don’t say ‘butthurt’ anymore.”
“Right. Sorry. Well, not sorry. Whatever. Anyway, this one weekend, she and I are hanging out and it goes great. Things have kind of crossed this threshold and we’re totally comfortable, falling more in love, the sex is great, and it feels like it’s becoming real.”
“But she’s also getting more into homeboy.”
“That’s true, but she’s been there and done that. All that has to happen is enough time has to pass and eventually, she’s gonna have strong enough feelings for me, plus there are all the more practical reasons why she’d choose me over him, plus sex with me will eventually be better than with him, at least because he’s young and inexperienced and I’m decent at sex for my age.”
“Don’t talk shit, man. I’ve never heard anyone say how you’re great in bed.”
“Maybe I don’t fuck weird, loud people who brag about that shit, and I’m not saying I’m ‘great,’ anyway. Just not bad.”
“Anyway, that’s not the point. I mean, the dude’s young, so let’s just assume that the sex will be at least as good. I mean, who knows? But the way I see it, it was just a matter of time before she felt comfortable enough choosing me, and the thing is that I wasn’t even thinking that it needed to be me and not him.”
“You would’ve been with her if she’d still been with him, too?”
“I mean, I dunno, but I was comfortable with the way things were going at that point.”
“Interesting. But hold on a sec. You said something about ‘practical reasons’ why she’d choose you over him.”
“Yeah. He was just kinda boring and emotionally unaware and shit like that. She thought he was funny, but I could be funny.”
“You can be kinda funny. You’re not George Carlin. You’re not even Jim Jeffries.”
“Just listen, man.”
“To her, I was this creative person and I understood her feelings and we had all these interesting conversations. She’d talk about how she’d dated other guys who checked off boxes that he didn’t, but no one had checked off all of those boxes, plus the ones he checked off, until I came around.”
“So you were like this superior boyfriend prospect in every way, but she’s caught up in her feelings, basically.”
“More or less. Anyway, so this weekend happens and I’m thinking we’re gonna eventually move in together or something. Or if not that, just that things are about to get more serious at least. But a few hours after she and I part, she texts me and says we can’t talk anymore. This is a little shocking, but I know it’s just a weird reaction, probably to some dumb shit Benji said, and I don’t really know what it means but I figure that she and I are good at dealing with our problems, so I’m cool about it and I just call her.”
Hugo took a long breath. “Well, apparently, he finally decided to ask if she and I’d had sex and so now, he’s fucking pissed. He thinks that she told him they’re gonna be together, but yet she’s fucking me, even though she says she’d never said that she’d made a decision or whatever. Who knows, really, but I trust her. She was always more honest than she had to be. Well, for the most part. Anyway, I guess he’s feeling really insecure. So then, he does what he’s always done, which is to be shitty to her and blame it all on her. He said that she’s terrible and all this shit and then he threatened her, saying he won’t talk to her anymore, so what’s she gonna do?”
“Oh, no. Oh shit, Hugo.”
“Yeah, and in the conversation, she explains how she wouldn’t talk to me for a while even if shit didn’t work out with Benjamin.”
“I dunno. To be consistent? I mean, I think it was like, if she wasn’t going to talk to me, she had to have a reason, and the reason only worked if it worked in both cases. She told me it was because this was all causing her to go through this emotional whirlwind, but she wasn’t suggesting that she not talk to both of us; only me.”
James’s mouth went sideways as he looked at Hugo. “She was more in love with Ben, so he was the priority, even if he was the one being shitty.”
“Because he was being shitty.”
“Right. It’s unfair. Human feelings are weird things. Damn, Hugo.”
“He’d put all this pressure on her and she was so in love with him. He was her first love, so even though it made no sense, she just had to make a decision in the moment, and part of that included not talking to me because it was what she thought she had to do to preserve this thing with her beloved fuccboi. He had this card in his pocket. Once he’d built up enough with her, got all those feelings recirculating, made it as though he was going to right all his past wrongs –”
“That shit’s so alluring.”
“He only had to put all this pressure on her and she’d choose him. And he did it right as things between her and me were really starting to build. Maybe he did it out of fear.”
“Yeah, I get that.” James stood up and took a few steps across the living room floor. “I mean… I get that. Man, that dude really did a fucked up thing. Maybe he didn’t mean to. Shit, man.”
James stopped pacing. “What else could she do? She had to make a choice in the moment. Why couldn’t she see it? I guess she just didn’t know. She was just a kid. Fuck. This is what happens when you date a kid, Hugo. Damn. I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
“Well, she and I talked about what was happening, but what could I really do? I mean, she was afraid of losing this thing she’d always wanted.”
“Yeah. That’s so fucked, Hugo.”
“He played it perfectly. She had no choice, really, you know? I mean, I shouldn’t have felt bad about it.”
“Well, to be fair, you were losing the love of your life.”
“Yeah. I know I’m not supposed to blame myself.”
“You really shouldn’t.”
“She was so desperate to deal with the intense feelings she had. She was trapped. She couldn’t do anything different, even if it didn’t make sense, even if every sign said she shouldn’t.”
“She just didn’t know. Gotta learn that one the hard way.”
“So of course I tried to convince her. I made every argument. I tried to be understanding. I was frustrated. But then, I blew up on her.”
“Yeah. All of that was stupid. Everything you just said. Why you did any of that I have no idea. You’ve told me about the blowup. You should’ve just let it go. You knew you were probably gonna get another chance. That shit was dumb, Hugo, and you blew it.” James plopped back down in the old, deteriorating sofa, and the room seemed to settle with him.
“Yeah, well, I wrote a letter back when they were together. There was never a good time to give it to her, and then they broke up.”
James’s voice rose a little. “Yeah. There was never a good time because there was never gonna be a good time. You totally fucked shit up.”
James was now frustrated. He was frustrated by all three parties in the situation. He didn’t want to show his frustration with Hugo, but he knew that Hugo had only needed to have been patient. So stupid, Hugo.
Hugo continued, “You don’t even know what the letter said. I still think about giving it to her.”
“Well, what’d it say, then?”
Hugo reached into his front left pocket and James’s eyes grew, “YOU KEEP THE LETTER ON YOU AT ALL TIMES? ARE YOU A PSYCHOPATH?!”
“Look, it means something to me.” Hugo’s hands went above his head and then smacked against his thighs. “It’s not what you think it is. Maybe it’s stupid of me, but I don’t want to lose the opportunity.”
“Opportunity? For what?!”
“I dunno, man.”
“Read the shit, you crazy person.”
Hugo unfolded the crinkled piece of lined notebook paper. He read slowly, “I think I represent something significant to you. I think there’s something inside you — I don’t know how big or small it might be, maybe it doesn’t mean much to you – but there’s some part of you that wants to be with me. You want to know what it’s like to be with me. You want what I can give you, you want what I represent to you. And I think maybe that small part of you will continue to be curious about me, you’ll think about me. When you’re with him, it won’t completely go away. Not for a long time, anyway. You’ll want it to. You’ll feel guilty, but that small part of you will hold on to this idea, this question, this desire. Maybe it’ll grow and it’ll bother you. Maybe it’ll become unbearable and you won’t know what to do. Maybe not. It’s what I think, anyway. It’s what I hope for. I want to haunt you in precious moments with him, but more than that, I want you to be with me. I want you to change your mind. I want you to be consumed by the tension and I want to fix things with you. I want us to heal each other. I want you to stop torturing both of us.”
Hugo looked up from the weathered document and into James’s eyes. James quickly looked away and began repeatedly pinching his bottom lip between his fingers. After a brief spell, James looked back up at Hugo. “That’s so fucked up, Hugo. You want to haunt someone? You’re not even dead. That’s weird as fuck.”
They sat in silence for a while before James continued, “It’s short. I thought it’d be longer. Why would you write that? Why would you think that would work? Did you think it’d really work?” James didn’t realize it, but his head was gently rotating about his neck, back-and-forth. “I’m glad you didn’t give her that. It’s kinda beautiful in a weird way. You’re a very fucking weird dude, man.”
Hugo ignored him. He ceremoniously, even regally, sat in the recliner and put his hands on his knees. He stared intently at a spot a few feet in front of James. Hugo’s face had grown very intense and his whole body was practically motionless as he looked up, “I’ve decided I’m gonna kill myself.”
“No, you’re not. People don’t say they’re gonna kill themselves. They just do it. Anyway, it’d be bullshit for you to do that to Savannah.”
“No. That’s the thing. She doesn’t really know me that well and that’s good. If I died, then she could just resent me, but I don’t have to completely fuck her up. I’m gonna fuck her up. That’s obvious. If I stay alive, then I either fuck her up by not doing enough or I fuck her up by just being me. This is the least bad option.”
“Hugo, that’s some irresponsible bullshit, but you’re not gonna kill yourself, and don’t use some Benthamian shit on me.”
Who the fuck is Bentham
, Hugo thought.
“You’re not that kind of depressed. You’re dramatic. You always want attention, but in some weird, fucked up way, you kinda believe in yourself. You’re just feeling desperate. I love you, Hugo, and I don’t ever say shit like that. Not to a dude. It’s not ’cause I’m black. Well, maybe it’s ’cause I’m black. In a way. Maybe. I’m not even black, you know? Shit’s complicated. Anyway, the point is I’m here, man, and I don’t really like you that much, but everyone else hates you, so I have no choice but to try to help you. Don’t kill yourself, man. It’s stupid, and this shit will pass. Look: you stay on my couch, you don’t have a job, shit’s not that bad. You don’t have much to worry about. Just figure it out. I don’t know how the fuck you eat, honestly, but you ain’t lookin’ famished, so I think you’re alright. Why don’t we go out tonight and you can talk to some chicks who are too young for you? It’s disgusting to me when you do that, but it’s kinda funny. I can show you how to get a woman your own age and she’ll be just as hot as the girls you sometimes bring home.”
“Not everyone I date is too young.”
“Yeah, but that shit’s a little weird, Hugo, not to mention maybe a little misogynistic.
“More Patriarchal than misogynistic.”
“Maybe. Anyway, you shouldn’t do that shit, and I shouldn’t enable you, but it’s better than you fucking up my place with a bunch of your blood. I’m kidding. Shit’s gonna be okay, man. Let’s just go out later. I want to. I’m here for you, man.”
“Jim, I can never tell if you’re the wisest or stupidest person I know.”
Hugo walked toward the window. “I’m making the responsible decision here.” Hugo smiled gently and his eyes showed that he was in some place far from James’s home. Hugo seemed serene. “I’m gonna kill myself tomorrow. I’ll have done something good for the world: the least harm.”
James didn’t know what to say. He sat for a few minutes, trying to think of how to help. Finally, he said, “You know, you never told me what happened to set all this off today.”
Hugo’s face barely moved, “I just did.”
As Hugo pushed open the door, James sat on the dilapidated couch, half-mindedly playing guitar. “What’s good, Hugo?”
Hugo spoke slowly and deliberately. His voice wasn’t wavering, but it wasn’t even, either: “You know what, man? Is anything good? I don’t know that anything’s good.” His eyes widened, as he considered the thought. “Maybe nothing’s bad. I dunno.”
Hugo paused and, peering at James, quickly collected himself, “Everything’s fine.”
James was caught off-guard. He stared down at the beat-up old guitar. He was very proud of his guitar. It sounded beautiful. But right now, he was too distracted by the guitar to pay attention to Hugo and too distracted by Hugo to play anything worth hearing. “Hugo… what’s up?”
Hugo took a moment, “You remember that girl Lily?”
“The one you were gonna be Happily Ever After with, but you fucked it up instead, right?”
Hugo’s eyes shifted from side-to-side. His face was tight and alert. He was focused, but on nothing. The guitar clanged as it fell from James’s lap, and neither of them reacted. James stared at Hugo and stood up.
Hugo labored through his speech, carefully thinking about every word and every possible word, replaying the past and imagining what-could’ve-beens as he responded, “I really fucked that up, Jimbo. I really fucked it up and I’ve been fucking up ever since. I was fucking up before that, but maybe Lily was the lucky break I was supposed to get. I don’t know if everyone gets a lucky break. Maybe I was getting a lucky break of a sort that most people never get. It could’ve been okay to have fucked up all that other shit, but this was different. This is a real-life tragedy.”
James stared at Hugo, and Hugo looked down at his feet. They both knew it wasn’t really a tragedy. A boy fucked things up with a girl. Okay, a man fucked things up with a woman, but the reality was that Hugo wasn’t in any real danger. No one was dying, but What’s up with Hugo? It looks like he’s crying. Is he on drugs?
“I mean, I know it’s not like that, you know? I’m catastrophizing.” Hugo’s eyes pointed at his perfectly intact hairline. “I’ve tried. Really, I don’t know what more I could’ve done. This is just how I am. I don’t know why I’m like this. I don’t mean to feel sorry for myself. I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. In fact, I feel bad for everyone around me. You shouldn’t let me stay on your couch like this, man. Maybe I’m one of those people who needs to learn things the hard way. I’m just a blood-sucking nuisance. I come into people’s lives and I ruin things. Even if someone manages to escape my destruction, no one leaves being made better. Not in any way. Never. People just escape me clinging on to whatever I haven’t taken or damaged.”
James spoke calmly. He seemed wise, “Hugo, in the time I’ve known you, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve only had hard lessons. In a lot of ways, I don’t know a more unlucky person than you.”
“No way. No. I’m super lucky. You have no idea how lucky I am. I didn’t grow up like you or like a lot of people.”
That’s probably at least a little racist, James thought. Or maybe just homophobic. Is biphobic a thing? I guess it is. Whatever. Listen.
“I was raised in a medium-sized town in America with every opportunity. I was in the Gifted Program, you know? I was good at sports. I excelled in drama and art. A lot of people liked me, even if a few realized that I was worse than everyone else. People liked me for stupid and shallow reasons, but the fact is that I had advantages. So many people are less lucky than I am, but I constantly do the wrong things. I mean, I barely do anything, but when I do anything at all, I fuck it up, and not just for me. And then I feel bad for it and I miss out on the opportunities in front of me. A lot of times, I can totally fix things, but I’m so goddamn distracted and shitty that I don’t even realize it. And then I take what opportunities I do get and I completely squander them and the cycle repeats all over.”
“Well, Hugo, you weren’t exactly rich. Your family wasn’t exactly great. Hugo, what happened?” James’s hands had become loose water hoses and his voice suddenly had more power.
“You wanna know what happened?”
Hugo’s big, soft hand went up to his brow and wiped down over his face. His forefinger and thumb rubbed down the edges of his O-shaped mouth. His eyes were as big as apricots.
“I’m gonna die alone, James.” Hugo laughed a little, and James’s brow wrinkled, forming a firm, cushiony shelf over his eyes. “Think about it. There’s no alternative, really, if you think about how I am. The longer I go on, the more I ruin things. Everything. Lily’s alone, too, you know? She has been for a long time now. I ruined her, huh? I mean, she changed after me. She’s going around looking for someone who’s just like me and being afraid of everyone who’s just like me. It’s bad enough that I fuck up my life, but now her life is VERY fucked. She doesn’t deserve this. I probably did irreparable damage. The best-case scenario for her is that she gets over everything in a few years and then she’s just jaded. That’s the best option. That’s fucked up for a best option, Jimbo. It’s no good. I did that.” Hugo was shaking his head, scowling.
“Hugo, look at me.” James’s hands were in the air, mimicking someone pushing a box on a shelf, with his palms moving toward Hugo. “That’s not the best-case scenario. Look, normally, I’d say you need to forget her, and I believe that, too, but the thing is if everything you’re saying is true, then you still have some effect on her. It’s a bad effect, so you need to stay away for now, but she’s going to heal from this, you’re going to heal from this. Who’s to say that in a few years, you couldn’t meet up and exchange a good conversation and you couldn’t apologize to her and tell her about all the good shit you’ve done since then and maybe y’all could get some counseling or some shit? I mean, I don’t want you to fixate on that and that’s not a good goal for you to have, but if it’s meant to be, somehow, that shit’s gonna be. You’re really dramatizing this shit right now, Hugo. I don’t know why now, but shit’s gonna be fine. You don’t need to be trippin’ out right now. What happened, anyway? What set this off?”
Hugo avoided the question: “Nothing. I dunno. I’ve just been thinking. I just can’t believe shit went down like that. You know, I used to imagine being married when I was a kid. Not the wedding, not like that, but I knew I’d be married and have kids some day. And she’s all I ever really wanted. I could’ve been content, I could’ve been okay. Everything was right for a minute.
“Someone told me that she drinks more than she used to. I asked if she ever talks about me, and my friend said Lily hates talking about me and mostly limits discussion of me to mildly insulting things, through sneers. But one night, this friend of mine saw Lily in the restroom, crying, and she asked what was wrong, and Lily just started bawling, talking about how sweet and smart I was, how perfect it all had been, how she constantly misses me, constantly thinks about me, how she even fantasizes about me.”
James looked at Hugo curiously. Their eyes met awkwardly.
“Yeah. Sexually. But my friend was saying how Lily kept going back and forth because she sometimes didn’t know if she’d made the wrong choice, but that all she had to do was remember my freakout to realize she’d made the right choice, that I was a complete disaster and incredibly dangerous.”
Hugo was bothered by this thought. He paused to keep from crying. He was a little angry with himself, “She’s right you know. I am a dangerous disaster. No one should come near me.”
Hugo felt embarrassed and was consumed by the feeling that there was something very wrong with him.
“But the thing is that other guy was fucking awful to her and even worse for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’d dated him before, you know. They’re just not compatible at all. I mean, they get along okay in certain ways, but he’s so boring compared to her. I have no idea why she was into him. He’s kinda weird in a way and she’s used to him. Who the fuck knows?
“Anyway, I know you don’t really know what happened — not all of it. The thing is that what he did was so shitty. He knew that she and I were dating. She told him that she wanted to be friends with him, but he didn’t respect that. I don’t totally blame the guy. What would you do if you were in love with someone? Still, the whole thing is fucked. She and I were having these long talks about philosophy and we were joking around. Things were getting more serious and we’re thinking about how we can maybe date long term and shit.
“She told me how stupid her fights with him had been and those fights were nothing compared to my past relationships, but that’s just the thing: with her and me, there wasn’t really any fighting. Our conflicts were all so quickly defused that we never managed to get really mad at each other. I mean, sometimes there was tension but it was almost nothing. We respected each other and we had compatible strategies for dealing with these things. When she and her ex would fight, he’d just be a dick to her and not take any responsibility for anything. His strategy was to run away, punching the whole time.”
James was alarmed, “He’d hit her?”
“No, no. I meant figuratively. He’d just attack her as he was running away and then he’d stonewall her. This was his instinctual way of dealing with conflicts. He’d blame her and say shitty things to her and then wouldn’t talk about anything. You know people like that?”
“I think it’s pretty normal, really.”
“I agree. Anyway, she and I didn’t really fight; at least, not in an unhealthy way. With her, everything was good.”
James knew Hugo to be dramatic. He was skeptical, “Everything? Communication? Sex? Money?”
“I mean, neither of us was rich, but it wasn’t that big a deal. I was working a shitty job, and she wasn’t doing much of anything. She’d just come back from France.”
“What was she doing in France?”
“You know, I never totally understood it. She was studying and she was working, but it didn’t sound like she was doing either, exactly.”
“What’d she study?”
“Art and international politics.”
“Man… that shit’s fancy. She must’ve been a rich girl.”
“I mean, not rich, but her parents did okay. Anyway, yeah; everything was basically pretty good.”
“But you said the sex, though.”
“Yeah, man. The sex was good.”
“Was it really good, though? Tell me that nasty shit, Hugo. Like, was it the best you’d ever had?”
Hugo paused. “It was very good sex, but honestly, we hadn’t had all that much sex. When we’d started out, we hadn’t had sex because we knew she was going to France and we didn’t know what would happen. I mean, we only finally kissed right before she left.”
“That’s some real rom-com shit there, Hugo, but you’re avoiding the question. Best? Not the best?”
“Yeah, lemme explain.”
“Well, so yeah, at first, it really was some cheesy shit, but it was so nice. We would mostly just talk and joke around. We’d stare at each other a lot and we’d find little excuses to, like, brush up against each other. We’d kind-of, almost hold hands, until finally we did hold hands and later that day was when we finally made out, right before she took off. She was kinda fascinated with me. I was fascinated with her, too, of course, but she mentioned over and over how she liked my energy, and she would just stare at me. She’d think I didn’t notice, but I did.”
“Hugo, you’re not even that good-looking. I mean, you’re handsome and shit, but why the fuck would anyone just stare at you?”
“Well, she’s an artist, right?”
“And she’s one of those weird, curious, introverted girls.”
“You’re right. My bad. Well, she’s pretty weird. I mean, she’s into philosophy and politics and she’s super-creative. Most of the times I’ve ever seen her, there’s been paint on her somewhere. She often smells funny. Not bad, and not even really in a hippie way. It’s funny and it fits her. It’s sweet in a way.”
“You’re idealizing this shit, but go ahead. She smells like shit. Proceed.”
“Whatever. Well, yeah, so the sex was like, it never starts out as good as it gets, right? Well, that’s not true. You could fuck someone and the feelings are right but the sex itself is actually mediocre and somehow things quickly become very boring, so the first time or two is as good as it gets and then it wears off, I guess. At least, that’s happened to me before.”
Why was Hugo saying this shit? “Okay.”
“Okay, so this was different. It started out and we didn’t know what each other liked, you know?”
“Or, like, do you wanna be slapped? Do you want dirty talk in soft whispers? Is doing it in front of people your thing? Do you like some serious dominance? You can’t know at first, really.”
“Well, but you guys had been talking for a year, right?”
“No. I mean, yeah, but we had sex before then. Oh, right, so we didn’t have sex before she left, but she came back six months into her trip, just to visit family and shit. So we fucked then.”
“Yeah, so the thing was that we were so into each other at that point. I mean, by the time we saw each other when she came back, we both knew we were in love. I mean, we didn’t know until we saw each other and we didn’t say it to each other until after she went back to France, but we both knew. Maybe we knew before then. Maybe we’d known right away. But by then, we definitely knew. So the sex was crazy because of all this emotional tension that was pinned back, waiting to make its way out of us. It was just one of those surreal things to be finally making love to this person who was so amazing and such a positive force in my life. I knew her so well in so many ways and I trusted her. I finally felt safe. I’d been fucking around and ruining relationships and finally, someone knew me in this deep way, this way that you can’t describe, and she wanted to be with me. She wanted to be close to me and she wanted to experience things with me. We did all these things together and they were unique things and they were even more unique because they were with each other. We’re unique people but we also had this unique dynamic. It was really special. She wanted to be my girlfriend and I knew all this about her. I knew from the way she would still just stare at me. I knew because we could have these crazy conversations about things that we couldn’t talk to lots of other people about. Well, that’s not totally true. I mean, she and I were really similar and we had similar views. I think that it was special, but she’d tell me how there were other people in her life who were smart and curious and thoughtful and she could talk to them in a similar way. I don’t know that her conversations with others were as special as the way we could talk, but maybe I’m just biased.”
Hugo made an irritated face, half out of a sense of obligation. “So the sex was magical in a way, but we also didn’t really know what the fuck we were doing, yet. We didn’t really know each other’s bodies.”
“Y’all were talking all that time, and you didn’t know what each other was into?”
“Well, we were always talking about ethics and campaign finance reform and how much we like trees and spirituality and shit. I mean, we talked about some sexual stuff, but almost not at all. And she wasn’t that experienced. She’d fucked like two or three other guys or something: her totally inexperienced, shitty ex, and some other guy. Maybe another guy, too? This isn’t a detail I put too much care into remembering.”
Hugo stopped a second to remember where he was trying to go with the conversation.
“So it’s weird because this magical feeling eventually wore off a little, though not too much and not for long, since shit ended so abruptly. But the sex didn’t get worse because of it. It’s funny because I could tell she learned some shit from me. There was some shit that she really liked doing with me. It was cool because it was some shit that I really liked to do, but I could tell that, for her, maybe part of it was the novelty or something or maybe it was something else, but it was new and exciting for her. Anyway, we were getting better at figuring out how to fuck each other as we got more used to each other.”
Hugo looked away from James, as though the answer would suddenly appear in the environment. “Was it the best sex I ever had? I had some pretty fucking good sex with a couple other women. I’ll say this: it was the best sex in terms of me having been an actual, full-grown adult and it being so early in the relationship. Sex with other women always took a few times to get really good, so you have to try to compares apples to apples as much as you can.”
“I guess it would’ve become the best sex I ever had. I’m sure it would’ve been. It was the best early-on sex I ever had and everything was there for it to be the best. She’s so beautiful, so sweet, so sensitive, and we were so connected in such a profound way. If we’d fucked a few more times, I think that our beds would’ve become orgasm machines. It was getting there. I guess he was better at fucking her in some way.”
“Don’t do that, man. You taught her some shit. You just didn’t have the whole opportunity.”
“Yeah, and then she probably got him to do it to her.”
“Yeah, man; that’s how that goes. That’s life. It’s like a Drake song.”
“Yeah. Fuck, man.”
All he ever wanted was to feel connected to something, to someone. He slept long nights on a cold German floor, just to appease someone who he thought could love him. His life started with him being abandoned by the only person who was supposed to always love him, and society followed through with further isolation. He was different from everyone — his race, his background, his familial history. He was a fearful, anxious, sensitive child. Growing up in East Asia, other kids threw rocks at him and called him names. When he was adopted and eventually moved to America, he lived with strangers who claimed to love him despite never having known him, but he knew better. This was all he had now, and he had to make the best of it.
He gravitated to a cultural heritage not his own. He pored over documents to learn of parts of his new family’s past that were wholly non-Asian, as though he could rewrite his history, as though he could somehow be connected to something that was never meant for him. Maybe in learning of this side of his new family’s past and by living in his new family’s old country, he could curry favor from a patriarch who was nothing if not tough. Maybe people in the family’s old country would connect with him. He joined the military early, hoping to make his new dad proud, hoping to finally feel some connection to someone. His commanders broke his will. He learned to say, “Yessir” and “No sir,” and “I have no excuse, sir.” But after all this, he knew that his surrogate father was still not proud of him. So he decided to try to become a teacher., instead. He hoped the children could love him and he hoped to give something to a world that had been brutal to him. Maybe then he could be connected to something.
Once, when he was out of state, a policeman pulled him over, and he gave the policeman a vicious tongue-lashing because he knew that the officer was simply taking advantage of his power. The policeman figured people with out-of-state license plates were often engaging in criminal activity. Maybe this officer would find something for which he could throw this Chink in jail. But after the man’s violent response, the humbled policeman didn’t give a ticket. After all, the man had committed no violation and he’d been right about what he’d said about the cop.
He was discarded at birth and no one in the world ever managed to see him as a whole, valuable person. Now, just past middle age, he works a shitty 9-to-5 job, he has no savings, he lives in a humble apartment, and he watches bad television while eating takeout and drinking cheap beer. Alone.
Light amber honey
runs down freshly waxed slides.
Clouds in the distance
are punctuated by opal and diamond chandeliers.
Off-beat heart palpitations
chase down living hopes and fears.
Perhaps diamonds were rhinestones, after all.
Red, ripe figs flake and call.
Soft, unspoken words
tie bricks to untold stories
forever lost on the margins of romance.
Children’s games on grassy recesses
turn to sweaty glasses
between plaster and plywood,
on springs between pillars.
Everyone’s forgetting themselves,
building legends in their minds,
hoping to find life’s answers
to all which escapes daytime delusions:
their living hopes and fears,
their inescapable cognitions
of bitter bittersweet honest, inescapable, unintended reality.