My heart is happy right now. To be able to see my little bi love story go live in such a wonderful journal, among so many talented writers, this is a true honor. Thanks so much for seeing something in this one, L Scully. Here’s one for all my fellow bi peeps!
Sitting in the back of the bus with a dollar store notebook on my lap, sketching and thinking about the past. October droplets stain my public transit window, turning the grime to a vertical stream as it passes and changes the passing headlights into alien stars–nothing more than ways to mark my way as I move along.
The headlights become fireflies in fading light, the summer retreating to its chrysalis, nights getting colder and rain and wind starting to claim the treehouse we made out in the woods, not in the trees but among them, sitting on the ground and made out of repurposed wooden fences, branches, and a blue tarp we liberated from a neighbor’s backyard. More branches plotted out the yard around the house, where we’d plant our garden once we had enough money for seeds. We never had enough money.
Playing backlit portable games underneath the blue tarp sky we made, taking our first sips of alcohol–vodka stolen from parental bottles and transferred to empty Coke cans, filling the bottles back up with water to disguise our theft. We were good.
You painted the tarp ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, counting sixteen candles and watching as you made a Frankenstein God touch the finger of a Super Mario Adam. You learned quickly that a little paint went a long way when some of it dripped off of the tarp and into your hair. It speckled it like you were a painted galaxy, took days to fully wash out.
You swiped a pack of cigarettes from the corner store when the clerk wasn’t looking, and we only got a cigarette in before we tossed them out, laughing and coughing. Your throw landed them in the creek, and I started like I was going to fish them out, but you told me it was okay. We were going to be enablers of fish addiction. We started a fire.
My pen is tracing lines I don’t know the endpoints of before I make them. It’s only when I hold it out in front of me that I can see the general shape, can make out what it is that I’m sketching.
You said we were going to get married someday, that you’d have my babies. We hadn’t even kissed yet. I laughed, sputtered out an, “Is that so?” Flames played in your eyes. You said, “mmmhmm.”
Midterms and finals and college searches. But you wouldn’t make it that far.
One day you were here, and the next you weren’t. Recited words and lit candles and crying eyes and offers of consolation. Days and nights of empty wandering in my room, thoughts moving from what I could’ve noticed to what I should’ve done. Could’ve and should’ve. Weeks melting like wax from a candled finger in reverse, working up the energy to take a shower, change my clothes, go to the corner store we used to haunt so I could put some food in my stomach, no matter how unhealthy it was.
Taking walks through the woods alone, thinking I saw you walking beside me, like a phantom limb you were, always attached to me. I kept walking.
My stop is coming up, but I have to finish this sketch first. It needs to have an ending.
One night long after it happened, I walked back out to our tree house. The tarp had sagged from the season’s rain, branches bent, but it was still standing. I crawled underneath and sat in there, the moonlight becoming something different fed through the water-blue of the tarp, something new. You were almost there beside me.
We’ve already passed my stop, but that’s fine. The drawing is done. It’s us sitting under the tarp together, the glow of a portable screen on my face as you watch with your head on my shoulder, in a place we both know, back when time stood still.
We’re in the dark, slow dancing to a song we barely know the words to, mumbling, mostly just picking up the melodies and harmonizing on the chori, making up our words and movements as we go till we’re melting together, here, at night, with the storm outside, with old Christmas lights strung up inside as the only light for us to dance by, something lofi, something chill, with words aching past quivering vocal cords, kissing every half step, sweat running down your forehead like the raindrops that are on the window, raining, trying to hold this moment in our hands like a childhood snowglobe that’s been scuffed but is still kept for sentimental value, moving past assuring each other that we’ll end up together in the end, somehow, the finality of it like a semi truck sending us flying down concrete, knowing full well, now, that this is the last moment we’ll ever spend together, that I have to leave, for reasons we didn’t want to face at first but now have to, waiting for something to happen, some epiphany, some moment like in a dream, like in a movie, then trying to forget it, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, conducting this moment like it’s a symphony, and I’m trying to remember forever the shapes of your face, the curves of your body, wondering if there will be a satisfying denouement, some word at the end to make it right, or if death is always something that happens with a whisper and not a bang, and I’m wondering what it’ll be like to be in my final moments, not just this one here with you but my last on Earth, if it’ll be quick, they never really know do they, and you’re trying to console, trying to make this all okay, because that’s who you’ve always been, using your half of the glass to fill mine, to make me see, to be my eyes, my light, my world, and it only makes sense that I’ll lose it all when I lose you, because the storm is starting to hit, and if you look close you can see the waves as they crash onto our block outside the window, the raindrops joined by branches and leaves, wind threatening to crack it, to break it all, and there was never any way out of this, no evacuation possible for us, no money for gas, never enough of anything but love for us, between us, and we’ve decided that we’re going to slow dance in the dark for one more song and make it right in our own way.
You were always unavailable when I was single, and vice versa. Our feelings for each other would constantly reach dead ends, like wires crossed and sending only static. It was the opposite of synchronicity.
We spent many nights out at the old playground, swinging on creaky swings and watching our breath enter into the night. We’d talk about the afterlife, and art, and aliens, and anything else that entered our brains. Conversation was never difficult.
You’d sketch out little doodles for me, and I’d tell you all about the three act structure, characterization, and form. We’d watch movies, and I’d predict things a half hour before they happened. When you asked me how I did that, I’d let you peek behind the curtain too.
I wanted to so bad sometimes, but I never pushed things. I might not have always respected who you were with, but I respected you and your relationship with them. Months later, when we finally ended up together, you’d tell me how much you appreciated that, that I never came onto you or tried anything.
Kissing you for the first time was like taking a breath after being underwater for years. You’d think that feeling might fade, but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think it ever will.
It started with us slow dancing to “Syrup” by Company of Thieves on your fuzzy rug, my feet bare and yours wearing socks with cute skulls on them. Our steps were as tentative as our hands, not quite sure where to place them. Your hair hung in front of your eyes as you looked down to check where your feet were going, and when you looked back up, your eyes caught mine right as Genevieve crooned, “Your love syrup, so sweet, I feel dangerous indeed.”
It felt like we were teenagers again, flirting, laying our words like playful traps and seeing what we’d catch. I hadn’t done this in years, and neither had you. It’s amazing what you can get used to: the monotony of stale love, the painful acceptance that things will never change. But then they did, and we did, and it was awesome.
We were both veterans of abuse and mistreatment, and we agreed that that sort of stuff builds character, but between us we had enough character to last several lifetimes. It was time to just be happy. Every story needs drama, but sometimes that drama needs to be kept safely in the past. So we danced. YouTube’s autoplay algorithm was on point that night, moving seamlessly from one sweet song to the next. After a while it didn’t matter, though. We could’ve danced to anything.
When that was through, we went for a night walk, sky clear and stars shining through. I joked about how back home in Chicago I could hardly see anything because of the light pollution, that you should count yourself lucky you live in North Carolina where the stars are plentiful. We flirted some more as we walked, and I did that thing where I pretended to softly karate chop you. I did it just to have an excuse to touch you, and you knew that. You karate chopped back.
It’s all about timing with these things. You’d just gotten out of a toxic relationship, and I knew you were in no position to commit to anything right away. We danced with our words, too. You needed someone who could accept you “as you are” and do simple things with you like “go on night walks.” I insisted that there was “someone just like that out there” and that “they might be right there in front of you and you don’t even know it.” You needed time, and I was willing to give it to you. You were worth the wait.
Before “Syrup” became our song, I’d listen to it again and again, seeing you in that relationship that was draining the life out of you. I’d wince every time it got to the end of the song, when Genevieve would lament that “it’s a damn shame we couldn’t be.” But dancing with you to that song for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile at those words, almost laugh at them. We were dangerous indeed.
When you needed support, I gave it to you. When you needed to hear that you could do it, I told you you would do it. My words weren’t empty, and you knew that. Years back, I’d been through the same thing, and I’d made it to the other side. And the dances continued, and the karate chops, and the night walks with stars that shifted their position in the sky as the days and weeks passed by.
There’s something to be said for letting something bloom. For watering it, giving it sun, singing to it, and watching it go from nothing to something. Something to be said for letting things take their natural course, for trusting the flow of things. The flow of people, and events, and affection. It flows like syrup, so sweet.
I remember at a young age being at Chuck and Mary’s house and seeing the framed picture Chuck had on the wall, a crying man’s fingers trailing over the Vietnam Memorial Wall, his buddy reflected in the smooth stone, still in uniform. I didn’t have a way of conceptualizing any of what Chuck must have gone through at that point. War to me then was propping up green army men and zooming jeeps along the carpet by hand. I couldn’t understand Chuck’s long pauses, the way he stared through things, the weight that each of his words carried.
There’s no other way to say it: Chuck is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known, but the kind of tough person whose armored exterior hid a sweet and mushy interior. He’d die to protect the people he loved. He had a way of getting me exactly what I wanted for Christmas, giving a matter-of-fact “you’re welcome” when I’d jump up and down and scream “thank you.” He’d take me aside, ask me about school, football, work, writing. I don’t know if he knew it while he was alive, but in a lot of ways, he was like a father figure to me.
As Chuck got older, his health deteriorated. He suffered illnesses I could never withstand, and he did it with grit, toughness, and humor. Maybe it was something he picked up in Vietnam, maybe it was just a part of him, but it seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down. I watched him lose weight dramatically, watched his mobility go away, watched him have to suffer the indignities of a body that simply didn’t want to do what he needed it to do.
As I grew up, Chuck went from being the guy whose presents I looked forward to every holiday to the guy who would level with me and talk through just about anything I was going through. Even as his body failed him, his spirit remained the same. It seemed like nothing could keep Chuck down.
Even to the very end, he remained that strong motherfucker, that guy who could disarm you with his dark humor and who hid how much he cared beneath his indomitable toughness. And sure, his humor got darker, and things pissed him off a bit more than they did before, but who could blame him? He was fighting the hardest battle of his life.
Chuck’s passed, and the hole is there, but I don’t think he’ll ever truly be gone. He’s just on the other side of the wall now, finally meeting up with his buddies after all these years. His body is strong again, and he can go where he wants to go, do what he wants to do. Not even death can keep Chuck down.
It’s going to be a Harry Potter party. I get my costume ready in the bathroom: hike up my skirt, get my makeup right, tousle my hair to look like Hermione’s. You’re watching Netflix in the other room, trying to make it seem like you don’t care. You’re still mad about me flirting with my coworker last week. I don’t know why I did it, but that didn’t stop me from calling you a baby. I don’t know why I’m doing the things I’m doing anymore.
I thought of inviting you, of introducing you to my new work friends, maybe trying to mend what’s been broken. But I didn’t. What I did was accept the invite, order the pieces I was missing from my costume, and hide the Amazon boxes once they got here. What I did was change my mind, wait till you got home, and try the costume on where I knew you’d see me. And the way you tried to be nonchalant about hanging up your coat, but how your eyes trailed over me as you walked over to the closet. And when you didn’t say anything, when you started to walk away, how I asked you what you thought. How I looked. How your eyes showed your hurt, but you said I looked good. How you opened your mouth to say something, to ask something, but stopped yourself.
It’s gotten so I’ll stay at work till 7 or 8, tell myself I need to stay late to prepare for the next day, but I know that isn’t true. I know that I just want to walk past my coworker one last time and imagine what he’d smell like on top of me. I know that he’s staying late on purpose too, that we’re moving past each other over and over, closer and closer, waiting for one of us to bump into the other. He’s single, and I think about this as I fiddle with my engagement ring, as I pee one last time before heading home, staying in the stall so long that the lights automatically go off.
We haven’t fucked in weeks. I find an excuse every time, and when you remind me how long it’s been, I go to the bathroom and use my vibrator. The last time I did this, I walked back in the room to find you jerking off, not bothering to hide it under the covers. You left yourself out for a while even after I walked in, and I acted like I’d seen nothing. I got into bed and under the covers, and when your foot touched mine, I told you to move over.
When we do touch, it’s in the form of a play fight, and we grapple and vie for control because to hug and to hold would be too much at this point. But by the end of these play fights, we’re sweaty and tired, leaning up against each other like spent boxers, and you’ll try to sneak a kiss. I’ll jerk my head away and tell you how sweaty you are. If you’re lucky, I’ll pretend to be dead weight, and you’ll have to grab me and pull me back up. You’ll have to save me.
I think of all the ways I could end it. I could sit you down over dinner, or call you when I’m at my mom’s, or text you after work. I could pack up all my things and leave without saying a word. I could do these things, any of them, without hesitation. Don’t think I couldn’t.
When it’s time to go to the party, I rush to get my shoes on before you can get up and go to the door. I just say, “bye,” and I leave. I sneak out the bottle of Jim Beam I’ve stashed in my purse and nurse it for courage before getting on the CTA bus.
When I get there, I do that thing where I hug the wall, near my friends, and smile and nod when someone I know walks by and acknowledges me. My coworker spots me eventually, pours something I can’t see into a cup and brings it to me. He challenges my HP knowledge with some trivia, which I ace, but I smile anyway. He refills my cup and challenges me to a duel. Produces two wands and hands one to me. My cheeks burn as I smile and shake my head, but he challenges me loud enough that everyone hears. Gets everyone to clear out of the way and form a circle around us. It’s over in seconds: one shout of “Expelliarmus” and he tosses his wand high in the air. I send out my Patronus for good measure, but he surrenders.
An hour goes by, maybe two. My coworker and I stop drinking and just talk. When the party starts to thin out, he offers to give me a ride home. No sense in taking the CTA and dealing with weirdos, he says. I say yes.
When I tell him the address, he says he’s just a couple blocks away. That we’re practically neighbors. There’s silence for a while, and he says something about stopping by his place for coffee. So we can wake up. I say yes.
When he’s inside of me, all I can think of is our first date, sneaking into the mall with you after watching a movie, getting into the playplace that was meant to be a forest and lying on the grass carpet as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” piped out of the mall speakers. How we were silent. How we had smiles, matching, unaware of the future. How we followed the song’s advice and just lay there, our fingers intertwined.
We met in the psych ward, your hands shaking jello off your spoon, face mask covering everything but your eyes as you glanced at me, then back to the plate. I watched the birds as they flew past the window, wingtips grazing glass, and said what the hell. I introduced myself, put my hands in my lap so my bandaged arms were out of view. I asked about the face mask like an idiot. You told me you had chugged cough syrup and didn’t think you’d be getting a cold anytime soon.
We met in the common area after dinner, swapped stories of where we grew up: me in the torn-up part of town, you in the suburbs. I walked you through taking showers with microwaved cups of water when the gas got turned off, wearing your winter coat to bed when the heat went out next. You showed me cutting yourself in places out of sight since you were eleven, not eating for days, running away from home and sleeping in parks. We showed each other sneaking out of group therapy and setting up a game of Scrabble, fingers grazing as we reached for tiles, both of our hands stopping in place, and me looking at the way your blonde hair cascaded over your face, your eyes now watching mine.
It was waking to find you sitting at the foot of my bed, hair haloed by moon and pepto pink Chicago sky coming in through the window, whispering what you were up to so as not to wake up my roommate. It was making room on my bed for you and finding out what was wrong, covering your mouth as you cried so we wouldn’t be found out. It was yanking the blanket over our heads when the orderly came down the hall with a flashlight to make his fifteen minute rounds, breathing so shallow we could pass for the dead. It was the kiss we shared, silent, shifting our bodies so no part of us wasn’t touching the other.
They let you out first, you leaving me with your number and a hug that wanted to last forever. I spent the next couple of days holed up in my room, thinking of the things I’d say to you once they let me out.
You skipped your first therapist appointment to be with me once I got out, us biking the trails and cutting through Chicago alleys, riding down the middle of barren streets and reaching out hands till our fingers intertwined as we rode. I staved off suicidality with our weekly hangouts, breathed through dissociation and panic attacks that left me incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks.
I went off my meds ‘cause I couldn’t afford them, walked miles to your apartment and buzzed you out. We snuck up to the roof and lay supine, legs intertwined. Watched the sky’s tentative blue segue into the pink we once knew. I told you of the unreality of my days and you said you’d collect my thoughts into a great pitcher, that you’d drink them up for me. I told you I didn’t want you to bleed with me, and you opened your mouth to say something but nothing came out.
I took you down to my old neighborhood, charted the places that made me. The exact plot of dirt in a barren baseball field where the bullies held me down and taped firecrackers to my body before lighting them all with an old Bic, losing feeling in my hand for a half hour, ripped-paper skin that bled onto dirt. I showed you the manhole I used to pry up, the one that led to a city-wide tunnel system. Where I’d go when the AC gave out in the summer, or else a place outside of M & D’s verbal assault jurisdiction. I showed you the convenience store I used to rip off honey buns from when there was nothing in the house and even the Catholic charities weren’t willing to help.
You took me to your old neighborhood: immaculate lawns and empty houses, parks you used to populate late at night, us sitting there and you pulling down socks to reveal ankles dotted with constellations of scars, your inner arms tallied like an inmate counting down the days till their release. So much scar tissue it almost looked like regular skin.
You kept me out of the psych ward and I kept you out of your head, escaping the places that housed us to be out on the road together, peeking over shoulders to make sure no cars were coming, everything around us buzzing too fast, never stopping, and the way you would laugh out loud and remind me of taping playing cards to spokes to make motorcycles of bikes. It was like that, those summer nights together, just the two of us, pedaling off and into the darkness.
We cut our teeth on B horror movies on VHS, having to adjust the tracking to make them even halfway viewable, that’s how much we watched them. Shooting Cheez Whiz directly into our mouths and hiding under our pillow fort, Space Jam blanket underneath to keep us comfy. Watching Troll 2, Cheez Whizzing every time someone says Nilbog. Her taking out the pink bike her parents gave her on her twelfth birthday and me helping her spray paint it a cerulean blue. I gave her two of my pegs, and the way I tried to hide my blush when she gave me a hug.
The bully’s knuckle cutting my cheek, blackening one of my eyes, adrenaline making me grab a stick, hit him in the head, make my escape. And when she saw what happened to me, bringing me over to her house and putting ice pops on my face ‘cause that’s all they had in the freezer. Then sitting down in her basement, me watching her play Game Boy Color out of my one good eye, sidling up close to make as if I wanted to get a better view but really just trying to get closer to her.
Mom screaming at Dad and throwing plates, me sneaking out with my walkie talkie before it could get physical, out in the night, calling for backup. Us circling the block, underneath the buzzing street lamps, cicadas screaming in protest at the humid air. Her blonde hair frizzed up against rain droplets as she distracted me with descriptions of the last episode of Pokémon that I’d missed. And when that went away, how she laced her fingers into mine and we walked like that, with the sound of droplets and cicadas, street lamps buzzing and cars dopplering down the interstate.
We were sixteen and she was moving to a new town a couple hours away, us swinging on swings and kicking up packed-in wet sand, insisting we’d chat on AIM and ride the Amtrak on weekends, her turning away and making as if she was looking at the sunset sky while she covered up her tears. There was a storm drain that snaked through the underbelly of our torn-up town, and we’d pried a manhole open to gain access to it, would sneak down there to write stories by Maglite and get away from everything for a while.
She felt the concrete floor for dampness before sitting down, put her legs together so her Converse were two sides of the same coin. She took the Maglite in her hand and shined SOS on the concrete wall, no signs of help coming. She turned and shined the light in my face till I saw spots in my eyes, leaning over and struggling with her over the Maglite. I freed it from her and shut it off, bringing darkness to our little hideaway. Silence. Not even the sound of our breath. The warmth of her leg next to mine, then her hand. Our fingers touching tentatively like a cat’s whiskers as it sniffs something new. Her lips at the corner of mine, staying for a while, then leaving. Fumbling in the dark to find her, hands now over her clothing, she’s completely still now, but letting it happen. Hand sliding under and her saying my name, saying we shouldn’t. My hands moving. Her teeth on my shoulder, moisture spreading on my shirt. The buckle and the button and the zipper. These are meant to hold together, but we’re coming apart now. Coming apart together. Her panties slide away and her hand is in my hair, saying we don’t have to do this. As if there’s any other choice. We slide our way into the dark and she tells me to pull out. When I try, she reaches back and holds my hips, goes limp in front of me as I shudder.
When we can say something, we say Oh no, or Oh God, and we sit next to each other, and I switch the Maglite on, and we cry in turns, alternating between who comforts whom, the Maglite now flickering in my hands from its dying battery, sending the concrete wall into staccato relief, mapping out its own SOS as our cries fade away into silence.
It’s a weird thing facing your own mortality at age eight. Lying in a hospital bed in hospital greens, fading away from the effects of leukemia. Spoiler alert going into this: I don’t make it. Yes, I’m dead. I know you’re probably wondering about the whole writing when you’re dead thing, but the rules are different here. And it isn’t anything like you’d think it is. No pearly gates or endless fire. No eternal black, either. I don’t know, maybe it’s different for everyone. Maybe I just lucked out with what I got.
Even though I died when I was eight, I guess I’d be in my late twenties now. At least that’s what it feels like. Your faculties continue to evolve even after you die, or at least mine did. But anyway: me in the hospital bed. I remember passing the time trading Pokémon cards with the kid across the hall, the one with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I gypped him out of a first edition holographic fossil baby Raichu for a Dark Charizard, the budding collector in me already knowing how much my haul would be worth.
There are people who allege that those close to death can sense things that others can’t. I’d have to agree. It’s hard to make sense of what this is around me, but it feels like you’re at the end of a strange and good dream, just getting lucid, aware that you’re dreaming, and you try to wake yourself up but can’t. It’s like that, only instead of waking up you exit yourself entirely, separated from who you were though you retain everything, floating with no sense of direction. There is no up or down, only around.
For lack of a better word, there are different “settings” you can tune into. You can see in ultraviolet if you want to, dip into the milky swirls of nebulae. You can take on a more physical form, but it’s painful. Not in a physical sense, but an emotional one. Like someone close to you just died, but the feeling won’t go away until you leave. Maybe that’s what it is to be a ghost. I don’t know. I’ve only been here twenty years or so, and in the cosmic scheme of things that’s nothing.
The first thing I did was to stay with my parents after I went. I couldn’t get the hang of it at first. I’d segue into the fibers of their bed and see everything at a microscopic scale, scale everything down until Earth was a marble in front of me. I figured it out, though. Took a physical form to try to reach them, but nothing really worked. My mother cried into her pillow, muffled as her chest heaved like she was being defibrillated. I’d shift pictures, close doors. That’s about all I could do. Her and my father would shift the pictures back, open the doors up again. So I left the physical form and just watched them. Watched them go about their days, trying to will themselves to follow their old routine without change. I watched my mother collapse at a bus stop, finally revived by a passerby. Her tears ran her makeup down her aching face and she caught the next bus out.
It wasn’t pain so much as an aching dullness spread throughout my body as I listened to hospital beeps and lie awake, light pollution letting up sometimes so I could catch Orion’s belt through my window. I’d make little sketches for my parents and the kid across the hall just to pass the time, still lifes of medical miscellanea and my feet peeking up from underneath my blanket. Wrote stories of children who discovered hidden superpowers while lying in hospital beds, transmuting to an insubstantial form and gliding through windows and walls, flying past the clouds and into the inky blue. I’d get up sometimes at night and walk the halls, careful to duck into doorways whenever nurses or orderlies would pass. I’d peek into the rooms of the elderly especially, watch in curiosity as they struggled to breathe through the night, tunneling tubes and ventilators helping them out. Sometimes I’d sneak in and stroke their silvery hair, touch their soft cheeks before touching my own in comparison.
If I want, I can watch each subsequent year pass by like a flickering movie before my eyes, projected against inky black. See what it would’ve been like to have my first kiss, manage pimples, graduate high school. I watch as I pack my beater for college, taking the interstate with the windows down. I get married, have a couple kids, watch them toddle towards their grandparents. After that it gets fuzzy, the potential realities colliding like particles in the LHC. There’s too much guesswork to be done, even in the afterlife.
I can swell to the size of planets, shrink to the smallest quark, but I can’t bring back what was lost. I busy myself with returning to the origin of man, observing dinosaurs as they roam prehistoric lands. I watch as the first organisms traverse through the primordial ooze, illuminated even in the depths by the sun that gives them life. I ache for my parents and wish I could tell them that it’ll be okay.
I walk those lonesome hospital halls now, looking for the ones who are soon to join me. When they’re asleep in the middle of the day, I shift their curtains to keep the sun out of their eyes, push with all my might to shut doors when it’s noisy out in the hall. And when they go I guide them, into the depths, away from all of their pain and suffering. We float above the room and leave it entirely, rising higher still till the sky doesn’t exist.