BY CHARLIE LEE
Adam said he had a date coming over that night and in the couple hours before she was supposed to show he wanted us to try hitting each other in the face. Our mom was working afternoons and nights, and she’d leave me with Adam if he was around. Not that I needed a baby-sitter, I was thirteen, but that was the setup. I doubt she knew anything about a girl coming over. I don’t think she really thought about what we got up to while she was gone. It was summer, and there wasn’t much to do in our neighborhood if you weren’t old enough for the bars, so I’d usually just watch TV in our little seventh-floor apartment.
Adam was standing shirtless on the bathroom scale when he decided to share this idea. I leaned on the doorframe watching him while Razzmatazz slinked softly around my ankles. Razzmatazz was the tiny black kitten Adam had rescued a couple months earlier from a dumpster outside a Chinese restaurant, a move that was definitely out of character. We didn’t question it, though. Adam liked to surprise people’s expectations, didn’t like to get pinned down. Razzmatazz was still small enough to perch comfortably in front of Adam’s crotch on a chair at the dinner table. It was strange what good care Adam took of him. One day a month earlier he came home with a litterbox for his room; he also started buying whole milk that I’d seen him put in a glass bowl by his door every morning.
Adam was waiting for the needle on the scale to settle. On the sink next to him was a sticky-note and a marker so he could write down his weight and put it up on the mirror until he repeated the ritual the next day. The previous day’s note was still up: a hundred and sixty-one pounds. He was making himself bigger in the same methodical way he did everything, tracking his pushups and pullups and his protein intake and whatever else. His muscles had grown significantly, though not entirely proportionately, so his body had a sort of lean animal lumpiness.
Usually we didn’t speak during these afternoons when our mom left us alone, but he’d stuck his head in my room and said to come into the bathroom with him.
“Have you ever felt what that feels like?” he asked. “Getting hit in the face?” I shook my head. “Yeah, no kidding,” he said.
“Have you?” I asked. He looked down at me.
“Once,” he said. “I think it’s good to have done. Like, important, in life.” Adam had a way of saying things like they were part of some joke that only he was in on. I was never totally sure when he was actually for real.
“You’ll need to practice not crying,” Adam added.
I knew Adam was having sex with girls because I’d seen the condoms in his wallet. As far as I knew, though, no girl had ever come to our place. Back when I was eight or nine, all my friends were girls. That was just the way it was. Sometimes I’d have one over to the apartment and Adam would disappear into his room the whole time; after she’d left he would come in to go over everything we’d done and “strategize” for the next time. I didn’t really get what he was actually talking about. Nothing ever happened, but back then I had fun just following his lead, basking in his presence.
Adam had joked to me before that he was going to use Razzmatazz to pick up girls. He was probably the only sixteen-year-old boy in the neighborhood with a kitten that he took care of, so he had that going for him. Adam had grown into a sort of visceral attractiveness that I assumed girls his age liked. He was so physical, so there, in his body. He could touch your arm and it would send a jolt of electricity all the way down to your toes. His face was ugly, though, and he knew it. His bones jutted out of his cheeks and temples so it looked like he was always in some kind of pain. Grown-ups had always called me pretty boy when I was younger, and sometimes they still did. I thought it was weird for two brothers to look so different, and I wondered if Adam thought about that too.
“Again,” Adam said, so I hit him again. As hard as I could, just below the eye. I remembered not to tuck my thumb, like he told me.
Adam stepped backwards and sat down heavily on our mom’s new coffee table. He put a hand up to his face and looked up at me with a smile.
“A little better, but still so weak, little man,” he said. “Your turn.”
He stood and walked over to me, grabbing hold of my shoulders and pulling me towards him. He stood over me, too close to hit me.
“Just one. Not hard.”
I raised my chin and closed one eye. Adam cupped the back of my head with one hand softly, then scrunched it hard into a fist and held my hair. He tilted my head back and I closed my other eye and then his fist came down hard on my cheekbone. He let me go. I slid down to the floor and laid down, my hands pressed flat against the dirty shag carpet. I laid there without moving while Adam stepped over me and went into the kitchen. My face throbbed a little and I could feel sweat starting to form on the back of my neck. There was something peaceful about the feeling. I heard the fridge open. A few minutes went by. I could have fallen asleep there on the carpet if I tried.
We washed our hands and faces in Adam’s bathroom sink. My cheekbone stung when I put the soap on it, but I liked watching the light red water spinning down the drain. In the mirror afterwards I saw the cut was smaller than I thought, with a faint yellow-black bruise forming in a tight circle around it. There weren’t any marks on Adam’s face from where I’d hit him. I touched my bruise and it felt rough, like the back of a dry sponge. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to tell our mom about it.
Our mom was a beautiful woman. I didn’t know this for a while, and then I did. She put a lot of work into looking good. She had Adam when she was young, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed was what she would say, and Adam said that when I was a toddler she’d leave me with him so she could go on dates with men. Adam refused to say more about this, but he said it solemnly, like he remembered it in vivid detail and could have said more if he’d wanted to, or if I was older. Our mom didn’t go on dates with men anymore, but she was still beautiful. She was thin and wore light jeans that sat low on her hips, and she had fine blonde hair that was darker at the roots. Sometimes when she came home from work one of the other women there would have done her hair into two braids that went around her head and met in the back, and then she looked especially beautiful. The only thing about her I didn’t think was beautiful was her laugh, a deep, raw, hacking laugh that always sounded like it was dislodging something. Sometimes when she wasn’t working and she had friends over at night I could hear it from my room.
After washing up Adam took me into his room. I almost never got to go in there. He had nothing on his walls except for a portrait of him that he got when we went to a theme park two summers before. The portrait was one of those cartoon-style drawings you saw people doing for money on the street sometimes, where all the features were exaggerated but it still actually really looked like the person. It looked almost exactly like Adam. The knobby bones on his face were sticking out and it looked like the skin was so tight around them that it might split open. The long dark hair was parted in the middle and brushed back, just like Adam’s. The eyes were wrong, though. They were black and angry-looking in the portrait, but Adam’s eyes were dark green and the nicest part of his face.
Adam sat me down on his bed, his face expressionless. He pulled a jar of Vaseline out of the top drawer of his dresser and unscrewed the lid. I sat watching on the edge of the bed. Razzmatazz scampered through the open door and rubbed his tiny body against Adam’s ankles. We’d never discussed it, but I was supposed to pretend like Razzmatazz didn’t exist. I wasn’t sure how I knew this, but somehow I knew that if I got close with him in any way it would piss Adam off and throw off the delicate balance that had existed for the past couple months in which he was strangely tender and loving to the cat.
Adam stuck three fingers in the Vaseline and took my face in his other hand.
“Don’t move,” he said.
I closed my eyes. His fingers were gentle on my cheek, and the Vaseline was warm. I squinted up at him as he rubbed it in, his face grim with concentration, then closed my eyes again until he was finished.
“Now get out of here, little man,” he said, cupping my cheek and giving it a little slap.
An hour later Adam stuck his head through my bedroom door again. He’d showered and changed into black jeans and a black t-shirt that was tight around his shoulders.
“Get in here,” he said, and I followed him to the kitchen. My cheek was starting to throb more insistently, and I kept putting my fingers up to touch it. On the counter Adam had set out a carton of hamburger meat, a can of tomato sauce, and a box of spaghetti.
“You make the meatballs while I make everything else,” he said. “Julia’s gonna be here in a bit.”
I nodded and tore the plastic off the ground beef. There usually wasn’t much food in our apartment. Adam must have biked to the store that morning and picked up supplies. I scooped up a handful of the cold pink meat and started packing it between my palms.
“Smaller than that,” Adam said. I split the ball in half. We worked in silence for a few minutes. I wondered where Adam had learned to cook. He’d definitely never used the kitchen in the apartment before. He’d probably studied the instructions online, memorized them. That was his style with everything: he’d plan every detail of an event carefully, in private, so that when the real thing happened he could act careless and uninterested.
“So who’s this Julia chick?” I said, immediately grimacing at how unnatural and outdated the word “chick” sounded. Adam laughed a little, turning away from me towards the stove.
“Some slut,” he said. I’d never heard him use that word before. Our mom didn’t care about almost anything we did, but she would’ve slapped him if she’d heard him say that. “She used to go out with Aaron,” Adam added. I didn’t know who Aaron was, but I nodded and kept making the meatballs.
“I’m not kidding, she’d literally fuck anybody,” Adam went on, laughing, still facing the stove. “She’d probably even fuck you,” he said, and I felt the air in the room change. I knew he was making fun of me, but still—Adam and I never talked in this way. I gave a short laugh that came out more like a cough.
“The trick is to just put in an ounce of effort so it seems classy,” Adam said. It seemed as if he was talking to himself now. “Like, these girls just want an excuse to fuck but don’t want to feel bad about it.”
He turned around and looked over my shoulder at the meatballs. His cologne smelled like orange peels.
“Nicely done, little man,” he said.
A few minutes later the doorbell rang. The sun was starting to slide over the roofs of the houses across the street, neatly splitting the apartment into a glowing gold half and a shadowed gray half. Adam paused at the sound of the bell, then turned to face me. He’d transformed his face in an instant into something I knew others would find charming and reassuring, but which felt cold and overpowering when directed at me.
“You can stay in here when she comes in, and then after I introduce you, you go to your room,” Adam said, then went out the door. I stood waiting for him to come back, thinking of how best to position my body for when they came in, very aware of the awkwardness with which I was leaning against the counter. My cheek still throbbed, a dull, constant pulse.
When they entered, the first thing I noticed was the way she walked. It wasn’t the walk I would have pictured—self-conscious, sexy—but a sort of walk that exuded warmth and confidence. She seemed like a person who liked being in the world. She walked ahead of Adam into the room, as if it were her own home. They were both out of breath from the seven flights of stairs. She wore a loose green sundress and had long, dark hair, still wet from a shower, hanging down her back. Her face was wide and welcoming and bright.
She did a slow turn around the living room.
“It’s not like how you said,” she said to Adam.
“I like it.” Adam gave a tight smile, then nodded in my direction.
“This is my little brother,” he said.
She turned to face me, and I braced myself for the reaction. I felt like a cute prop, the human Razzmatazz, the younger brother, evidence of Adam’s caring qualities. But she didn’t react like that at all.
“Hi,” she said. “Thank you for having me over,” she added with a smile. It seemed like she really meant it.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
She frowned. “What happened to your face?” she asked, stepping forward slightly and grasping her hands together in front of her chest, as if resisting the instinct to reach out and touch me. I raised my hand to my cheek and felt myself turning red.
“Little man here ran into a pole,” Adam broke in. He gave me a pointed look.
“I’ve, uh, gotta go do some work in my room.” I turned away from them and walked down the hallway to my bedroom. I shut the door and sat on my bed. I threw the window open next to the bed and sat with my head halfway out, breathing the dead summer air. Even though we were seven stories up, there wasn’t any view, since the window faced the side of another apartment building. Down below, in the narrow space between the two buildings, was an alleyway covered in litter. Sometimes when I was bored I’d spit out the window and watch it make the long fall to the ground. If I craned my head out and to the left, I could see a sliver of the street and the dark houses beyond.
I couldn’t hear anything from outside the door. I guessed Adam and Julia were still in the kitchen, eating the dinner we’d made. I wanted to go out there and get some of the takeout leftovers still in the fridge, but I knew that would piss Adam off. After a while I laid down and closed my eyes.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I noticed the noises it was completely dark outside. The noises were so quiet at first that I almost thought I was imagining them, but then I realized they must have been what woke me up. Adam and Julia were having sex. There was no human sound, just that of Adam’s old wooden bedframe jerking rhythmically back and forth. I sat up and looked at my closed door. I wondered if it occurred to Adam that I could hear him.
Without meaning to, I started picturing the two of them in there, on Adam’s bed under his portrait. The green sundress crumpled on the carpet. I couldn’t settle on an idea of how their bodies would look. My only knowledge of what sex actually looked like was from one afternoon the previous spring when a group of boys at school had huddled in the computer lab to watch porn. Watching it had made me feel sick, though it had been impossible to tear myself away. The scene had struck me as so obviously staged, some sort of nurse fantasy that was so seamless and kitschy as to be almost funny, that thinking back on it I thought that whatever sex was actually like it must be the opposite of that.
It started to get louder, then, or maybe my ears became more attuned to the sound. I could hear her breathing heavily, punctuated every few seconds by a faint squeal over the clipped rhythm of Adam’s ragged breaths. I stood frozen in the middle of the room, listening. After a moment I walked to the door and pulled it open an inch. Adam’s room was directly across the hall, and the sounds immediately became clearer. I turned off the lights. Leaving the door cracked, I walked back to my bed and laid down on my side, facing away from the door so I wouldn’t be seen. It was impossible to stop listening, though I hoped that at any second the noises would end. I realized that I was growing hard. I closed my eyes and pinched my thigh to make it stop.
I felt something brush my leg lightly and I almost screamed in surprise. It was Razzmatazz, who must have come in through the open door. I’d never had him in my room. He was on my bed, pacing back and forth and mewing. Being locked out of Adam’s room must have freaked him out.
“Hey, Razzmatazz,” I whispered, and pushed him gently away from me. He tried to nip my fingers with his tiny fangs. He stared at me, not blinking. I reached out to push him again and he lunged for my hand. His bite was gentle, but I snatched my hand away. He darted to the far corner of the bed and began licking his tiny black belly. I laid down, my heart beating furiously all of a sudden. I could still hear them fucking as clearly as if they were doing it right in front of me. It was loud and fast and sounded exactly the way the porn had sounded. I closed my eyes again.
I sometimes imagined what I would be like in three years, when I was Adam’s age. I wondered if spending time with him would make me be like him. If I would start tracking my pushups and pullups and protein intake. I pictured myself taller and more muscular, wearing all black with my hair brushed back. I’d be like Adam but with a better-looking face. Standing behind some faceless, beautiful girl in our living room, about to bring her to my bedroom. It felt like a risk to even picture it, like it was dangerous to think that I might be a different person.
With my eyes still closed, I listened to the sounds that seemed to be all around me. I reached down and slipped my hand under my boxers. I felt myself throbbing, almost painfully. I imagined that I was the one in that room with Julia, the one making her sound like that.
A scraping sound near my face broke the spell. I opened my eyes. It was Razzmatazz. He had climbed up onto the windowsill to my right and was crouching low on the rough wood, edging slowly towards the open air. He hadn’t been outside since the day Adam brought him home. He turned his head back and looked at me.. His eyes were blank and spiteful. I flung my arm out and hit him with the back of my hand as hard as I could. I closed my eyes as I made contact with his soft body. The only sound was a light scrabbling of claws against the wood. I opened my eyes and looked at the dark, empty window. I waited for the sound that would come, but didn’t hear anything. It was strange, I thought, how easy it was to do something like that.
Charlie Lee is a recent graduate of Yale University, where he studied English and Creative Writing. He is currently a graduate student in English at Cambridge University. He works as the Fiction Editor at Soft Punk Magazine.
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