Light-Heavy

Hello Mr. Magazine - - CONTENTS - Christo­pher Barnard

What is it about heat that makes us heav­ier? Con­vec­tion or con­duc­tion? I can never re­mem­ber.

Alex was wear­ing a black Patag­o­nia fleece the night I went to his apart­ment in Wil­liams­burg, of the kind my step­broth­ers used to wear on their vis­its home, and that my mother would buy for me in a size too big be­cause she thought that’s what boys were wear­ing. He had no shirt on un­der­neath, which was in­stantly and un­ex­pect­edly erotic. This was a look at the mo­ment, a sort of moun­taineer désha­billé, even in the op­pres­sive heat of high New York sum­mer.

It was around 2am that I fi­nally de­cided to get a cab over to his place, my phone’s ther­mome­ter reg­is­ter­ing 82 de­grees even in the dead of night. The air was fresh and fast over the bridge and watch­ing the city crest then fall was al­ways thrilling for those few seconds. I could have gone hours ear­lier, but I liked sit­ting with the an­tic­i­pa­tion, and the thought of be­ing with another per­son felt like a hos­tile act given my re­cent iso­la­tion. In the last year I had seen fewer and fewer peo­ple since work and writ­ing kept me at home. It oc­curred to me that I’d had no more than two in­ter­ac­tions in the last week—a pan­icky check-out at the su­per­mar­ket and a chat with my su­per about my fail­ing AC—and I won­dered would he be able to tell? To see the ma­chin­ery mov­ing on my face and mouth with some dif­fi­culty as I tried to re­spond like I think hu­mans were sup­posed to th­ese days. In con­ver­sa­tion I of­ten have to re­peat my­self and am ac­cused of mum­bling. I made a note to speak louder than I thought I needed to tonight. This was not a new ten­dency, the iso­la­tion, to be sure, but this mo­ment and the cir­cum­stances, work­ing and writ­ing alone in a sleepy pocket of Al­pha­bet City were quiet and what you might say free, but there was a cost. Days had emp­tied grad­u­ally, then com­pletely. But they were filling in kind. There were other things, new things in the space. I was avoid­ing mir­rors, for one. I regis­tered one morn­ing that my face was chang­ing and I de­cided just not to look any­more rather than be dis­turbed by some­thing vaguely off and new. That ap­proach was, as you can imag­ine, prob­lem­atic. It wasn’t van­ity but more that the nerves were com­ing to the fore and I would have to an­swer to them. There were also anx­i­eties aris­ing at cross­walks and restau­rant ta­bles and places where I would un­know­ingly rip nap­kins into fraught piles and then flee. The com­pul­sion in the speed­ing taxi was to suf­fo­cate all of this, th­ese lit­tle deaths inside me, with an

ex­treme and un­de­ni­able force. There would be a body close soon, to ab­sorb them.

“You made it,” he said ner­vously from across the liv­ing room, not re­ally mov­ing. His un­re­solved halflean told me he had been try­ing, in the seconds just be­fore, to fig­ure out how to po­si­tion him­self when I en­tered through the propped door.

“Yes, sorry, there was an ac­ci­dent on the bridge,” I lied, walk­ing to­ward him. I also told him I had plans, but ac­tu­ally I had done noth­ing that night, just the sit­ting. My white long-sleeved t-shirt was filmy from sweat and clung to his hands when we fum­bled an embrace. The hole in my jeans where the thighs rubbed to­gether felt sud­denly vulgar.

It had been a year since I had met Alex, when we were set-up on a blind date by two mar­ried friends we had in common. A quaint idea now, be­ing set-up by ac­tual peo­ple, I was cu­ri­ous about the po­ten­tial of it and he was hand­some in the pic­tures they showed me. “You could be brothers,” the wife, Kate, had of­fered darkly. He was a food writer. We were both north­ern look­ing, with dark hair and light skin. She was right, but noth­ing hap­pened after that first, for­get­table din­ner. Alex was only one in a line of failed set-ups and ghosts at din­ner, made only some­what more poignant by the sto­ries he told me of grow­ing up Pen­te­costal, the mad­ness of nar­rowly es­cap­ing a fringe re­li­gion. His man­ner and ap­pear­ance tonight, how­ever, were more re­laxed than I had ex­pected, es­pe­cially since it had all been his idea. Then again, I have never been able to suc­cess­fully gauge the mores of men my age. I would have wanted to ap­pear more ready, I thought.

“You look re­ally good tonight,” he said stilt­edly, like an ac­tor ad­her­ing to a script. Hold­ing him even for that mo­ment and with­out breath­ing, I was dis­armed more by his size. I have been 6’2” since 1999, and he stood at least 2 inches taller than me, softer in his waist and shoul­ders, un­can­nily like a paint­ing of a man I saw ear­lier that day and could not for­get. The pic­ture was in a cof­fee-ta­ble edi­tion that I had been us­ing as a place­mat for the last few months and opened to­day for the first time in years. The fig­ure, a dark-haired man, was hulk­ing and rough like Alex, but fuller in the places where I was sharp.

The sud­den cool of the apart­ment after be­ing so in­cred­i­bly hot was mak­ing me drowsy. I wanted to lay down right there on the floor—me on top of him or him on top of me, it didn’t mat­ter—to just stop and be silent.

Hear­ing from Alex the day be­fore was a sur­prise, am­pli­fied by the grav­ity that my re­cent pe­riod of iso­la­tion cre­ated; in the way ev­ery­thing be­gins to feel like a sign. “Hear­ing from” meant a late night GChat, of course. He was leav­ing, mov­ing to San Francisco in a few weeks, not sure of the ex­act date. me: Oh, how ex­cit­ing! For work?

Alex: Yes for work. me: Good for you.

Alex: I wish we had hung out more back when we first met. You were one of the nicer guys I’d met in a while.

me: I re­call ask­ing you to go see a play, and you were hor­ri­fied.

Alex: Haha, I wasn’t hor­ri­fied. Can I see you be­fore I leave?

Yes, okay. It was con­tact and it took me a few

He tasted like weed and Burt’s Bees and I thought how I would be 31 in a week with his tongue down my throat.

mo­ments to re­mem­ber what that felt like. It would mean a few hours of hold­ing and more pre­cisely for­get­ting about the mir­rors and piles and stop lights. Al­lay­ing the dread that over­took me at the gro­cery this week, when a dis­pute be­tween cus­tomers about whose turn it was in line com­pelled me to pick my cu­ti­cles raw, some­thing I de­duced from the red streaks near my pock­ets, or maybe I had I just done it on the walk home. The paint­ing was Madawaska–Aca­dian Light

Heavy by Mars­den Hart­ley, the one from the place­mat book. I would look it up the next day to be sure, but I kept see­ing it as we made our way through his apart­ment into his room. The por­trait is almost prim­i­tive, bor­der­ing on car­i­ca­ture in dark, hot col­ors. Hart­ley, I read in the cap­tion, would se­quester him­self for long pe­ri­ods of time in the woods or iso­lated beaches of the north­east and be­came slightly de­ranged as a re­sult. How his in­ter­ac­tions and work were stranger and more fright­en­ing as a re­sult. Did he also no­tice spots of blood and won­der where they came from?

The apart­ment was con­verted from a one bed­room to two; his room­mate worked in ad­ver­tis­ing and was never there. “We hardly see each other. He has a girl­friend, so it’s per­fect.” His bare foot­steps were loud on the wooden floor and ev­ery­thing felt heavy still. Cross­ing the thresh­old into his bed­room, I had the sud­den and dis­ori­ent­ing de­sire to be com­pletely crushed by ev­ery­thing in it.

His room was gray and invit­ingly cool: large enough to fit a couch, tele­vi­sion and cheap cof­fee ta­ble along with a queen size bed, tidily made up. We sat on the couch and he pulled me close to kiss. He tasted like weed and Burt’s Bees and I thought how I would be 31 in a week with his tongue down my throat. He was 29. His hands were clumsy and thick and I wanted them to squash my own, or at least try. It was the pres­sure, and I wanted so much to thrash against them, so there would be no more dy­ing for just a mo­ment. I would some­times wres­tle with men I slept with as a trick to make them use their whole strength against me and get as close to crushed as pos­si­ble.

“So, did you bring a movie?” That was the pre­tense of me com­ing over so late, a movie. Of my en­tire DVD col­lec­tion I had grabbed The House

of Yes. He had never heard of it and felt no em­bar­rass­ment. How easy it was to be him.

I wanted to ask him things that would make him talk all night, “Where did you come from re­ally? Who made you? And why are we here?” So I could start for­get­ting that I was any­where or any­thing, just for th­ese few hours, and be buried un­der the words and him. In­stead we watched Parker Posey un­ravel with my arm around his, and then moved to the bed to fool around. We were sweet and care­ful with each other. He asked me to spend the night, and I did.

I was an en­try on a list of things to do be­fore he left—I knew that and was am­biva­lent to it. His win­dow looked out di­rectly over the East River. Even in the dark you could see the haze, a murky, boil­ing red. I was rarely if ever with some­one who was big­ger than I was. We laid there and he fell asleep in less than a minute. I thought of the Aca­dian and won­dered if maybe we were both on fire, like the burnt shades he was wrought in. This is what I came for: to be smoth­ered and snuffed and qui­eted, the mo­ment of hold­ing. But

“I want you to take both of your arms and squeeze as tight as you can. Put them around my chest and squeeze, like the squeez­ing is go­ing to save my life or some­thing.”

he was asleep now. I in­di­cated as much as I could to be held tighter and tighter, un­til I too fell asleep.

In the morn­ing the win­dows were misty with con­den­sa­tion from the AC and it was freez­ing in the bed­room. I reached for my phone to beat the 7am alarm. It read 84 de­grees in 10009. Alex roused and smiled eas­ily. I was anx­ious just ly­ing there and thought I should get out, not out of awk­ward­ness, it was just the next thing to do. I had felt him and had been squeezed and crushed and had got­ten some quiet. I wouldn’t know if he had got­ten any of what he wanted and this felt like the end. It had been nice. I sat up.

“Don’t go,” he reached sens­ing my exit, fling­ing his arm around my chest and throw­ing me down on the bed with a startling force.

“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” he said, sur­prised at him­self.

I stared up at the ceil­ing and felt the rush of hit­ting my head on the bed, his thick arm heavy on my chest. A few mo­ments passed and he asked if I was al­right.

“Could you...” I imag­ined my­self leav­ing the apart­ment and the room with the foggy win­dow be­hind. So then I wasn’t there any­more and this wasn’t us. There was some­thing I wanted right then or had wanted for some time and I re­al­ized, I couldn’t leave with­out ask­ing. The force of him slam­ming me on the bed had eased the ques­tion from my lips and set in mo­tion a se­ries of ir­re­vo­ca­ble events. “Yes?” “Could you do some­thing for me? It may sound strange.” I looked for pat­terns in the white, speck­led ceil­ing. “Well, what? Oh, sure. But what?” So easy. “I want you to take both of your arms and squeeze as tight as you can. Put them around my chest and squeeze, like the squeez­ing is go­ing to save my life or some­thing,” I said glass­ily. “Okay.” Alex had a brother, I re­mem­ber him telling me a year be­fore, but there were no pic­tures of his fam­ily to be found like the ones I dis­played on the dresser at the foot of my bed on 2nd St., which was a re­lief. There was some­thing pe­cu­liar about ly­ing with men with the young Army por­traits of my grand­fa­thers star­ing back at us, one a bit more hand­some than the other, it was just a fact. There was noth­ing pe­cu­liar in Alex’s room, ev­ery­thing in it made sense.

I took a deep breath then ex­haled and rolled onto my side, giv­ing in­di­ca­tion that I had done this a hun­dred times. I felt the per­spi­ra­tion of his un­der­arms around my back and the spongy ridge of his tri­cep. His hands clasped at my ster­num. I closed my eyes and willed ev­ery­thing to stop and be quiet and sud­denly it was, if just barely. He tight­ened un­til there was noth­ing more.

I’m not sure if I felt the drip or heard him moan­ing first. There was some­thing wet on the back of my neck, and I was in a dif­fer­ent place on the bed sit­ting up next to a dark spot on his grey du­vet. Alex was grum­bling be­hind me, all of this adding up to time be­ing lost. Was it seconds or min­utes? His nose and face were cov­ered in blood.

“Je­sus Christ,” he whis­pered, wip­ing his face, still shocked.

I had blacked out and smashed his nose with the back of my head some­how. I think, I didn’t dare

ask. I ran to the bath­room, still un­steady, to get a towel. I thought about run­ning out of the door down the dingy stairs and to the street, and how many blocks be­fore I would see some­one I knew and de­pend­ing on who, if I could ask them for some shoes and cash to get home. Did I have any blood on me? Yes. When I came back he was stand­ing up, his face pale and men­ac­ing from the splat­ter. Blood hap­pens so fast.

“I’m go­ing to take a shower,” he said flatly, tilt­ing his head in the air to keep the nose from run­ning. He did not look at me again and closed the bed­room door be­hind him. The sweet­ness and ease of the night be­fore was now some fresh, vi­o­lent in­ci­dent and I needed to leave.

I threw my clothes on and thought how much he had looked even more like the paint­ing just then, heated and bloody and some­what deliri­ous. I no­ticed his dress­ing ta­ble as I did a once over of the room, it was ir­re­sistibly typ­i­cal; cologne, lo­tion, movie tick­ets, a braided leather belt. It looked like some­one had been play­ing dress up, in the way that liv­ing in New York at all was play­ing dress up to the peo­ple we knew.

The shower hissed and I ran. Good luck in San Francisco. Shit. I hit the soupy heat of the morn­ing in my soiled long sleeve t-shirt and felt the re­lief of be­ing sur­rounded. While I in­tu­ited my way to the sub­way, I re­al­ized that, in my haste, I had left my DVD on the couch and his com­puter screen open to a search for Mars­den +

Hart­ley + por­trait. I won­dered if he would know what it was and re­mem­ber it. Most likely not. Or un­der­stand what I had tried to bury in him. I crossed the river un­der­ground and sat be­tween win­dows to avoid my re­flec­tion won­der­ing how far be­low the wa­ter I was and that it would never be deep enough. I made it home and opened the Amer­i­can Painters mono­graph to the Light-Heavy

Aca­dian, weighted and im­mov­able, the dark pupils and pharoh’s brow star­ing out of frame to the fire light­ing up his room. He would burn with that room and not flinch.

Not sur­pris­ingly, I did not hear from Alex again. He went to Cal­i­for­nia and never said any­thing about my exit, or the blood. It was queer and sav­age how our know­ing each other ended, but right then, I re­al­ized that my nerves were be­com­ing their own sov­er­eign state. I was dif­fer­ent and calmer when we met the year be­fore, what did he think of me now? And what had hap­pened since? Or what did it mat­ter? When I think of him I pic­ture his heav­i­ness, his broad strong chest and the thought of sink­ing far, far down be­neath all of it. And the hot col­ors of the wild man painted in mad­ness, that could maybe quiet ev­ery­thing again. * Mars­den Hart­ley, 1877-1943 Madawaska, Aca­dian Light-Heavy, Third Ar­range­ment, (1940) Oil on com­po­si­tion board, 27 7/8 x 21 3/4in. (70.8 x 55.2 cm) Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, New York; Gift of Nina and Her­man Sch­nei­der, Gertrude Van­der­bilt Whit­ney, and Dr. Meyer A. Pearl­man, Di­rec­tor's Dis­cre­tionary Fund, 2005.89 Pho­to­graph by Shel­dan C. Collins

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