Featured in Colorado Review
The Land of Motionless ChildhoodFeatured, Fiction
Published Spring 2014
Other people’s dust didn’t normally bother Kenny, but when Etienne unplugged the hipsters’ television set and gathered the cord to wind into a neat coil, the gray, rat-shaped clump that rode atop the snaking cord had an oiliness, something organic about it that made him flinch. Etienne flicked the cord once, and the dust rat rolled into a corner. He grabbed the other end of the TV while one of the hipsters who lived in the apartment dragged a box away from the doorway so Kenny and Etienne could more easily haul the thing down three flights of stairs to the moving truck.
The hipsters were Kenny’s age, late twenties. These three—two guys and one girl—were moving from a huge three-bedroom apartment in Alphabet City to a huger six-bedroom house in Brooklyn. The girl may have been “with” the one guy. The other guy was gay, but nobody who would ever interest Kenny. The gay guy looked like one of those bitchy fags, probably a designer at some fashion house, or some shitty prodigy at the top of his field making tons of money. He looked like someone who would think Kenny—a sometime-student whose current goal was to graduate from college before he turned thirty—gave homosexuals a bad name. All three of the hipsters stunk of success, and Kenny figured their staying together to move to Brooklyn was an attempt to re-create some sort of commune like that house in Brooklyn in the 1940s where those writers lived with that gay poet and the stripper. By the time they’d gotten the television down to the first-floor landing, Kenny hated these people completely, and that old exhaustion crept up on him.
It had been a week of playful, too-warm November weather in which a crisp day could flip into a flash thunderstorm, or a driving rain could blow off in a blustery huff, leaving behind a crystal afternoon. They’d been hauling for three hours and had long ago shed their jackets. The air outside was not quite cool enough. The high, harsh sun nursed Kenny’s hatred of the hipsters, but as they approached the truck an enormous, pillowy cloud moved over the day, silvering the air, calming all the shadows to a soft haze.
And then it happened again. Etienne had leveraged his end of the television on the back of the truck while Kenny pushed his end in. Etienne hopped onto the truck bed with a muscular lunge, and Kenny heard his French accent even in his grunt, which was more of an ehh than an American-sounding unhh. Kenny stayed outside the truck and watched Etienne cushion and secure the television with old blankets and ropes. When Etienne bent, his thin shirt pulled against the strong line of muscle that ran from beneath his armpit down to the small of his back. A faded blue-and-red quilt cushioned the TV; boxes were stacked one upon another; a wooden chair sat upside down on top of an emptied bookshelf; and yet in all the topsy-turviness of it, a real sense of home emerged. The sight of Etienne inside this makeshift home—the curve of his firm ass perched perfectly inside his jeans, and the pouch at his zipper suggesting, even relaxed, something of real substance—lifted Kenny out of his achingly bored, envious, mean-hearted body and held him aloft in a transcendent comfort. It lasted three seconds, maybe five, and then Etienne shifted. Kenny dropped plunk back down into his world, Etienne hopped off the truck, and they hustled back up the three flights of stairs to haul down the next load.
As they drove from the East Village to Brooklyn, Etienne, who was driving, said, “Gay guy.”
“Rich,” Kenny said. “Spoiled. Connecticut or Vermont. Or went to boarding school somewhere in Massachusetts.”
“Boarding school,” said Etienne. “The furniture. Heavy, old wood in a plain style. His wealth, it announce itself with simple, well-made objects. Shows sophistication.”
“In his family,” Kenny said, “love is money, so he thinks his parents love him, but they are all happier apart. He had the run of a ten-bedroom house, but preferred the garret with the little octagonal window that overlooked the extensive grounds.”
Etienne said, “He sleeps well among dust, spider webs, mahogany rafters, the smell of raisins, and damp wool blankets.”
“Dream time?” asked Kenny.
“How do you call this smell in cement basements? Where the mushrooms grow?”
Etienne shook his head.
“Oui, this is it. He daydream in a basement like this, in a corner with a candle and a book. Or outside among leaves, back against a brick wall. Here he discovers what he wishes to be in life. Or a nook under a stair. Yes. Yes, yes, yesss. Among the brooms.”
“Awww,” said Kenny. After a pause in which he absorbed the image of the poor little rich boy daydreaming among the brooms, he said, “Girl.”
“California,” said Etienne. “Not rich, but not too much poor. The parents, they divorce as she is maybe nine years old. Small house, no basement, in a suburb. Very far from the ocean. Grandmother with a beach house where she feels most safe. You see the paintings? Too much yellow and orange. Not so much blue as I would like. She is most happy with the smell of fried clams, rosewater perfume. Sleep comes upon the crackle of pages as someone near reads a magazine. Her dark daydream place?”
“Many,” said Kenny. “Mostly her bedroom, on the floor near the door, looking up and out at the window. When nobody was home she’d sit in their small living room, pull the gauzy curtains closed, look at the glow, wish, and dream, and imagine her future life.”
“I am French and straight,” said Etienne. “You are American and gay. We are at a disadvantage with the American straight man.”
“He made that wooden chess set,” said Kenny. “Or someone made it for him. He’d rather play games than talk about anything seriously. Maybe Minnesota.”
Etienne took a stab at it. “He imagine his future from the top step of a back apartment house staircase. The hall has one bulb only. No one walks there. Father left, suicided.”
“His books. Completely organized. Five boxes with only the black-spined Penguin paperbacks in alphabetical order by author and title. The other boxes of various publishers arranged by height and width of book. The bookshelves, also he make these. He pack the books, dust and condition the shelves. They smell of wood oil. He must have windows, facing east. He prefer the sunrise to the sunset. Must shower immediately after sex.”
They pulled onto the Brooklyn street and looked for the brownstone’s address.
“Sleep inducer?” asked Kenny.
“Cotton sheets with the smell of fabric softener. Windex. Candle smoke.”
By the time they’d parked, any enmity Kenny had harbored against the hipsters had dissipated. Etienne had shown him how to turn any asshole back into a human being with their game, and this was just one more reason why Kenny loved him.
Moving people in took only a quarter of the time it took to move them out. The straight guy stood at the door directing them where to put the boxes. The gay guy’s bedroom was the large garret on the third floor with bay windows looking east, into which they moved a futon, a desk, and bookcases. The straight guy and girl moved into the bedroom with the north-facing window. Three dressers and an armoire went in there, despite the fact that all the rooms had enormous closets.
When every last thing had been hauled in, Kenny and Etienne met the straight guy in the kitchen, where he was measuring the wall and hammering nails at all different heights. He stopped to write them their check only after he had finished hanging the last of his six copper pots and pans, evenly spaced. Despite the varied lengths of their handles, the bottom edges of the pots formed a perfect horizontal line. As they left, Kenny and Etienne waved goodbye to the girl, who was in the living room unwrapping her paintings, torn newspaper scattered everywhere.
In Kenny’s experience, there were two kinds of French people: charmers and snots. Etienne was a charmer. Etienne’s girlfriend, Hélène, was not. In the two brief times they’d met—once on the street and once coming out of a movie—Hélène appeared to make a point of lifting her nose at Kenny in greeting, angling her whole body away from him to harp at Etienne in French. In parting, to Kenny’s “nice to meet you,” she tilted her head, squinched her eyes slightly, and widened her thin, flattened lips into something that suggested the kind of smile that she was just too tired to really mean. She was petite, fine boned, graceful, with dark, glossy hair in a pixie cut. Her dark eyes and olive skin made her the very picture of a French woman.
Kenny had met Etienne in an advanced Drawing from Life night class at the Art Students League. They gravitated toward each other’s work immediately. Etienne’s lines and curves were so clean and exact that the figure became more interesting because it was rendered with so few strokes. His lines thinned and thickened in unexpected ways that perfectly captured the mood of the pose. Etienne said he was in love with Kenny’s shading, that he wished he could figure out how his shadows created such a stirring sense of life where one would expect only a cold body. He told Kenny that his work really breathed, that the beauty of it was almost difficult to look at. He asked Kenny, “Comment dit-on ‘poignant’?”
“Poignant,” said Kenny, and with that one word Kenny knew he’d made a friend.
In long talks before and after class, which met once a week, Kenny learned that Etienne was an out-of-work architect living with his girlfriend, who was a translator at the United Nations. Hélène encountered a steady stream of diplomats, dignitaries, and their wealthy friends who needed to move into, out of, and around the city. Etienne got the idea to rent a truck, charge costs to the client, and make a bundle on every move. He easily enlisted Kenny as a partner. Etienne also put an ad in the Village Voice, and started a Facebook page. They charged an outrageously high fee, which had two effects: (1) they became desirable because they seemed exclusive, and (2) they could pick and choose their clients, thereby keeping the work down to about one job a month. The fee, when split, paid about two months of Kenny’s rent; the rest paid for classes to finish his BFA and the applications for graduate school in arts administration. He paid for the extra classes at the Art Students League with his part-time job as a secretary at MoMA, and by modeling nude for an older instructor he no longer slept with.
Etienne was open, smart, funny, and forgiving of Kenny’s worst qualities. What Kenny had thought of as his biggest embarrassments and character flaws became, when discussed with Etienne, simply shreds of information that made up the complex network of Kenny’s life, distinct from other people’s lives, but no less beautiful. “To the circle, the square is flawed,” said Etienne. “And likewise. Possibly. But the beauty is to both.”
Kenny’s worst quality was his bitterness, his judgmental nature, his tendency to think the worst of people at the slightest provocation. It was a part of his personality he hated, but couldn’t seem to change on his own. He figured it was similar to how fat people might feel about themselves, which should have made him more sympathetic to their plight, but didn’t. He suspected this negativity contributed to his loneliness. Occasionally he tried to see himself from outside, as others might see him, and it wasn’t flattering. He’d become the kind of bitter, bitchy fag he complained about so much. He couldn’t quite figure it out. He’d been born into a happy-go-lucky family—how had he become such a drag to be around? When they played the game Etienne had taught him—to look for people’s childhood-dream places based on the arrangements and types of objects in their homes—Kenny felt something in him lift. He hoped that with enough practice he could learn to be as openhearted and accepting of people as Etienne was. So when Etienne invited Kenny to their apartment for Thanksgiving dinner, Kenny was happy for the chance to find Hélène’s better side.
They lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Murray Hill. In contrast to Etienne’s floridly accented English, Hélène’s was slow, grammatically perfect, and spoken in a flattened voice that sounded vaguely Canadian. When he’d met Hélène that first unpleasant time in the street, Kenny assumed she’d had a fight with Etienne and was still angry at him. But within a few minutes of entering their home, Kenny worried this might be her perpetual demeanor.
Kenny had seen couples who seemed wholly mismatched before, but usually it was the woman who was the open, funny, and vivacious one, and the man who was the dry, humorless drudge. Whenever he’d seen this with his girlfriends’ boyfriends, he’d attributed the attraction to the power of cock. This was his first encounter with a vivacious-male/drudge-female couple, and he had to consider their coupling governed by the power of pussy, which he had much more difficulty understanding.
The only French-looking thing in their apartment was the blond wood floor, which looked professionally worn down. The rest of the place was painfully modern, almost cheap-looking. The chairs, instead of the heavy wood Kenny expected, had framework of hollow metal, possibly aluminum. Instead of deep burgundies, Mediterranean blues, rustic greens, or blood orange, the color scheme was closer to the mauve and teal found on the wallpaper and vinyl chairs in nursing homes. Bunches of flowers that had been hung upside down until drained of life were clumped together, stapled to poster board, encased in glass, and hung to cover patches of the beige walls.
Kenny had felt more at home in dentist offices. He’d had the foresight to bring two bottles of wine, one red and one white, and a cramped part of his heart hoped Hélène didn’t drink.
“Allo,” she said. “So happy you could join us.” Then she said something to Etienne in French. Etienne kissed Kenny on both cheeks, then went off behind the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. Hélène motioned for Kenny to sit down. His chair cushion deflated under him with a muffled hiss.
“So,” Kenny said. “You work at the UN.”
“Do you like it?”
“But of course.”
A long silence followed. Kenny looked around the apartment. He was about to ask if she had seen Etienne’s drawings from class, and suggest they put some on the walls, when Etienne said, “Red or white?”
Kenny hopped up. “Let me help you with that.” In the kitchen, a large bowl of greens sat next to three identical plates, each prepared with a thin slice of chicken breast, a dab of cranberry sauce, and a tiny chicken leg. Etienne showed Kenny a bottle of red wine and said, “We start with the French. After dinner, we move to America.”
Hélène slipped between Etienne and Kenny and said, “Although it is Thanksgiving, we didn’t make turkey because we don’t eat so much food. We have chicken instead. We hope you do not mind.”
“This is great,” said Kenny. “A rare delicacy, in fact. You don’t find many three-legged chickens.”
Hélène froze her features, as if waiting for a cold wind to pass, while Kenny and Etienne laughed. Perhaps, thought Kenny, this served her well in her capacity as a translator. The ability to keep a blank face when delivering uncomfortable information between warring countries must be an asset. He hoped for Etienne’s sake that all the emotion she bottled up in public came out in the bedroom.
Hélène carried two plates into the living room and set them on the coffee table among a substantial array of cheese and crackers. Etienne followed with Hélène’s white wine and another plate, and Kenny brought up the rear with his and Etienne’s glasses of red. Hélène directed Etienne to sit next to her on the couch, but before sitting down, she scraped her fingernails up and down between Etienne’s shoulder blades in a movement that was too quick and rough to scratch an itch or to soothe in any way. Etienne sank back into the couch; Hélène sat with her butt on the edge of the cushion, her side propped up against the couch’s arm. She sipped her wine and said, “Your family is here, but you do not celebrate your holiday with them.”
“Oh, no. They live in Ohio.”
“I have noticed Americans are somewhat lazy when it comes to travel, even within their own country.”
“It gets expensive.”
“Is good to spend Thanksgiving with an American,” said Etienne. “You can teach us.”
Hélène laughed, short and sharp. “Everything with Etienne is teach. Teach, teach, teach, as if nobody knows anything or can figure it out of their own.”
“He teaches me how to be a better person, though. We play a game.”
Hélène said something in French.
“Pardon?” Kenny said.
“Le Pays de l’Enfance Immobile,” she said. “This is the name of your game.”
“She does not play,” Etienne said.
“I have no time for such things,” she said. She brought the salad bowl in from the kitchen, placed a tong-full of greens on each of their plates. They ate where they sat around the coffee table.
By the time they’d all eaten, Kenny was exhausted trying to figure out how to stay within the confines of Hélène’s apparent sense of decorum and protocol. He struggled to remain polite, mature, to try to find something they could all talk about. He and Etienne finished the bottle of red. After exchanging a few more banal compliments about the food, Kenny decided to relax. He suggested opening the wine he’d brought, and while struggling with the cork he asked Hélène, “Why don’t you like our game?”
“One can spend a life making things up, or one can spend one’s life attending to what is real.” She looked at Etienne. “Money is real. Politics is real. Making up stories about strangers is . . . pouf. Like smoke. Pollution.”
Etienne laughed and kissed Hélène on the lips. “My little realist. She is something, no?”
Kenny poured two generous glasses of wine as Etienne snuggled up against the little ball of hard reality he called his girlfriend. Kenny reached for Hélène’s glass to refill with white. “Not for me,” Hélène said. “I must work tomorrow. And you and Etienne move the movie star tomorrow, no?” It was true that they had a big moving job the next day, but now Kenny played Hélène’s game, made his face blank, acted as if he hadn’t heard her, and filled her glass the fullest.
As he was pouring, it crossed Kenny’s mind that Etienne might be one of those people who are drawn to negative people, which didn’t necessarily reflect flatteringly on his friendship with Kenny.
“Do all French people know this game?”
“No,” Hélène said. “Etienne and his school friends made it up. The name comes from a phrase in a book by a French philosopher. His premise, as I understand it, is that our childhoods are always with us and take up space in our lives as in a house. I reject this. The only moment that matters is now. Work hard. Make your life. This is why the world is such a mess. People who cling to childhood should be spanked and sent to bed without dinner until they learn to take responsibility. The game is all imagination. Objects are only objects. To decide on a person based only on the surface is superficial and silly.”
“But it’s not deciding. It’s imagining. Etienne imagines only the best in people, and this is a good lesson for me. I’m not so naturally generous of heart. Imagination is, after all, the most important human faculty.”
She laughed one of her sharp, little laughs, swept some crumbs from the table into the palm of her hand. “If you say so,” she said, her cupped hand swiveling left and right from her bent elbow as she walked to the kitchen and lightly slapped the crumbs off into the sink. She sat back down as if she’d made her point.
Etienne had set out thick squares of dark chocolate for dessert, taking two squares into his own napkin. He bit off a tiny corner of one square and followed it with a sip of wine, so Kenny followed his lead. Kenny let the chocolate dissolve in his mouth, then bathed his tongue in the wine. The wine was very good.
“But,” Kenny continued, “something happens when you imagine another person’s dream place, especially if you have a distaste for the person for reasons you can’t understand. If you imagine them as a child, as they might have been at a point before they were fully formed, when they were confused, bursting with yearning, it softens something, helps make them more human, more likeable.”
Kenny refilled Etienne’s glass, which was still half full, and then his own, which he had emptied.
Hélène said, “What about you, then? What was your dream place?”
Had she asked this two glasses of wine earlier, Kenny may have heard the question differently, but right then he was grateful. He felt that already the game was transforming Hélène. He told her his story. “I am the fifth of six children. My parents are wonderful. My family is wonderful, but we were sort of poor, so cramped in a small house. My job was to fold my and my three brothers’ clothes and stack them neatly on the left side of the steps, because we didn’t have enough closet space in the room we shared upstairs. I would sit on the stairs and fold clothes for hours, and I loved it. I would close the door at the bottom of the steps. Muted light seeped in from the windows at the top of the stairs. I could hear other people in the house, but I was all by myself. I spent a lot of time there thinking of what I wanted to do in life, what I wanted to become.”
As he spoke, New York disappeared. He was home in Ohio, safe and loved. It was still possible to become a famous artist. People would one day find his work in a museum, sit in front of it for hours, just looking. His work would change these people in a way deeper than they could understand.
“And then what?” asked Etienne.
When Etienne spoke it was like they were alone again, and Kenny forgot that Hélène was in the room. “Oh, you know. I did grow up, like it or not.” And then he told his other story. He was a good boy gone gay. He’d wanted to be wild. He won a scholarship to Ohio State to study art, but the summer after high school he met a man and had his first affair. To an eighteen-year-old, a twenty-year-old seemed like a man. His name was John. John was home visiting family briefly before going back to finish his last year at NYU. John and two other guys were looking for a fourth to room with them in an apartment they’d found on Washington Square. So Kenny took all the money he’d saved from his weekend and summer jobs during the previous four years, gave up his scholarship, told his loving, confused family to whom he’d been so close that he was gay and was moving to New York to become a “real artist.” He’d wanted drama, and he got it, but not from his family, who were mostly just worried about him. He had a good imagination. He imagined himself aggrieved, put-upon, unloved, all of which he realized was completely wrong only after the sex-crazed haze in which he’d moved to New York lifted.
He looked up. Here he was, almost thirty, still struggling to graduate, Etienne his only real friend, no boyfriend for three years, too proud or too ashamed—he could never tell which—to go back home, where he was loved without condition.
“I see,” Hélène said. “And where are you now? Are you living the life you so vigorously dreamed?” It was the first expression of real mirth he’d seen play across her face all evening. She leaned forward. “Is your dream real?” she prodded.
He hated her partly because she was right, but mostly because she hadn’t the grace to refrain from pointing it out.
“People are real,” Kenny said. “Hope is real.”
“Hope is an abstraction. It is not real, which you can see for yourself in your life. By definition, hope is not real.”
“If, right now, you and I were alone, and I overpowered you, tied you up, pulled a switchblade and held it to your tender throat, you would hope that I wouldn’t use it, wouldn’t you? That hope would be real.”
“Again, silly imagining. We are not here alone. I am not overpowered. This means nothing.”
“Do you not have hopes for your life? Career? Marriage? Children? A different home? Something? Anything?”
“I do not hope. I work. I make my life. Anything less is childish.”
“And you think I’m silly. Do you think Etienne is silly?”
Even though it lasted only a few seconds, the silence spread out and made itself felt in the room.
“I think drinking too much is silly.”
Over the next few minutes, Kenny had time to regret not paying sufficient attention in his high school French class, but he was happy his attention to gesture and expression in his drawing classes gave him a little key to the conversation Etienne and Hélène were having privately in front of him. Kenny was sorry to have made Etienne unhappy, but he hoped it might be better for him in the long run. And, try as he might, he couldn’t squelch his satisfaction at having made Hélène unhappy. At one point, they stopped talking. Hélène stood abruptly, gathered the half-full wineglasses and dumped them in the kitchen sink. Kenny got his coat, hugged Etienne, and said thank you. Hélène was washing the dishes. Kenny yelled, “Good night. Thank you.”
Hélène nodded, turned off the faucet, wiped her hands, made her face blank, and walked to where he stood at the door. She shook his hand once, vigorously, and said, “Good night.”
Kenny would have loved to have charmed and have been charmed by Etienne’s girlfriend. Since that hadn’t happened, he wanted to make sure Etienne knew how much Kenny loved him, but he couldn’t figure out a natural way to say it, or a way that didn’t reveal how he sometimes lost hours wondering about Etienne’s foreskin. He wanted to tell Etienne that finding a true friend was like falling in love, in that it was miraculous and unforeseen, but he’d noticed that sometimes straight people get weird and confused when a gay man mentions the word “love” in relation to “friendship.”
The next morning, they moved the movie star, their biggest account yet in a job that would pay for the rest of Kenny’s bachelor’s degree. They met at the subway in Chelsea on Twenty-Third Street and Eighth Avenue to go pick up the truck. Etienne was a gentleman and a peacemaker, and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at dinner. By the time they were in the truck on the way to the Upper West Side, Kenny considered that perhaps nothing really had happened at dinner except that his overactive imagination, fueled by wine, had gotten the better of him.
The movie star and his family were moving from a penthouse apartment they were renting in the Belnord, to a bigger penthouse apartment he’d bought on West End Avenue. Through the gilded gates of the Belnord, they saw the cobblestones of a circular drive that wound around a babbling fountain, but the guard at the gate directed them to the back entrance.
The few objects in the movie star’s apartment that hadn’t already been packed were a little daunting because of the fineness of the quality, but they were nothing a sure hand and careful footing couldn’t preserve. Beyond that, the objects were not very interesting, offering no real clues to the inner life of the person who had acquired them. There was a sense of fine fakery in the furniture and art that didn’t match the actor’s working-class Boston roots everyone had read about. They wouldn’t be able to play their game, because it would say more about the actor’s decorator than about the actor, and that wasn’t nearly as satisfying.
Even though the actor was moving only a few blocks to the west, he asked Kenny and Etienne to go up to the Bronx first to pick up a painting he’d just bought from an artist there. He offered them a generous bonus for the favor.
They were mostly silent on the drive up to the Bronx. Kenny cherished their ability to sit comfortably in silence, believing it a sign of true communion and friendship. But on the way back they hit a snag in traffic that made the prolonged silence more conspicuous and less comfortable. It was a big, blustery day with low, dramatic-looking clouds. As Kenny watched the leaves and litter twirl in circles on the pavement, he hit upon a way to give Hélène a second chance. He felt that if he didn’t make an effort soon, he could lose Etienne as a friend.
“Where is Hélène’s dark dream place?”
“Ha! You see last night, is silly to her. She does not play this game.”
“But you must have an opinion. It would help me get to know her better. If she were someone we were moving, what dream place would you give her?”
“I have been to her childhood home, so this is not fair. What if you say it?”
“Yes. This is excellent. Your turn. Tell me please of Hélène’s dark dream place.”
“Ha! Good start. Mais, more specific, please.”
“I’m at a disadvantage. I don’t know which objects at your place are yours or which are hers.”
“The second bedroom only—my studio—which you did not see, is done by me.”
“It has to be a happy place, right?”
“But of course.”
“I’m not sure I can do this, Etienne.”
Etienne did his French version of tsk, tsk, tsk. “Do not be chicken, Kenny.”
“I hate to say it, but I have a hard time imagining Hélène happy.”
Etienne laughed. “This is the game. You see?”
At first, Kenny tried to come up with something flattering to Hélène, but he abandoned this technique quickly because it was insincere, and his imagination dried up. Instead, he looked for some truth, hoping it would lead him naturally to a more generous, openhearted understanding of her.
After a long time, Kenny said, “I don’t imagine her dreaming in the house. I imagine her dreaming in a barn, maybe, but wishing she could dream in the house.”
Etienne nodded, and said, “Oui,” to spur Kenny on.
“Up a staircase. Above everything else. Like, a hayloft. The very highest spot possible. Maybe even on top of the barn roof, midday, lots of light. She doesn’t dream in the dark. She is afraid of the dark. And she’s ashamed that she’s afraid of the dark. So she imagines, with all that light, that there is no dark. She dreams of a castle. A moat.”
Kenny stopped for a moment. His fugue deepened.
“She looks down on the world and thinks, ‘All this is mine.’ She would like to destroy the forest so all that’s left is the clean curve of the earth as far as the eye can see, and light everywhere. In her castle, all secret cellars and underground passageways are bricked up. There will be no place in her kingdom to hide or dream.”
Kenny tried to monitor what he said, but after a while the Hudson, huge and swollen from last week’s rain on their right, and the ramparts of The Cloisters under swirling purplish-green clouds on their left, worked their magic; the winter warmth made everything weird and wonderful, and Kenny dissolved completely into his conjuring.
“As queen, she banishes shadows and the dark. She tells her people that she does this for their sakes. But they must be vigilant. Outlaws may try to bring back the dark. They’ll start with mere shadows, but this is just a trick, an insidious campaign to darken the world. She’ll be content in the light, even though she may be weary. It’s difficult to rule over everybody. She knows happiness is only a myth. The new religion is light and work. Happiness is for the unenlightened and the silly.”
Kenny heard the sound of the blinker as Etienne maneuvered off the Henry Hudson Parkway. The world reappeared. As if in echo, Kenny heard what he’d said, and he knew he’d made a terrible mistake. He needed to learn to keep some things to himself. It’s easier to find the humanity of a stranger than to try to imagine it in someone you know but don’t much care for. Perhaps this was something else Etienne could teach him if he let Kenny remain his friend.
Etienne didn’t answer or comment.
“This is not my game,” said Kenny. “I’m not very good at it.”
“No,” said Etienne, but Kenny wasn’t sure what Etienne was answering, and he understood Etienne’s continued silence as a rebuke.
The weathermen had predicted a storm with a possible tornado warning. Despite the wind, the world quieted. The air pressure dropped, and the cloud cover churned in all kinds of colors. West End Avenue was lovely, but especially so in the silvering bluster. It looked just like what Kenny had had in mind when he’d thought of moving to New York on those stairs as a boy. The ornate building façades, the park with the wide river nearby, high art, low trash, and everything in between—a place to live a vibrant, productive life. And here he was. He rolled down his window to breathe it in, to fill himself up with it, because he knew it was a moment that would live, die, then be gone, like all other moments. He inhaled deeply. The pleasant tang of Etienne’s cheddary ripeness was followed by hints of the river, the wind full of a tea-like blend of fertile earth, roots, dormant vegetation. They arrived and parked.
The low, bruised cloud cover snaked slowly above their heads, just as it had done on a day like this years before when the wind seemed to touch everything alive and dead. It was a late afternoon, and Kenny’s father had had the day off from work. The three youngest kids—Kenny, his older brother, and younger sister—had helped their father clean the garage. His dad had yelled at Kenny for not doing something the right way. Kenny couldn’t remember now what he’d done wrong, but he knew it was something any normal, heterosexual boy would have instinctively known how to do, and he’d been ashamed. But once everything was straight and clean in the garage, his father forgot all about the rebuke. Their mother had started a pot roast, and the smell of onions and mushrooms roasting with the meat hit them when they entered the house. It wasn’t a holiday, but it felt like a celebration.
Kenny’s father decided to take them for a bike ride while their mother finished dinner. On Kenny’s older sister’s bike, his father’s knees jutted out slightly when he rode. They glided down the driveway in a line, his father looking back occasionally to make sure everyone was there and okay. Once out on the open street they broke form, spread out to wrangle for a place next to their father.
Tree leaves had turned their lighter green sides upward. There was a strange quiet all around, no people or cars anywhere. They had the whole neighborhood to themselves, like it was the end or the beginning of the world. At the top of a high hill, they rested a moment. His father asked, “Ready?” and when they all nodded, he said, “Go.” Kenny’s foot slipped on his pedal, and by the time he’d righted himself they were all off ahead of him. His siblings rode their brakes cautiously down the hill, but Kenny’s father stuck his feet out to the sides, racing at top speed down the hill, yelling, WOOOO, a man alone in his joy who had momentarily left the world, and his family, behind. At the bottom of the hill he skidded in a perfect quarter arc, planted his feet firmly on the ground and looked back up the hill for his family.
Kenny lifted his feet off the brakes and let go. Down he went past his brother, past his sister. The ground rumbled beneath his bike, the hill steep and bumpy, and he was terrified. He tried to mimic his father’s graceful and masculine stop. The skid went fine, but at the last moment he lost balance, tipped over, and slid a few feet past his father. He didn’t want to cry, but he was scared that his father would yell at him for disappointing him again for not being a proper boy. But instead, after making sure Kenny was okay, his father yelled, “Good job!” and they both laughed as he helped Kenny up.
Kenny’s brother and sister arrived carefully. They all rode home, ate, and went to bed exhausted and content. There would be plenty of time for disappointment and regret for everyone later, but not then, not there in that small moment with his father on a day of low pressure, high wind, and weird-colored clouds, just like this day with Etienne.
Etienne and Kenny had carted and placed the heaviest items into the new apartment, which was beautiful, with high, vaulted ceilings and a view of the river. There were only a dozen or so boxes left. They carted these boxes three at a time on a dolly. The air was fresh, the wind blowing, the clouds low and slowly swirling. A sudden peace washed over Kenny. Those clouds! Those shadows! It was the shadows of things and people that held their secret loveliness. Etienne’s game was good, but Kenny knew that, given the chance to really look at someone long and hard enough, their loveliness would appear in the shadows they threw.
Etienne held the dolly steady while Kenny secured the rope around the two lower boxes. There were only two belts on the dolly, so Kenny had to hold the top box when they moved to steady it. Etienne nodded, Kenny tilted the dolly. Just before they reached the curb, Kenny said, “Do you think Hélène would let me draw her?”
Etienne’s laugh was so forceful and sudden that it jerked the dolly. One wheel cleared the curb, the other didn’t. The top box slipped in a swift, graceful arc to the concrete with the sound of a stone thudding into clear water. Etienne’s laughter gathered a nervous edge, grew, and infected Kenny. They giggled uncontrollably, and when Kenny knelt to get the box, then turned it to show Etienne the side that had CRYSTAL written in magic marker, they were lost. This was not funny. This was big trouble. Kenny shook the box to demonstrate the tinkling inside the box and laughed so hard he farted out loud, at which point Etienne doubled over. The movie star, looking very unhappy, rushed down the walkway. Etienne had one hand over his mouth, the other outstretched as if to hold the movie star in place, but he was laughing too hard to speak. Their laughter took on a crazy wheezing edge, and Kenny’s attempt to apologize made it worse—he could barely get the words out. There was no helping it. Etienne let go of the dolly and sat on the curb, then lay back on the ground in surrender, tears streaming down his face.
The laughter would stop soon enough and they would have to face the consequences, but for now the only thing to do was give themselves over to it. Kenny lay back on the ground next to Etienne. The movie star was saying something, standing over them both, but it was too hard to hear him over the laughter. Etienne reached out and put his hand on Kenny’s shoulder as if to steady himself, which only brought on another wave of laughter. Kenny tried to catch his breath; the tears rolled into his ears. He moved his hand to his shoulder, on top of Etienne’s hand, and held it. They watched the clouds above them slowly churn—green, bright white, slate, purple—and waited for the laughter to die away.
Joseph O’Malley was born in and raised in Detroit and now lives in Manhattan. His latest work appears in Glimmer Train and A Public Space, and he has a story forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review.