I remember seeing her for the first time at Ganymede’s, this coffeehouse a couple of blocks from campus. It was a nice place, a little artsy, but mostly just comfortable. Lots of posters and records on the walls, big chairs and old couches. The official college hangout.
It was mid-October, it was raining, and she was the new barista. Senna Wales. B+ face, A+ body, provided you weren’t looking for eight pounds of silicone. Hair so blonde it was nearly white, milky skin, big eyes. Strange eyes. She liked to wear peasant tops and wraparound skirts, top it off with funky jewelry. Kinda New Age Wicca. Definitely a look, but she pulled it off, so who could complain, right?
Anyway, that’s where David and I met her. At Ganymede’s. The weird barista who brought coffee for me and David and tea for April and then left us alone.
She didn’t look at him. Not once. Not then.
I remember meeting David. He was the new kid at my high school, and as resident school clown it was my job to make his life miserable. Hell, it was everyone’s job to make the new kid miserable; I just did a better job than most. It was easy. David didn’t fit in. He wasn’t a jock, wasn’t rich, wasn’t a drama kid, wasn’t a geek, wasn’t a wannabe gangsta, wasn’t a pothead. He was like one of the goth kids, quiet and angry and depressed, only without all the black clothing and loud music, so he didn’t fit with them either. He walked into my homeroom in an old Army tee, scowl on his face and dark hair in his eyes and I just knew I was going to have fun with him.
It happened maybe three months later. It with a capital I. I’m still not sure what It was.
I woke up way early one Saturday. Crack of dawn, practically, and I hadn’t seen the sun rise since I visited my grandparents in Montana when I was eleven. I snuck downstairs and took the car out for a drive, cruising, thinking maybe I’d grab some breakfast at Mickey D’s or coffee or something. But I just kept driving. Like I was looking for something. I passed the Starbucks, all of them, and the boulevard, and the downtown district, everything.
I headed out to the lake. Ended up at the docks. People throw kick-ass parties there in the summer, but right now it was quiet and cool. I parked the car, got out and took a walk. Had the energy, right? No sense sitting around on my ass.
I’d walked maybe twenty feet when I saw him sitting out there on the docks. A little grey and brown lump, with his chin resting on his knees, one hand trailing in the water. I walked closer. I had to, almost, even though I know that someone who looked like that wanted their privacy. And then I saw his face. The look on his face. Like he wanted to cry, but he wouldn’t let himself. Couldn’t afford to let himself. Like the cost of a single tear was too great to pay.
I wanted to walk over to him and peel him out of his clothes, lie down on a bed with him and feel his skin against mine. I don’t know why. Even now, I don’t know why. There was this incredible feeling of how sad he was, how lonely. At that moment I wanted him more than anything in the world. And I walked… I walked closer. Slowly. Carefully. Like I was afraid he’d fade into the mist if I looked too closely, or fall into the lake and disappear without a ripple, before I even had a chance.
Falling in love with David was like falling into water and coming back up and breaking the surface, breathing in air for the first time in what feels like forever. And no matter how many times you fell you were never afraid, because you knew no matter how dark, no matter how scary, no matter how cold, you had nothing to fear.
When I was close enough I reached out for him. Reached out to hold him, reached out to pull him back from the abyss, away from the water, the shadowy depths, the dark reflection. He looked up at me, kind of blank, kind of sleepy. The half-lidded look you see at funerals and wakes.
“You all right?”
Stupid question, stupid Christopher, always sticking your foot in your mouth.
“No. No, I’m really not.”
“I figured.” He felt warm beneath his shirt. “Come on, I’ll drive you home. Or wherever. You know, wherever you want to go.”
It was a slow walk back, those twenty feet. This place was calling to something in me, asking me a question, and instead of answering I was just running away. With David. It felt like the right thing to do.
“Where do you live?”
“About ten miles…” He pointed. “That way.”
“And you don’t run track why?”
“I don’t play sports.”
I knew that.
So I drove back through town, past the Starbucks and the boulevard and the corporate moms rushing to get their precious gifts to daycare. Everything. David’s house was nice. Middle-class suburb, like mine. Empty and quiet and you just knew that this early in the morning everyone was spying on everyone else, playing petty little I-know-more-than-you games.
When David started to slide out of his seat, I knew I had to say something.
“There’s a party tonight. At Jason Hayback’s house.”
He tilted his head to the side, shaggy hair swinging. “A party?”
“Yeah. You know, people hang out, listen to music, drink, have sex, usually in that order?”
It was stupid on my part. Michigan isn’t backwoods Kentucky, but it isn’t Gay Pride, USA either. Just because I’d slept with half of the school’s female population didn’t mean I wasn’t a fag. Obviously. But I felt something that I couldn’t put a finger on, that made me throw all caution to the wind and risk true high school hell. All for one quick slide of my fingers over his.
We don’t mention the time before the docks, the days when I was his tormenter and he was the victim. We don’t mention that I might have had something to do with the look on his face.
And I don’t know how it got to this, how far we’ve drifted, how different he seems. I don’t understand how his eyes are like flat paint when he looks at me. Ever since that day at the dock I’ve been able to read his eyes. I’ve seen things in them I didn’t think I’d find anywhere. And now they’re flat and dead.
“Senna?” The why is unspoken.
“She’s a beautiful. woman.” Faint pause, and I flash back, remembering David telling me he wasn’t sure he could do this, wasn’t sure he could ever be with another guy. I told him I’d take the chance. Fool. ‘Cause I never even thought about it before – kids and a dog and a white picket fence. My parents had it, David’s parents had it, and God knows we hated them all equally. Coming home from your 9-to-5 where your tie and your boss as good as choked you and your secretary blew you but you still kissed you wife and settled down to drinking enough to rot your liver. It never seemed like such a big deal. Fucking American Dream. Maybe I underestimated David’s longing for normal.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
And he walked away. Just like that.
She brought him to the coffeehouse now. After school, late at night, whenever she didn’t have class. She showed him off. She held court in something long and flowing, glitter smeared all over her eyes. She was a J-Pop reject, cute and stupid until you looked in her eyes and sank. David was in a dark shirt, something that brought out the shadows under his eyes and made him dark and intense. Like Hamlet, like Poe and his Raven, like an angel just before the fall. And you know what happened to them.
She whispered in his ear, sharp sweet words that dulled him even as they cut him to ribbons. Her hands would slide over him, dipping under the edges of his clothes and trailing back up again. He lay there, taking it all in like a god being worshipped. Or a sacrifice being examined. Senseless. Leaden. Dead. I cried, watching them. I’d only seen him like that once before. It was like that day at the docks, only he’d fallen into the water and it’d swallowed him up, swallowed him whole, and he was too tired to swim, and it wasn’t my job to save him anymore.
It’s when I found myself knocking on Senna’s door that I realized I’ve finally reached the breaking point. It takes longer to get there than you would think. It wasn’t when David walked out. It’s never when they walk out. That hurts, but it’s not the breaking point. When they leave it’s like hitting the water the wrong way, a sting all over that dissipates only gradually, and the days and weeks that follow – that’s the confusion, the pain when you can’t figure out which way is up. At some point, you need air. You have to get out. And that’s the breaking point. You stop assuming they’ll save you and you sink or swim. Either you give up and forget them forever or you thrash around and fight. You pick off the scab or you pick at it. You break or you don’t. And if that sound like an easy choice I beg to differ. At this point, breaking looks attractive.
I hadn’t eaten for three days, and maybe that’s part of the problem, but I also kind of get the religious fasting thing now. The roiling around in your stomach, so painful, for hours on end, and then the sudden, blessed quiet. Kinda like saying “This is me, this is my pain; it may break me, but you can’t.” You feel empty. What is empty must be clean. What is clean must be pure. My body was pure.
But I didn’t quit drinking. Of course. That’s beyond me at the best of times and I am far from my best. Beer is my constant companion. Usually is. I’m the college-going child of two alcoholics. My boyfriend just left me. That doesn’t scream “get rip-roaring drunk” to you?
Senna answered the door in shades of blue. She doesn’t ask me why I’m here.
“Let him go.”
“Let me see him. Fuck you, let me see him.”
She stared at me for a long moment. Then she smiled a little, and slid the door open. She curtsied. I wanted to strangle her. I’d have loved to see a ring of yellow-brown bruises around her neck. Love to. But I’m helpless before this girl. Like an anorexic cheerleader looking up at a 350 pound linebacker. A fly before a giant.
Her house was pristine. Perfectly lit, perfectly decorated, like a high-class government institution. Clean and bright, gray and white and black, metal and glass. Sterile. Cold.
She saw me staring.
“It suits you.”
I walked through the kitchen, steel and tile, and past the living room, past the bathroom. All the way to the farthest room in the house. The only one with a closed door. I pushed open the door and know what I’m going to see, even before I see it. David lying facedown on the bed in his jeans. Sleeping like the dead. Looking like it.
I knelt and touched his shoulder. “David?”
“He can’t hear you,” Senna said idly.
“Why’s that, I wonder?”
She shrugged elegantly and takes another sip from the glass in her hand. And I realized what she reminds me of, standing there in her pale blue sweater and white skirt. Rain. The really soft miserable stuff that’s more mist than anything. Tricky stuff, because it doesn’t seem really bad, not for five or ten minutes until you realize, somehow, you’ve gotten soaked and you’re freezing. Even when you change your clothes you’re somehow still cold, like it’s seeped into the marrow of your bones. And it’s not like rain, or snow either, because people always warn you about hypothermia and frostbite and catching your death of cold, blah blah blah. You knew about that. You knew. Senna was that tricky little danger, a secret little poison, and you give anything to get rid of her, give anything to know.
“Why is he like this?”
A cool hand on my wrist. “Because I want to be.” David’s eyes peered up at me, murky as lake water.
I stood up quickly. “I’ll let myself out.” And I knew, right then, that I would break.
He called my name, I turned around, and I called myself a fool for getting my hopes up.
“Why?” Why, why, why? What does she give you that I haven’t? What could you find in this ice and cold that you couldn’t find with me?
“Because I need to forget.”
And I knew, then. Maybe I always knew. It was that little dark part of himself he never let me near. It was the look on his face that day, his morning runs in the darkness, his nightmares. All the dark little secrets he his in the corners and crevices and let fester. I could have helped him. God knows, I could have healed him. But instead he wants her to cut it all out. A nice little surgery to leave him dead inside. He won’t hurt and he won’t feel and if that’s what he wants then obviously there’s no place for me.
“Going to forget me too?” I asked softly. He looked away.
“Do you want to forget me?”
“Sometimes. Chris, I –”
He never even saw it coming. The punch, I mean. I used to get in a lot of fights in high school, and some things never really leave you. When his head snapped back I felt bad, but not bad enough. I wanted David to break too.
“Fuck!” He clutched his nose, jerking backwards two seconds too late, blood dripping from his fingers. “Fuck, what the hell?”
“You want to leave me? Fine. But you don’t get to forget me. Not unless I get to forget too. Think Senna could help with that?”
David leans forward, fists twisting in my shirt. I reach out for him, hand itching – the palms, the fingers, and for one terrible moment I’m not sure if I’m going to hurt him or not. It’s not a new feeling. David and I, we… we used to fight and yell. We’d throw things, we’d throw punches. We both had shitty childhoods and we were angry about it. We were assholes. It’s how we’d deal. But he’s not like that anymore. I’ve never fought with him and not touched him while doing it.
My hands close around his shoulders. He buries his face in my neck, his nails in my back.
“I tried to forget you. I can’t forget you. I try, but I can’t.”
He looks up at me, hollow and dull, smears of blood on his face. His eyes are still the same as that day at the dock, like he’d seen salvation and been damn sure it wasn’t for him. Except there are ages and ages between then and now. Years. Lifetimes. And today he can let himself cry.
There’s a spot of Senna’s glitter next to his left eye. I wipe it away with the pad of my thumb. “It’s all right.”
When I turn around Senna is pressed to the wall, terrified. Terrified and blessedly human. With David’s blood on my face, his tears on my fingers, his arm on my waist, I am invincible.
“You ever come near us again, I’ll kill you.”
Would I do it now? I don’t know. But right then I meant every word. You can believe that. Doesn’t matter, really. We never saw her again.
I dragged David home, stripped us both and crawled into bed. Later I burned his clothes, but I never washed my shirt. I take it out sometimes, and trace the blood smears, the blood roses. Just to remind me. Because I can’t promise David will always be happy or that I won’t hurt him or that we will ever be perfect. But he’ll never be cold. I can give him that.