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

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 LightHeavy 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

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.

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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