Summer’s been so hot that my skin itches to get free. The type of July heat that burrows beneath you and remains there long after you’ve left the light. My brain can barely make it over the everyday hurdles, so I promise myself a cold beer once I make it to the finish line. Gold medal. Deserved win.
The air is thick with want. The bugs arrive in packs seeking flesh slicked with sweat. The unlucky ones find themselves flying toward a glowing trap — light, then darkness. The quick, sweet buzz of a life.
Tonight I’m a passenger in a black car moving along a blue night.
It’s midnight and a man is driving me away from the city to his apartment. I met him just half an hour ago over drinks on a bar patio.
That’s not true. We first interacted six months earlier, but I never told anyone about him. It was in an airport, Gate C35. It was December, and all outgoing flights were delayed because of a snowstorm, causing our terminal to overflow with the tired, the upset, the fuming. There were no available seats, so I crouched on the ground against the wall and plugged my computer into an outlet. Every now and then a man caught my attention as he paced back and forth, impatient, calculating.
He looked at me with a mixture of intense anger and curiosity, a look I’m not unfamiliar with when it comes to men. I was aware of him, but I avoided him. I ignored him when he looked at me during the flight on his way to the restroom. I purposefully chose a spot at baggage claim where our views of each other were obstructed. And I didn’t look back — not once — as I walked away.
But I couldn’t refuse him when, later that night, he found me online and began talking to me. I was taken aback. I wanted to know so badly how he tracked me down, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Knowing would make it real. And then I’d have to take responsibility for the situation. If I chose to stay in the dark, it was still a fantasy. With enough distance, I felt safe. I was free to live in my crazy. The only thing that seemed to matter was that a handsome stranger went out of his way to find me, and that’s a hard thing to turn down. The flattery, being the object of desire. Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to be a mistake.
“Do you like this song?” he says, turning up the radio.
“No, too depressing,” I say.
He presses the seekbutton.
“This?” he says, stopping on another station
“No, too romantic.”
“Your choice then.”
“This will work,” I say, settling on a song so loud that everything else fades into the background.
When I think of driving, I think of death. I practiced learning how to steer our family’s minivan under my mother’s instruction. Before letting me loose on the road, she’d take me to the cemetery that my grandfather was buried in. Nice and slow, with no one around.
Except for the family planting orange blossoms at a grave. And the young woman kneeling at a stone and wiping her face. And the workers digging a fresh site for a coffin. When it was warm, I would roll down the windows and my mother would close her eyes, pulling her feet up onto the dashboard.
“Home, James,” she’d say, using my middle name to refer to me as her chauffeur.
“You want to leave already?”
“No, you know what I mean.”
And so I’d keep driving, turning the vehicle around and around in circles while she hummed along to the radio, tapping her fingers in beat against the arm rest. I love these moments alone in the car. Sometimes I wondered how far we could get without refueling if we just kept going.
Once, on a late-night drive, we saw two huge, bright lights hovering in the sky.
“What are those?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Should we find out?”
We thought they might be UFOs, so we chased them down, our own two headlights blazing the path along dirt roads, through fields — all the way into town where reached the mall plaza. Two spotlights moved in tandem, advertising a department store’s big blowout sale.
“That’s it?” I said.
“I guess so,” my mother said. “But what were we expecting? If there’s life out there, they wouldn’t bother with our boring town. Let’s go home.”
But I wanted to find other life. I needed it. I needed to know that we could find love, even in the darkest days.
This man’s apartment is cold, big, the color of a cracked eggshell. It feels unfinished, like it hasn’t been lived in, even though he tells me he’s been here for a year. His room is decorated with some Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia: a black-and-gold jersey, a pennant, an autographed football. But otherwise there’s just the standard furniture, including a bed that’s too stiff against my spine.
His bed is an operating table. The walls, a hummingbird’s heartbeat: one-hundred-and-eighty a minute.
We’re miles away from the city and there’s no way for me to get home until he drives me back in the morning, where I’ll ask him to drop me off ten blocks from my apartment so he won’t know where I live.
He reaches for a condom, and then he wraps his hands around my ruby red throat like a surgeon removing my vocal chords. I am quiet and still, my body accepting him. The only parts of me that move are my eyes, fluttering to the window. I look out and turn off all the lights one-by-one until sleep overcomes me. But it is only a half-sleep. I twitch all night, haunted by the reoccurring dream in which a small sparrow interrupts a bullet to the chest just before flight.
I didn’t want him. I never did. I went home with him for the same reason that we all do dangerous things. To live through it.
Some days later, the summer heat still boils my blood. I feel not unlike Bigfoot, running around in all this hair. It’s time for a cut, I think, time to ditch that old look.
“Sit,” my barber says in his Russian accent.
He ushers me to a black leather chair. Like a magician, he materializes a cape from behind his back — billowing soft fabric that drapes me like traps. My first instinct is to run, but I came out of hiding long ago. I relax in front of the mirror like a trained performer.
Scissors shine on the table next to me. Silver-tongued tools sanitize in jars the color of sea-green saliva. Thirst is something I know well.
“How do you like?” he asks, raking my hair into fields the color of chocolate. The ring on his left hand catches my cowlick, the tricky one, the one that sits atop my crown.
I think: With tiger lilies tucked behind my ears — camouflage, sunburn.
Instead I say, “The same, just shorter.”
When I revealed who I was, somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I’d be celebrated, honored, bejeweled. The fact is I was humbled. Ordinary. Alone.
I can see in my reflection that my mouth turns down naturally. Once, a man told me that I move through my life like a zombie.
“So I’m alive! Alive!” I shouted, until I was no longer hungry.
He didn’t laugh. He stared at me. So I gazed right back with my own seal-black eyes — two big, perforated holes in my head slicked back by water.
“No,” he said. “It means that if I stopped seeing you after today, and you became famous, well-known, a legend — well, I might pause for a second at the mention of your name. But then I’d move on without a second thought, not knowing where to place you.”
Sometimes I’m afraid he was right.
“You want product?” my barber says, waking me up. He rubs his palms together and begins to set my hair with pineapple gel that smells like a faraway place I’ve never been. His touch feels warm and comforting. I wish he wouldn’t stop.
He moves through me, repeating: “Like this, okay? Like this. Like this. You come back.”