Maybe We Can Stay This Way

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I can see him underwater the next lane over. He appears sharper through goggles than a person might in the real world. More vivid, bobbing, floating next to me. Ethereal and handsome -he is young, no older than 30, and lithe.

He has been swimming short, nearly frantic sprints – whereas I’ve been plodding along, more even paced, for the better part of a mile. I’m taken with him, the way you can only truly be taken with someone beautiful, who has yet to open their mouth.

And, he is beautiful. He’s a perfect, carved-from-renaissance-marble, Grade A thirst trap. His punk rock British flag speedo clings desperately, ephemerally to his human perfection, but he comports himself across the pool in semi-awkward fits and starts. Even this spastic swimming style has a way of wearing well on his frame. Strong, and broad of shoulder, his body is glossy – cut from sinew.

He seems almost unconscious of his phenomenal good looks, but that particular air has to be cultivated. You can’t pass through life that gorgeous and not have some sort of self awareness, can you?

I decide not to approach him. Having gamed it out, I’ve concluded – it can only end in disappointment. Either he’s arrogant, or an idiot, or not gay, or gay, but not into dudes in their 40s.

Or, even more likely, he’ll sniff out my own arrogant idiocy a mile away. I’ve run the numbers; it’s grim.

If it can’t end well, a professor of mine used to say, it’s better not to start at all.

I come to this decision about ten minutes after he gets into the pool, which, in a way, frees me up to fully enjoy his presence. Once I realize I’m not going to approach him, I stop being preoccupied with HOW I might do it – stop trying to rest at the wall conveniently next to him, stop trying to show off speed, or endurance, or form. Letting go of the possibility of meeting him frees me up to simply enjoy the model-of-human-perfection sharing these deserted three lanes with me.

And I do enjoy it. It’s a small joy to swim next to him – even though he thrashes a bit too much on his freestyle sprints. The whole thing seems a bit surreal, like a Dali painting maybe, or like we’re floating in space. He has faded, teal-yellow hair which might have lived a vibrant former life as a true indigo.

We continue like this for another fifteen minutes. Like astronauts but more graceful. Like dancers, but less. Being so close, almost naked with him is having an effect on me. I feel safer, smarter, more graceful, even better looking. I start to wonder if maybe I will approach him after all. Maybe, I think to myself, he only speaks some Eastern European language. Maybe we can stay this way forever, only ever communicating the most basic things to one another. Are you hungry, my beautiful darling? Are you cold? Thirsty? Would you like to have frantic, rowdy sex on this sectional sofa?

But, suddenly, he is gone. I see his smooth body slip up and out – breaking through the undulating ceiling of our small, shared universe – nullifying it. Canceling out the whole experience. A moment ago he existed, luminous, flailing, pulsing next to me in the water. Now, he doesn’t exist at all. Now, he’s just a symbol of a few brief, quiet, joyous moments. Something for me to write about later. A memory.

Good, I think to myself.

I can finally take a piss.

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The Heroin Addict’s Wife

I’m sorry I didn’t text you back. A walk sounded nice, and if I’m being honest the weather was absolutely perfect for it. Right after sunset. Right between the day’s heat and the night’s chill. I couldn’t really find the energy for it, somehow. At the time I was driving past a thick, imperious column of smoke on the 105 – a textile factory caught ablaze in Lynwood.

I spent the morning glued to Facebook – so many women coming forward with testimonials about assault, abuse, rampant misogyny in show business, and also a friend posted about National Coming Out Day in a poignant, cogent way. He used to capitulate to homophobic banter in an effort to hurry it along, to move past it with blushing self-consciousness, to bury it. The eye contact he would make with women afterward. Conspiratorial acknowledgement of a darker, unsaid truth between them. Mutual ill feelings creeping up spines – forcing laughter together at homophobic jokes or hyper-masculine energy that, unchallenged, goes way too far. A shameful, empty feeling as one contributes to one’s own subtle oppression. Awfulness.

I’ve been incommunicado and that’s nearly unforgivable. I was billing hours at Renata’s house. She, a budding, bubbling teenage girl, just coming into her own special, savage power. A bright light, affable, funny, outgoing. A charmer.

I would have answered your FaceTime request, but there was apocalyptic traffic today. Google maps showed a red line all the way past the downtown area, and I was suddenly overtaken with a taxing, almost leaden exhaustion. Nearly falling asleep at the wheel, I pulled off near Rosecrans into a 7/11 parking lot, parking in a sliver of shade beneath a billboard advertizing the Hustler Casino. Liz Flynt encouraging people to “Play Harder.”

I got the Snapchat ping – you sent me a short video, but I didn’t get a chance to look at it before it went away. 

The 7/11, the angry plume of smoke rising like a bomb blast, blotting out the distant horizon. Barely able to keep my eyes open, I eased the seat back. For a while I thought sleep would overtake me. Strange, absurd visions – fantasies played out before my darkened eyelids. I couldn’t let go of sweet Renata, of the sour smell she lives in. The rankness. Inky, dark, tar-like paths cut through her apartment’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Years of oily, dirty feet tracking filth – grinding it down. Let’s be honest, if you steam cleaned that carpet you’d regret it for a week – the smell would send folks running for the hills.

I got your follow-up text. I’ll read and respond, I promise.

Renata in my mind, bringing consciousness back. Padlocks on the doors, the colony of ants, unchecked, unfettered in the bathroom, the mini fridges in each of their rooms  guarding the spoils of their monthly CalFresh benefits. Her father, moaning and shouting in the next room, (Is he drunk; it’s the middle of the afternoon?!) unintelligible even to Renata herself. She doesn’t mind. She’s glowing.

She loves when I visit, she says; I remind her of The Great Gatsby.

I saw your shout out on Twitter and I blushed at the compliment, thank you. I owe you a few likes and maybe even a re-tweet –  it’s just at that particular moment I was reclining in the 7/11 parking lot and trying to nap during an early rush hour, and it all came over me at once. The reality of Renata’s situation. Her low probability of succeeding her way out. The generational poverty morass she was born into – a life lived next to the steaming churn of a factory down by the harbor. The lowness. The squalor.

Hot, salt tears splashed suddenly, my body wracked with spasms. A gasp. A stone sewn into my heart, my gut shook to pieces. The slow tick of the Toyota engine in the heat of the cracked asphalt parking lot.

Your WeChat message came through, darling, but I was baking in the desert sun, prosessing, purging. There was a time I prided myself on having “integrity of communication.” I responded to every email. Answered every single text. I’m sorry, but I’m just not that person anymore. That isn’t me. 

This afternoon, as Renata and I were trying to cobble together an outfit to wear to her job interview, there was a rapping at the window. A wizened, crone-like woman, seemingly carved out of driftwood, tapped away at the thin, sliding windowpane. Oh, Renata said, smiling with a shrug, that’s the heroin addict’s wife. She pays my dad 100 bucks a month to park her van in the back yard. She lives back there with her husband. Renata slid the window open. The heroin addict’s wife wanted to charge her iPad. 

I rejected all your calls and powered my phone down. I sobbed and squeezed out all of today’s terror into a compact Japanese car in a 7/11 parking lot.

Forgive me, I  whispered into my black, sleeping iPhone.

Forgive me, I haven’t been myself lately.

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