BY D. NOLAN JEFFERSON
None of the gods / I love / love me.
David Tomas Martinez
I had time to kill from the drugstore, so I was in line to get donuts I really didn’t need when I saw them. Straight, of course. White, also of course. And they were cute. You know how you see a couple and you go, well yeah, they’re cute, I guess? That would be them. They seem to be still in that newish phase. Been dating awhile, but not too long. Willing to be goofy and loosey-goosey in public. She probably still thinks long and hard about what she’s going to wear while being seen with him because that’s important to her. Hasn’t quite eased into being just comfortable yet.
Today she’s cute. Jaunty little ankle boots, a knit cashmere cap with an angora puff on top, glitzy gold shades. She know she’s looking good, too, chile. Get it, girl. Get your life. Him, on the other hand? Yeah, well. I mean…sure. I don’t know him. I don’t. I mean I don’t know her either, but I think that she…could do better? She can. I know she can. Angora pom-pom girl can do certainly do better. He’s handsy. Putting it out into the universe that’s he’s getting some. Wide wale cords and a Patagonia tech bro vest? We see you, Bruce. He looks like a Bruce. Or maybe a Connor. I mean, I doubt he’s really blowing her back out, but yeah, we see you. Must be nice. Jesus be a happy Hallmark card couple.
By the time I headed back to the pharmacy, my refills were done, please and thank you. I’d already eaten one of the five donuts I bought (because blueberry cake), and chugged half of my Americano (one Splenda) in one fell swoop. I dawdled on my way home. A bitch was lingering. It was Saturday, I ain’t had shit to do, and despite the chill in the air, the sky was bright blue and people were out in the streets. One thing I love about a city like this and with all this ethnic and cultural diversity is all the food available. Man does not live by donuts alone. Are you kidding me? Nepalese dumplings, Middle Eastern kibbeh? Thick, rich labneh swirled with fruity gold olive oil? Savory, garlicky galbi-jjim? Crispy double-fried frites? Pile up all the wats on top of that injera, honey. Dinner is never boring. So say breakfast, lunch and brunch too.
It works for me, frankly since I’m solo more often than not, and I’m cool with that. I mean, it’s okay. I like to sit at the bar anyway. Don’t have to wait on folks held up in the office or tapping away at your phone for texts that never come. Who needs that? Let me tell you: Bitch, not me. Nope. Riding solo, chatting up complete strangers with a cocktail or two if they’re interesting is much more my speed. Honestly, all that work and you still end up going home alone to rub one out in the shower with The Daily Show on in the background? You better ask somebody.
I think I love Thai food the most. For a lot of reasons. I mean, the salty, sour, pungent funk of all those flavors going on is ridiculous. Ridiculous! I learned a lot from Sunan. I mean I love to cook, and I can fry up some bird as good as yo grandma and n’em and cornbread too. But Sunan, who actually was from Thailand, could put it down. Once we found out he could cook like that, we all stopped hitting up Chandra Palace. I mean, Chandra Palace was good, and it was our jam, but Father God, Sunan got in that rental apartment kitchen and threw down. I had some folks from school over for breakfast once and I made big Belgian waffles with peanut butter, a spiced whipped cream, and grade B maple syrup from the Berkshires. Folks lost their minds. Was there fruit? There might’ve been fruit too. I probably cut up some bananas and maybe some strawberries, threw in some blueberries too, probably. I can’t exactly remember. But that first time when he had us over and cooked I thought to myself, well damn, I’m going to have to stay in my lane. Who knew? Nobody. I brought wine to Sunan’s dinner party, naturally. A nice, crisp white from Napa or somewhere up thereabouts. I don’t think Charlie was at that party, I don’t think. Did we know him then? Was he there? I can’t remember. Anyway. God, I miss Sunan. He was something else. Seriously. Even with, y’know, everything that happened.
To be fair, I can’t exactly claim that I saw him first. Charlie, I mean. I think I did though. I mean, there was only a handful of us which was chicken shit because hello, art school, and where were these fags at? Lord, have mercy, it was like a hockey team. Or a craft beer gastropub. Jesus. All straight boy everything. We were misled. Flat out lied to! I was expecting naked cavorting and free expression and rainbow pride Riot Grrrls and we were robbed, honey. It was full of dude bro art jocks who walked around with their chests puffed out, talking Duchamp and drinking shit 12-pack beer with their daddy issues and misguided phallic quote unquote art. So vile. Me and Sunan found each other pretty early on and we just clicked. Being an outsider does that for you. I guess opposites attract but like can also attract like. If only for safety. So, whatever. I saw Charlie first. He was always working out. Sunan, not Charlie. Although I guess, maybe he did too? Sunan saw him at the gym. Sunan was up with the chickens and had his ass in that heated pool and swam laps every goddamn morning. The art school didn’t have a gym but we had some kind of reciprocal deal with the big state school down the street, but what would I look like sweating out my fade in a gym? Changing in front of complete strangers? Showering publicly? No thanks. I ain’t even trying to fake the funk like that. Goodness, it just ain’t my ministry.
So Sunan saw Charlie at the gym. Maybe even in the locker room and one time we were walking down the hall for our modernism seminar or whatever and we walked past Charlie. Then Sunan, cool as ice, did a little eyebrow hey-boo-wink kind of thing. And I only noticed because I was into Charlie kinda sorta, and lo and behold Sunan had already seen the goods. “He’s a ginger.” Which, okay. I mean, he wasn’t like a carroty-red redhead, but his mop top was kind of brownish auburn-y, I guess? What the hell do I know about white folks’ hair? So Sunan says, “He’s a ginge…underneath,” and hits me with those Groucho Marx eyebrow waggles. Sunan did that eye thing, not the waggles but the hey-boo-wink and Charlie saw I guess. I wasn’t sure. But just as we got up on each other, in the hallway headed to modernism, Charlie does this soft little half-wave. Not a full one. A slight little maybe he’s flicking away a fly type move. Just the wrist. Not one that most people would even notice but I saw it and Sunan saw it and so yeah, I guess Charlie did see and that’s how I knew. Yeah, that’s how I knew.
My god, really? Five donuts? And I’ve eaten two? When did I eat the other one? I don’t even remember. Jesus. Wait a minute. Yup. Maple cruller. Sure did. Oh well. I’m out of control, I’ll tell you. For a good minute, I thought about it. Thought about the old me, who discreetly found ways to hide my way of “dieting,” who avoided eating in public, struggled with indulging and eating like I just got out of jail for a crime I didn’t commit, and it was hard, but maybe the therapy’s working? Lord knows I’m paying her enough. Low key proud of not jamming a finger or three down my throat behind the dumpster and momma birding her young. Next time just get yourself the one donut, I told myself. “You can enjoy the one. Everything in moderation,” I said to the universe before handing the pink box with the remaining treats off to a panhandler before resuming the walk home.
There’s a guy in a pair of sandalwood gray joggers whose lumps and bumps and contours are leaving nothing to the imagination waiting at a bus stop and I think to myself, now him right there: He just might be my future ex-husband. By the time I get closer to ogle the ample goods, the bus has come and whisked him along to wherever he was headed. Oh bless. Such is life. But the very idea of him has me reflecting on maybe I want to give dating another go? How long has it been? Forever? Honestly. I mean, I’ve kissed a lot of frogs. Lots. Toads, geckos, salamanders, crocodiles and probably amoebas too, chile. But nothing ever took, it seemed. No. For whatever reason, relationships never seem to stick. But I’m not like a monk. Please. I get mine. I do just fine. It’s just, I’d rather, y’know, experience more than a hook-up or a random casual encounter fueled by woofs, grunts, winks and other various accoutrements that are parceled out on our smartphones now via le alert.
I know tons of people who have married their hookups and one night stands so I guess in some capacity that allows me to keep hope alive. Sure, I’m a catty bitch who has their moments, but I’m not so horrible. I want what we all want. You looking, you looking, they say. Your phone hums and lights up and maybe you are, maybe you are looking for something, some companionship or something else so you give it a go after sharing a pic or two. You head on over to their apartment or their office after work, after their colleagues are all gone and there’s no chance of coitus interruptus by the cleaning crew, or maybe your place isn’t so messy that you don’t feel so embarrassed to have them come by to visit you. So you Listerine up and spot clean the crucial bits and hope to God they aren’t an axe murdering cannibal and when the door opens, that they actually look like their picture. Or the headless, shirtless, sun-kissed torso is now sporting an agreeable countenance that you, in that moment, could see yourself taking home to mother. For a moment, anyway. Until they see you and you watch their pupils flex as you come into focus and then they say something along the lines of they’ve changed their minds, or they have somewhere else to be, or that this isn’t gonna work out or they don’t even bother to come up with a lie to soften the blow because they’re just that thick in the head. No, they just flat out tell you without even sugar coating it they say you’re much too swishy and too fruity and too faggy or point out how much weight you’ve gained since that pic you posted doesn’t match the reality that now stands before them or they thought you’d be a less Urkel and a little more “How Does it Feel” D’Angelo and you call yourself a top? Really? Girl.
Listen, that’s the case if you’re lucky. The worst of the lot are the ones who don’t say anything. They just turn around and walk away and they don’t open their mouths at all. Not even the tiniest of slivers. Not a peep, or an utterance, or the slightest hint of tongue or teeth—nothing. Just a quick, efficient, dismissive turn on heel and back down the stairs and onto the street, fading away in the distance leaving you to wonder all by your lonesome: just what in the fuck is wrong with you.
By the time I look up and realize where I am (not too far from the Greek place that does those bomb gyro fries but too far for me to turn around to ponder a half order and even then I’d only nibble), the light is shining down through the trees in a way where everything hit by it turns to gold. It’s stunning, actually. Like fancy, gilded baroque mixed with nature and I think that when I get home I’ll fire up Amadeus because it just seems appropriate. Have you seen it? You really should see it. It’s one of those old school movies, back when they made movies to be seen in theaters, chile and they put the entire budget on the screen. No computers or digital this that or the other, but pure cinema. The film itself was before my time but I’m glad I saw it. That first time was with Sunan, of course, for a class project on madness. We sat there on his secondhand sofa which is the way of life of broke and fiscally challenged art school students. Even though he came from money, he never threw it in your face. He grew up poor, but his family came into money when he was an adolescent, so he got it. He remembered what it was like to struggle like us financial aid kids. Anyway, I remember sitting there watching Tom Hulse’s Mozart on the TV screen being reflected in his cappuccino-colored eyes and it really wasn’t surprising that Charlie fell for him. Charlie, who as far as I can remember, never came out out or called himself a homo. He never marched when teenaged fags were getting beat up after school and left for dead in alleyways. Not like I did. No, Charlie was just a quiet, kind of meek and introverted guy who took pictures of still lifes and interiors and terrestrial succulents and plates piled high with pasta. He was painfully average at best in most respects.
He was tall, I guess? I’ll give him that. Definitely six feet. Maybe a couple of inches taller than that. Sunan said that at the gym, he spent 45 minutes on the rowing machine. That was it. No weights, no elliptical, no kettle bells, old timey calisthenics, push-ups, or abdominal work. Strictly stretching that long, lanky, size 40, but admittedly well enough slim built frame of his back and forth in some kind of soothing rhythm on the rower. Who knew? By the time we watched Amadeus that Sunday afternoon, Sunan and Charlie were already fucking and fucking regularly but I’ll give it to Sunan: He wasn’t one of these messy queens. You’d never know. He kept it on the hush like a classy bitch. Didn’t suck and tell.
The florist at the corner of my block is out of control. My god. The shop is like an explosion of mother nature’s best and brightest. Lilies, mums, gerber daisies, roses in all shades of pink and orange and green and yellow and red. I’m particular of tulips, especially the parrot varieties with their feathery tipped petals and dramatic action. They are amazing flowers. How do they do that? What happens in nature to make something like that come to fruition? Orchids are another favorite. They can be persnickety though. Some high drama bitches disguised as plants if you ask this one. But they’re just so elegant. Mon dieu, they make a bold statement. I bought a Sharry Baby oncidium the night of the party and brought it over for Sunan along with with a dry, fruity white. It’s a striking flower. This one had three shoots a foot and a half long and each of them was studded with dozens of little blood red buds and even though it just started to flower, just starting to put on its dramatic show, the signature effect of this one plant: the divine scent of rich, deep chocolate from each individual dime-sized flower that could fill a room.
Sunan opened the door and Charlie was behind him in this kind of nouveau, devil may care, perfect catalog couple for the new age. Very pulled together and cute in their finest Banana Republic sale rack drag chic. All smiles and sunshine and delicious smells wafting out of the kitchen.
I was fine. I mean, I saw him first. I did.
I was good all night long and played nice with the other guests, all people from school I already knew, most of them spoken for. Ryan and Malia, Jesse and Tai, Marnie and David, Nigel and Omar, Lainie and Siobhan. Actually, I guess they were all coupled off. I passed the food around when it came my way and even took a little. Didn’t eat much though, discreet napkin trick situation. More smiles. Lots of wine. So, when it happened, the party was nearly over. Half the group had left and we, I mean, third wheel me was on my way out too. But I just couldn’t le it go. Something about Sunan and Charlie got me open. Sunan and I were friends, that much was clear. And Sunan and Charlie were friends. More than that clearly, if you want to get technical. Something just for the semester or maybe the year, and they weren’t going to get married or anything. And yet I felt my entire self, my mind and my soul and my body go elastic. Not loose and rubbery, though; rather, I felt stretched tight in any and every opposite direction at the same time. Like I was about to pop. I turned around as I exited the door and saw Sunan’s toothy smile and Charlie’s hand drop down from Sunan’s shoulder to the small of his cute little Thai back and it all just seemed so intimate. They said something cute, something like thank you for coming or we’ll see you at school and of course I didn’t hear any of it as my internal seething rose to the surface. And then it detonated.
“So, what’s wrong with me?” I said to the group, but wasn’t asking of anyone in particular. Sunan squinted and looked at me and said, “What?” He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. I knocked it off. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked again, now laser-eyed on Charlie. He and Sunan swapped glances, their faces gone slack, now replaced with looks of concern and worry. “I saw him first,” I said, like my love at first sight equated to some kind of possession or ownership. “Is it because I’m ugly? Not handsome enough for you?”
“Honey, are you okay?” Sunan tried to throw my revving engine into park. “Do you want to come back inside? Maybe you need to sit off the wine?”
“I didn’t drink.” I replied firmly, the words coming out in a snarl through my gnashed teeth, feeling like there were sparks of metal scraping against metal. My hand went to my throat and I undid the top button of my shirt. I was hot and my breathing began to go quick and shallow, a rubber band stretched to the point of discoloration. “Am I too dark? Too Black? Not into Black guys, Charlie? Not lean enough, Charlie? Too fat for you? You only into the trim, fit, jock built motherfuckers? Is that it?” I felt myself huffing, chest expanding and deflating in a panic. I couldn’t get air in my lungs fast enough.
I asked him again with the froth of white spittle leaking through my lips, “What’s. Wrong. With. Me?” I dug into the flesh under my ears with my fingers and tried to tear off my face. I wanted to detach the lobes of my ears, rip them off completely, to feel my warm blood, slick like oil, on my hands. My cheeks and neck burned like acid under my nails before tearing my shirt open altogether. “Tell me, Charlie! What is it?! I saw you first! I did! Me!” I screamed.
Someone then, I don’t remember who, came along and tackled me right there on the edge of the stoop, breaking pots and sending plants tumbling from their planters but not before I crossed both arms across my torso plunging my fingertips into both of my shoulders, dragging my nails down across my forearms like talons. Blood covered me, my khakis and streaked across the porch. I noticed red smudges on Sunan and Nigel too—but the whole time I kept my eyes on Charlie. I could feel my heart racing inside me, each successive beat thumping away in my chest with the fervor of a sewing machine whirring away, plunging its sharp needle in and out of a garment at breakneck speed.
And then it was over. Boom. Just like that. Coming out of the blur, my head felt thin. Instead of being in a manic rage, spinning like a top at anyone and everyone near me, I was calmly perched on the top step of the porch. It was like I was looking at myself outside of myself from somewhere high up above—a shot from a drone nestled high in the clouds just before the fade to black and the closing credits.
I let out a limp, pathetic sigh. “Why won’t anybody love me?” I asked. The words came out of my mouth soft like cotton or milk foam. Worn out from the display of my actions, I sobbed. I felt like I could I sleep for months, like I could hibernate. I wanted to get entirely the fuck up out of there, as far away as I could get from these people. Jesus.
I wish I could articulate how disarming it is when this happens, because when you finally snap back to the real world and you come to, it’s like everything is fine. Well, fine is a stretch, but you know you are just trying the best you can to put the pieces back together. And maybe you’re equipped to do it, and maybe you’re not. You’re trying to make sense of what just happened with what’s currently happening and navigate the blurry line between those spaces hoping at least to bring the edges together to have that seam meet somewhere in the middle.
I could see now that there wasn’t any blood. Not on me, or Sunan, not under my fingernails or streaked across the clean white planks of wood of the porch. My shirt was as it had been, properly buttoned at the throat. The skin on my neck and arms was smooth and intact, the stoop untouched and looking just like it did when I arrived earlier that evening with wine and an orchid that smelled like chocolate. I sat there perched on the stairs in front of a door where a coconut colored mat lied and said: Welcome. I didn’t know how to reconcile myself when my mind and body went to that place. I didn’t know what happens in reality. I didn’t know what to ask of those who bear witness when I’m in that space. It’s frustrating and it’s embarrassing, and truth be told, I don’t want to know.
“Are you okay, handsome?” Sunan asked softly, his hand resting gently on mine as we sat shoulder to shoulder on the steps of the bungalow. I shrugged. “I’ve always loved you, my friend,” he said. The words came out pretty but felt useless. “Always.”
I tried to look at Charlie but couldn’t. What could I say? How do you apologize for that? Girl? I thought to myself, you are a hot mess. What was I supposed to say to Sunan? Or to anyone else there? If I could have folded myself up in half, I would have; like a sheet of paper that you double over and crease, and then fold over again, and then again and again and again. And I wanted to keep folding myself up until there wasn’t anything left of me at all. I wanted to disappear—each pleat tucking into itself giving way to making myself smaller and smaller so that ultimately, I am merely just a speck. I wanted to go subatomic. A barely there particle. Imperceptible. I wanted to leave absolutely no trace or proof or evidence I left in the minds of my friends there that sullied evening. And so it goes.
We finally talked about it. It was just the one time, and even though Sunan sends me a Christmas card with his name scrawled across the bottom every year like clockwork, it’s been a good long while since I’ve heard his voice. He’s back in Asia now doing all kinds of wonderful things. He’s famous now! Gallery shows. Artforum. A total big deal. Love that guy. But that last conversation? She was rough.
“I do love you,” he said. I just kind of stared blankly looking at everything and nothing at the same time. Light streamed in through the window. It was early here, later where he was with the time difference, and the phone grew warm against my face.
“Yeah, I hear you.” I said softly. The lump in my throat felt like an asteroid but some how I got the words out.
“And Charlie, was…just a fling. There wasn’t any there there.” I knew this too but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow, then or now. “But do you love you?” Sunan asked.
We sat there together on the phone in the quiet for so long that day that I thought he’d hung up and somehow I’d missed hearing the phone line’s disconnection. I slouched at the makeshift two-top in my tiny kitchen.
“I knew,” he said. I stared at the saltshaker on the table and in that moment thought about the diners we used to visit together on Sunday mornings after the farmer’s markets. The pinch of long white grains was supposed to absorb moisture to keep the essential mineral from clumping making the application to one’s French fries flowing in short order.
“About what?” I asked, clearing my throat.
“Well, with the eating. Or not eating. All the stuff with the food, I guess,” he said. I picked at the chipped edge of the small, yellow Formica table with my thumbnail as I nodded my head. “I can’t say I know what that’s like for you, handsome, but I know it can’t be easy. But there’s gotta be help? Specialized help. For people like us?”
I exhaled and my breath came out in a long, slow stream.
“It’s not like drugs, I don’t think,” I said slowly as I shook my head. “Or booze. You don’t need those things to function. And I’m not much of a drinker anyway. But everybody…we all gotta eat.”
“Indeed,” he said.
“It’s hard, but I’m trying. I really am.” We sat there in the quiet for another good clip before shutting my eyes tight.
“You know, it wasn’t really about Charlie, I don’t think,” I said, just above a whisper. “He was so kind of ordinary. I think it was about more about what he—I don’t know—represented?”
“Oh yeah?” Sunan asked across the span of an ocean between us.
“I didn’t know that then,” I said. I thought about telling him everything, but that was even harder. Too hard to tell the people in your life how you feel about them. “Sunan, listen, I know you love me. Like, I know this.” I blinked back tears. “I love you too, and that’s not for nothing.”
“But. I mean, I love my folks, I love my sister, I love my friends. This love that I’m talking about? This love I want? It’s different and…” my voice trailed off.
“But you can have that too, my friend. And you will. I know it.”
“Girl, I guess. I mean how old am I now? And never been in any kind of long-term relationship to speak of?”
“One of these days, you’ll see yourself as we see you,” he said.
The table’s edge caught the soft part of my thumb beneath the nail. By instinct, I thwhipped it in between my lips as I sucked my tongue.
“You okay, handsome?” Sunan asked.
“Yeah,” I said, the momentary sharp blip drew enough blood for me to notice the salty metallic taste, “I’m getting there. The loving myself part. But I’ll be okay. A work in progress, right?” I smiled through the discomfort and sat up straight on the four-legged stool taking in the conversation and nearly blinding light of a Saturday spring morning.
“I’ll be okay.”
I peppered the arrangement with some greenery and some baby’s breath and thought about how nice this might look on the living room coffee table. All this peach and purple and pops of yellow. Chile, let me get home. Art school wasn’t lost on me, I tell you. I asked the cashier to throw a bottle of water on my bouquet and I quickly fished out three of my refills from their respective bottles, popped them into my mouth, and swallowed them down while she wrapped up my flowers to go.
Charlie’s married now, last I heard. To a woman. I know, right? Tea. I knew it. I think he’s even got a kid. Oh well. Just cause you play with bats and balls doesn’t make you a ballplayer, I always say. Good for him. I hope he’s happy. Truly.
The light turned yellow, and I dashed across the street which is odd for me because I don’t run for nothing. Nope. I don’t run when I’m being chased, honey. But I did. I felt different. I felt good. And in my sprint, I caught a glimpse of a smile on the face of a very hot, swarthy guy headed in the other direction towards the florist. I didn’t see much but what I did see was Gucci, baby. So manly. Hairy chest, slim waist, legs looking kinda thick. God, he looked like he could grow a beard in an hour. What a specimen. The living embodiment of testosterone. I liked it. We collided—ran right into each other with my flowers bearing the brunt. Crap. That’s the most action I’ve had in forever. I know, right? Did that contact even count? Let me text my shrink. And I should get tested. Get my ass a clean bill of health before I get back out in these whorish streets. Mama’s ready.
By the time I reached the curb I thought enough to check to see if my flowers were okay. I just bought these blooms. But guess what, they were just fine. Phew! I’m golden, baby. I felt warm inside and I smiled if only for myself. But something told me to turn around. Was this the good lord’s blessed inspiration? Should I? I mean, I didn’t imagine all of that. With the guy? What the hell. So, I do. I turned around. I did. And when I looked back across the street, he was still looking. Jesus. He’s looking at me (me!) and I can see that he’s still smiling too.