The Aivazovsky is very nearly the first thing that happens after his device is removed. The ferry was the first thing, but after he’s recovered from the ferry journey—his first journey of any kind, now that travel is a linear path from A to B, not instantaneous now here then there—September doesn’t know what to do with himself, and the day is young. So he stretches his legs. He walks to Washington Square, stops to watch a group of young people perform some kind of highly acrobatic dance routine in the empty fountain. People are giving him a wide berth and staring at him while trying to seem like they’re not seeing him at all. It’s understandable: he still looks like an Observer, but they’ve never seen an Observer behave how he’s behaving because Observers don’t walk. They don’t stop to watch. (And September can’t see this in himself, but it’s another thing people notice: Observers don’t have the softness around the eyes that he does, now. Observers don’t look sad.)
After the dancers are done, he passes under the Arch and starts up Fifth Avenue. He walks and walks on Fifth Avenue. His legs start to burn, and the day is growing hot. He sweats, which is much more uncomfortable than he’d imagined. Smellier, too, although there’s a certain appealing novelty in being able to smell one’s self. September now knows what he smells like. It’s strange to think that there are things about himself that he didn’t know before, when he knew so many more things, but he has a feeling that knowing what he smells like is going to be only the first of many new self-revelations. It’s a slightly terrifying prospect.
When he reaches the 70s, he starts to see banners advertising a museum exhibition called “The Sea Inside.” The phrase won’t get out of his head, and it doesn’t help that he keeps seeing it over and over again on the banners. So when he reaches the museum, he goes inside. He doesn’t pay (it doesn’t occur to him), but the attendants don’t protest when he walks past the ropes and up the main stair.
The Aivazovsky—The Ninth Wave—is in the first hall of the exhibition, and he doesn’t get any further. It’s a massive painting, wider than September is tall by at least an arm’s length, and in height maybe a foot taller than he is. It dominates the room, and he’s drawn to it. He stands just far enough away to take it all in at once without being able to see anything else. He cocks his head to the side slightly.
Standing in front of The Ninth Wave is drowning without ever having put so much as a toe in the sea. September feels his heart begin to race, and new sweat prickles and itches, breaking out of the now dried sweat from his walk. Breathing is done in gulps. The ferry is still fresh in his mind, as is the tingle and taste of the sea spray. He can taste it and smell it again, standing there.
And the fear of death: that is likewise fresh and likewise renewed. The people in the painting clinging desperately to the remains of a destroyed ship under the shadow of a just-breaking wave, there isn’t much hope for them, not that September can see. An icy ball in his gut says there isn’t much hope for him either. Not anymore.
Before, books were just an inefficient method for transferring information into his brain. Reading a book was flipping through the pages as quickly as he could, scanning each in microseconds.
Now reading is book is savored. It happens sitting down, on park benches or on his sofa. Sometimes it is accompanied by tea or coffee. If the book is good, the tea gets abandoned, grows cold and unappetizing.
And his taste in books has changed. Non-fiction is rare because fiction is new to him, and so much of it is so very very good. The meaning of ‘good’ in this context, however, requires some elaboration. Because ‘good’ can mean crying himself to sleep (Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird) or can leave him empty and listless (The Stranger, Crime and Punishment). ‘Good’ when applied to books aimed at children between the ages of 10 and 15 inexplicably seems to intersect heavily with the the crying-himself-to-sleep category (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Giver), although there are exceptions. Reading Alice in Wonderland is like having his brain turned inside out, in a pleasant way. In the not-for-children category, so is House of Leaves.
The library becomes a sacred place, and one of the librarians is the first human outside of the Resistance to speak to him beyond the necessary. It happens when his hair is starting to grow in as a light fuzz. (It is September’s first sensual pleasure, rubbing a hand over his head with his hair just growing in.) The librarian asks him what he thought of The Great Gatsby, which he’d checked out the week before. He tells her he loved it, and then she points him to Steinbeck. Soon he’s planning his trips to the library according to whether she’ll be there because she guides him, recommends The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after The House of Mirth and A Clockwork Orange trod him down, steers him towards Macbeth when he expresses his disgust with Romeo and Juliet. Karen is his first friend.
It starts with cookies from the store that are crispy and too-sweet, and the chocolate is, as he’ll discover, only a shadow of what chocolate can be.
It ends with the rigorous testing of recipes and a few modifications to the one that rises to the top: chocolate-chunk cookies with dried tart Montmorency cherries and the barest sprinkle of sea salt on top.
Through his Observation of Walter and Peter, September had learned about fatherhood and sonhood and came to understand the concept of familial love. But he’s never understood pets. Dog as man’s best friend is a concept beyond him. Why expend emotional energy on a creature so far inferior in intellect?
Affection for puppies (and kittens) is obvious: Lorenz was the first to explain it as adherence to the Kindchenschema, the combination of infant-like traits that induces a caregiving urge in human mammals. But Lorenz did not explain the continued bond of love, the bond that not just often but nearly always must end in the tragedy of the animal passing long before its human. (Why put yourself in a situation that is so close to guaranteed to cause you pain?)
He’s strolling through Central Park. It’s January; the sky is gray, the trees are bare, and the grass is brown. Out of nowhere, a huge dog, black with white and rust markings on its face and feet and a white chest, is barreling at him, full-bore. September flinches, then freezes. The dog stops just before him and bows to him, flattening its forelegs against the ground and ducking its head, tail wagging furiously. The dog’s tongue is hanging out the side of its mouth.
“Let him sniff your hand first, if you want to pet him,” the dog’s owner calls out, approaching at a trot.
September extends his hand tentatively. He’s trembling slightly, and it’s most obvious in his hand, his slender fingers vibrating against each other quite visibly.
“Are you afraid of dogs?” the owner asks.
The dog’s nose is wet and very, very cold. September jumps at the sensation.
“I don’t know,” he answers slowly; his attention is still very much on the dog. The owner is next to irrelevant.
The dog continues to whuff at his hand and then abruptly stops and sits back, looking at him. Looking at him expectantly. (And isn’t that odd, ascribing expectations to an animal?)
“Try giving him a scratch behind the ears or under the chin.”
September extends his hand again and tucks his fingers behind the hard ridge of the dog’s ear where it flops over. He scratches. The dog leans into it, cocking his head to the side. His facial muscles twist and contort into a shape September has surprisingly little trouble identifying as ecstasy. As if in harmony, something odd and warm explodes in his abdomen, and September finds himself smiling.
September doesn’t know what it is, the first time it happens. He wakes up with sticky underwear and a vague half-remembrance of dreamed pleasure. He disregards it, puts it out of mind.
And then it happens again. This time he lifts his underwear away from his skin and reaches his hand in to dab two fingers in the…emission. It’s slippery and clear. He touches his fingertips tentatively to his tongue: the taste is salty and bitter and somewhat bleach-like. He goes to the bathroom to clean up in the shower and takes his toothbrush into the shower with him.
The very first thing that happens after his device is removed is the ferry from Liberty Island. An Observer—an Observer, not another Observer, not any longer—escorts him out of the citadel and all the way to the ferry platform. He waits, silently, until the ferry arrives and September embarks. September walks all the way to the front and stands close the railing, arms limp at his sides.
There’s so much in his head: a flood, an avalanche, a torrent—no, torrents and torrents—of information demanding his attention but failing to receive it. It all falls away as quickly as it came, sloughs off neglected and quickly forgotten. This must be what living in the moment is, but it doesn’t feel like living in the moment, not with so much of what makes up the moment falling into obscurity, unremarked and unremembered.
The ferry starts with a rumble from below and jerks forward. It takes September by surprise, and he finds himself clutching at the railing with a white-knuckled grip. He looks down. He can’t not look down, so he looks down and sees dark water churning below, pushed aside by the ferry as it moves forward. It’s captivating and terrifying, the water. He watches it for the whole ride, frozen in fear and contemplation.
The contemplation is not in vain: he concludes that his fear of the water is not fear of the water; it’s the fear of death. Looking down at that water is imagining tipping over the railing, sinking under the water, drowning quickly with icy salt water filling his lungs. He shudders and feels the skin at the back of his neck prickle up, tugging painfully at his too-fresh scar.
Hearing the song is the cause of his first tears. They drip down his cheeks, hot and then cool as the tracks evaporate. His nose is stuffy, but for long mintues he doesn’t move to find a tissue to clear it.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Hurts. A lot. He’s never had to endure weather before, but now he must, and he has the bruises to prove it.
The craving for sweet things never ceases to be surprising, but it’s rare meat and Tabasco and jalapeños and cayenne for him no longer. Those things are replaced by cookies (see above) and by ice cream. September is particularly fond of green tea ice cream. Also, pistachio. (For some reason, he has a penchant for green-colored ice creams.)
He isn’t as fond of milkshakes as Walter is, but he won’t turn one down.
Touching his penis until it spurts becomes a habit immediately. It doesn’t take September long to discover the limits of this pleasure. If he touches himself more than three times a day, it becomes much more difficult and much less satisfying, an altogether hateful combination of consequences. The minimum time between sessions seems to be about thirty minutes, an hour on a bad day.
He learns the value of drawing it out by stopping himself just before the finish once, on a whim (and because he’s not quite ready for it to be over). He has to twist his fingers into the sheets to keep himself from touching after he stops. His penis is throbbing, and he can actually see it moving in time with the pulses of blood, a slight, barely perceptible back-and-forth motion. He concentrates on counting the pulses before reaching out again to stroke lightly with one finger over his frenulum. And it’s good, beyond words good. All it takes for him to come is to rub just a bit harder in the same place with the pads of two fingertips. The orgasm leaves him feeling shaky and incoherent, but after this experiment the average length of time he sets aside for each session of touching himself doubles.
September comes into the understanding of what his touching habit actually is—i.e., masturbation—by means of a movie called American Beauty. Not long into the film the main character is shown in the shower, only his silhouette visible through the fogged up glass of the shower stall. Just the silhouette is enough to show what’s he doing: the rhythmic motion of his hand and its location are enough to trigger recognition.
“Look at me, jerking off in the shower,” Lester says.
Jerking off. It’s a strange phrase, and September files it away for later investigation. The rest of the film is confusing and yet strangely evocative, but September soon forgets it altogether in favor of the flood of information—no less confusing, at least at first—that results after he enters a search for ‘jerking off’ into his computer.
September had observed well over 25,000 kisses during his twenty-some-odd years Observing as one of the Twelve. That he can’t compute the exact number is frustrating, but his brain doesn’t work that way anymore. His
records memories can’t be queried and summed.
25,000 kisses total is somewhere around 3 per day, more in the late spring and early summer months, more between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Approximately ninety-five percent of the kisses he’d witnessed had been between a man and woman. Three percent were between two women, and two between two men. Seventy percent of the kisses were chaste, a quick pressing together of dry lips against dry lips. A goodbye, a hello. Twenty-five percent obviously involved the opening of mouths and the touching (rubbing? stroking? licking?) together of tongues. Wet kisses, deep kisses, dirty kisses. A final five percent were lingering and slow, and it had not been possible to tell whether tongues had been involved.
Having taken such a large sample, September can estimate with confidence that the joint probability distribution of kisses between two men and kisses involving tongues is a mere half of a percent. This occurs to him later, not when he is on the receiving end of such a rare event. It begins with a hand cupping his jaw and full lips pressed to the corner of his mouth. (Later, when he is reviewing these events, he’ll find that adding the dimension of location to his catalogue of kisses in order to calculate the joint distribution of (a) chaste kisses (b) between two men (c) at the right corner of the mouth will be beyond him. The failure is annoying, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to matter much. The sense memory of the kiss, distinct from its statistical features, is far more captivating.)
September leans into the kiss, encourages the shifting of those lips to the center of his mouth. They are sharing the same air and soon breathing in sync. The lips pull away and return, over and over, and then the thumb from the hand on his jaw sweeps over his cheek close to the corner of his mouth and exerts gentle downward pressure on his jaw. September yields, letting his mouth relax and open. A tongue licks across his bottom lip and then darts inside his mouth, brushing his own tongue and exploring the backs of his front teeth. A second hand clutches at the back of his neck. Between the two hands, his head is held still while the tongue explores, tastes, and tangles with his own when he enters the game with a tentative lick.
The first bite of black licorice makes September’s jaw tense and ache, but the taste is alluring. Tangy and sweet and dark and syrupy. When he discovers salty black licorice tubes filled with a sweet, lighter licorice cream, he eats an entire pound bag of them and makes himself sick.
One morning he wakes up, and his penis is engorged and stiff, standing straight up away from his body, tenting the top sheet. This is about three weeks after the fuzz first appeared on his head; his hair is about three-eighths of an inch long now. He’s woken up to a mess in his underwear four times to date, although he doesn’t make the connection between those messes and his hard penis straightaway.
September extends a hand automatically: touch as a method of investigation is deeply ingrained. The first touch makes him gasp, and his penis twitches. The skin surrounding the head has retracted, and the head is flushed and looks slightly shiny. September touches it next. It’s slippery; the shininess is from a clear fluid leaking from his piss slit. Rubbing his finger over the slit seems to stimulate this production and also makes him want to push his hips up, to push his penis harder against his fingers. But his fingers aren’t enough. He wraps his whole hand around his penis and gives into the desperate urge to thrust. The color of his penis deepens into a very dusky rose, and his hand becomes slick with the fluid.
There’s a sudden feeling of being on the edge of something, and his mind is taken over by the frantic urge to get there. He stills his hips and begins to move his fist instead, pumping it, tighter, up and down, up and down, sometimes twisting a little at the top or at the bottom. His testicles start to feel tight, and he reaches down with his left hand to investigate. A hot, warm, fiery, tingling—words are infuriatingly inadequate—pleasure starts with his toes curling reflexively and travels up and up and out and out, his penis pulsing and expelling streaks of white fluid onto his belly and chest. He keeps stroking, trying to wring out as many pulses as he can, and then it’s suddenly far too much and he draws his hand away.
The taste of the ejaculate is familiar.
Noodles are delectable in every form September has had the good fortune to ingest. Thin, clear glass noodles stuffed inside rice paper wrappers with vegetables and shrimp and then dipped in peanut sauce. Rice noodles with chargrilled pork and lettuce and crushed peanuts and crunchy bean sprouts and fish sauce. Handmade soba noodles in a seaweed-and-fish broth. Lo mein eaten out of a nearly-too-hot-to-hold carton with splintery, disposable chopsticks on a breezy street corner. Olivia’s (and, he suspects, Peter’s) favorite spaghetti bolognese. Cafeteria lasagne (delectable only in comparison to the other things served in cafeterias). Orecchiette carbonara made and served by an Italian grandmother with huge, arthritic knuckles.
Macaroni and cheese.
The search for ‘jerking off’ yields videos of jerking off, and videos of jerking off appear on websites that have other videos as well. The videos involving men and women or women and women don’t excite much interest from his penis, but the videos of men doing things to each other—things that he’s learning to identify as dirty, sexy, raunchy, lewd, hot—make him suddenly, painfully desperate to touch himself. And he does.
It will occur to September later to wonder whether his homosexuality is connected to his former Observerhood. There are no female Observers, so perhaps attraction to females was never a possibility.
Among other things, Tom teaches September about pizza. Where to get it in New York, how to fold it, the necessity of waiting until it cools a bit to avoid blisters on the roof of his mouth from a burst of scalding hot sauce. Tom pokes fun at his preference for Hawaiian pizza but indulges it the same way he indulges so many of September’s desires: cheerfully, kindly.
(The Dave Brubeck) Quartet
Time Out is the first album he buys. Since his device was removed and he’s been trapped in the now, listening to “Take Five” is the closest he’s going to come to time travel. The five-four time signature is so unnatural, it feels like time is folding over on itself, hiccuping. It’s soothing, and when time becomes tedious, when the stretch of minute after minute on a Sunday afternoon becomes unbearable in its relentlessness, September puts “Take Five” on repeat and stands in the middle of his living room listening with his eyes closed. It’s not long before he knows every note and every beat. Thankfully, knowing doesn’t make it boring. Knowing increases the pleasure because knowing introduces anticipation, and anticipation always fulfilled is self-reinforcing.
It’s so dirty, September can hardly think about it without blushing hotly, even days later. He’d seen it in videos online, of course, but the problem is having Observed humans for decades without having Observed anything of what they did behind closed doors has made it hard for him to believe that humans actually do such things. But they do. (Or at least Tom does.)
Tom took him home and kissed him into a relaxed stupor on the couch, removing his clothing piece by piece. With September naked below him, he ran the pad of his thumb slowly up the underside of his penis, and September whimpered as his hips jerked upwards involuntarily.
“Have you ever–?”
September’s brow creased in confusion.
“Has anyone touched you like this, before me?”
September shook his head in denial, and Tom groaned in response, then fell upon September again, kissing him hard and deep, his tongue stealing all the way back to September’s soft palate. On instinct, September raised his legs up to wrap them around Tom’s waist and pull him down. He pressed his hips up at the same time, and the sensation of Tom’s waistcoat against the already leaking head of his penis was almost too much to bear, so he pulled away from the kiss and relaxed his legs slightly.
“Just,” September croaked. “Close.”
“Ah, so you have…”
This September understood. “Yes. It happens when I touch myself.” He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘jerk off’ or ‘wank’ or any of the other slang terms for it.
Tom gulped, apparently momentarily speechless. “What do you want now?”
September considered for a moment, sorting his priorities. “I want you to take your clothes off. And then I want…anything.”
Tom scrambled to his feet and shucked his clothes quickly, then stood over the couch and extended a hand to September. “Up, please.”
September stood and let himself be drawn into Tom’s embrace, moaning loudly at the first press of his penis against Tom’s.
Tom spoke into September’s ear, his words half-whispered and gravelly: “You can tell me to stop or slow down at any time, OK?”
September nodded, causing Tom’s lips to brush over the ridges of his ear. He shivered. Tom recognized the hint and traced his tongue, hot and wet, over the shell of September’s ear and down to the lobe, which he drew into his mouth and suckled. September swayed dangerously.
Tom took September by the hand and led him into the bedroom, spread him out on his back on top of the sheets, pale and wanting. He crawled over him and kissed him slowly, pulling away after a minute to nudge September’s head back, exposing the length of his neck. Tom kissed down his neck, down the center of his chest, licked into his navel and made him squirm. He nudged September’s thighs apart and settled between them on his knees, rubbing delicately at the thin skin of September’s inner thighs with his thumbs.
“Close your eyes.”
September looked at him. Blinked.
“I said close them.”
September closed his eyes. Tom bent over and licked a wet stripe over the point of his left hipbone. Then he lifted September’s right leg high enough to lick behind his knee. September whimpered.
Setting September’s leg back down, Tom checked to be sure September’s eyes were still closed and then leaned over to take the head of his penis into his mouth. It was hot and wet, and hot and wet; September’s brain couldn’t seem to decide which was more important. He drew a deep breath in and held it, clenching his eyes shut even tighter as Tom worked his mouth down, all the way down, until his nose was pressed into September’s pubic hair. And then Tom hummed, and September’s eyes snapped open and his hips jerked, and Tom drew his mouth off with a pop.
September worked his jaw, but no words came, and no sound came out.
Tom reached up the bed and pried one clenched hand from the bedsheets, cradling it in his hand.
“Squeeze if you want more.”
September squeezed hard, and Tom jerked his hand away with a wince.
“Ouch. I get it, I get it. Silly question, am I right?”
And then Tom’s mouth returned, along with one forearm laid over September’s hips to pin them down and a hand around the base of his penis to hold it in place for Tom’s mouth. Tom worked at his cock patiently, alternating long slow sucks with breaks to suck at his balls or lick at the thin skin behind them. And then, after he’d pulled his mouth off September’s penis yet again when September was so very close, Tom did the unthinkably dirty thing: he hooked his wrists under September’s knees and lifted his legs, folding him nearly in half and spreading him open. Before September could even process the undignified position, there was something hot and wet at his anus, circling and rubbing at the wrinkled pucker. He groaned and unconsciously spread his legs farther, and in response he could feel Tom smiling against his skin. And then Tom returned to his task, applying his whole mouth to September’s hole, kissing it like he did his mouth: deeply and wetly and thoroughly.
Orgasm came barreling down on September, stopping just short of running him over. Words started pouring out of his mouth, beyond his control and understanding, but somehow they led to Tom’s mouth returning to his penis, taking him all the way in again until he came, pulsing inside that hot mouth with an inhuman-sounding snarl.
Kissing the taste of himself out of Tom’s mouth was only the second dirtiest thing to happen that night.
Olivia introduces him to the smooth burn of Scotch. They get drunk together on his fire escape, passing a bottle back and forth. The air is hot and humid, and there is a smudge of smog on the horizon. They are both sweating through their shirts, dark patches under their arms and between their shoulder blades.
Olivia is consumed by grief, by the loss of her daughter and, in a different way, of Peter. September can empathize to an extent beyond what Olivia can know, but that doesn’t matter because in any case he doesn’t know what to say. So they drink instead.
September removes the memory later with the aid of some stolen tech from his time and along with all of Olivia’s other memories of him post-device removal. She’s going to Columbus Circle, and they have to be certain that if she’s captured and read, the Plan will not be revealed. But it’s not easy, making her forget him. It feels like a small suicide.
The plays of Sophocles require quite a bit of effort and additional reading to understand. One of the first things September reads about Greek tragedy is that Aristotle had theorized that the purpose of tragedy was catharsis (κάθαρσις), the purging of emotions in the face of horrifying (fictional) events. He reads the Theban plays holding this theory in mind, and it seems to fit. The first play in particular, with its contrived and utterly implausible sequence of events and connections between the key characters, seems designed to do nothing so much as induce horror and disgust in the reader. Reading Oedipus Rex is cleansing in the sense that after finishing it and stepping back into the world, actual humanity seems so much better, in a moral sense, than it did before.
In fact, it makes September very nearly angry. Because Sophocles got it so wrong: humanity is so very much better than Oedipus murdering a man, in cold blood, unprovoked. And he can say this with confidence. After all, he Observed them for decades. (He even visited Ancient Greece, once, to Observe the suicide of Socrates. He didn’t understand it at the time; now, he does.)
But Philoctetes doesn’t so much horrify; it resonates. Philoctetes was an abandoned solider in possession of a powerful weapon, and Odysseus’ task was to persuade him to come to Troy, to come and fight and kill and win. Philoctetes was disillusioned, cynical, reluctant, grown passive in his hermitic life, but in the end he fell (rose?) to the call of Duty.
Philoctetes doesn’t make September angry, and there is no cleansing, no catharsis. Not until he finds Walter, not until he convinces Walter that they need to work out a Plan.
Simultaneously a wonderful, ingenious invention and the most hair-pullingly frustrating thing ever manufactured by mankind.
And not forgetting them seems to be impossible.
It’s only days after the removal of his device when September first falls ill. He suffers a scratchy and sore throat and a head stuffed so full with cotton he imagines tufts of it are escaping out his ears. He trembles with chills and sweats in short succession. His fever dreams are dreams of icy saltwater filling his lungs, excising every trace of life from underneath his skin, so thin and so pale.
In the aftermath of the illness, he feels weak and, for the first time, lonely.
The waistcoat is a wonderful piece of men’s clothing, September decides immediately. He’s meeting one of his Resistance contacts in the usual place: a speakeasy, dark and filled with smoke and jazz. The quartet playing is one that September hasn’t seen or heard before, and the alto sax player is wearing a narrow brocade waistcoat the color of dried blood. The cut of the waistcoat emphasizes the wearer’s trim waist and the triangular ends draw the eye down and down to his groin.
September lingers at the bar long after his meeting has concluded. He sips intermittently at his Scotch and watches the quartet play. The sax player still commands the majority of his attention. His skin is the color of milk chocolate, and he’s rolled the sleeves of his white shirt up to his elbows, exposing wiry forearms. His fingers are long and thin and graceful as the play over the keys. September can’t stare at his lips around the saxophone’s mouthpiece without thinking of what they might look like around his penis. He’s half-hard and thankful for the dim lighting because he can feel himself flushing red and ripe.
The quartet finishes their set, and September looks down and away, studying his drink.
“May I join you?” The voice is rich and deep, and September is bewildered to feel his penis twitching in response.
September nods in affirmation, not trusting his voice, and the sax player takes the stool next to him.
“You used to be an Observer.” It’s not a question, not quite.
September looks over in surprise. The player’s eyes, now that he can see them up close, are almost exactly the color of Amber with scattered flecks of green. September doesn’t know what to say.
“You used to wear a hat, always, when you came here. And you didn’t have eyebrows. And now–” He gestures to September’s head, where there’s three-quarters of an inch of growth.
“My name is Tom, by the way.”
September shakes his hand, savoring the feel of smooth warm skin against his own. It’s the same hand that will cup his jaw, later, out back of the bar under the moonlight with the stench of urine and stale beer wafting from the alley around the corner.
Xenophobia is commonly defined as a fear of foreigners, but the Greek word ξένος (providing the xeno- of xenophobia) means not just stranger or foreigner but also guest-friend. As it applies to September, xenophobia takes its meaning from the second definition.
December helped set him up with the Brooklyn apartment after the removal of his device, and he’s been nesting in it. There’s no other word for it. He’s put posters and pictures on the walls, books on the shelves. He picked out curtains and repainted the bedroom. The dishes are all mismatched, but they are all his, and he has a special regard for some of the irregularly shaped and hand-glazed mugs he picked up at a flea market. The relationship between him and his things is asymmetrically reciprocal: he owns them, but they reveal him.
And thus having someone else in his apartment, even Tom, makes his skin crawl a little bit, makes him want to put on every piece of clothing he owns and hide. Instead he goes to the CD player and restlessly flips through his CDs, all obtained for pennies after sorting through huge bargain basement bins. Tom steps up behind him and smoothes his hands up and down his sides, then around his waist. He breathes into the skin at September’s nape, right over his scar, now mostly hidden by hair.
“Do you have any Louis Armstrong?”
September hums in (non-)response but flips through his collection with more purpose, eventually extracting a couple of compilations.
Tom examines the options and feeds a CD into the player from around September’s body. They listen to “What a Wonderful World” twice, Tom’s arms wrapped again around September’s waist and September’s arms resting on top of them.
That night under cover of darkness they make love slowly and tenderly with the curtains open, the lights of the Williamsburg Bridge winking out the window.
The morning is harder. September never had to sleep before. Sleep itself is not the problem; sleep comes easily. It’s waking up that continues to be difficult. Sleep shares some features with time travel, albeit only in a single direction, a jump from then to now.
And every time he wakes, the world feels wrong. The sun is too bright or the sky too dull or the birds too loud or the rumblings of the trains over the bridge too near and harsh. Having Tom in his bed doesn’t make it easier, so he pretends to be asleep long after he’s woken, eyes closed against reality.
It’s obvious when Tom wakes. He stretches and then props himself up on an elbow next to September and studies his (fake-)sleeping form. September is curled up on his side, facing away from Tom. After a long minute of study, Tom snugs up behind September and curls around him, tucking his knees into the backs of September’s and sneaking an arm through the gap under his neck, his other arm folded around September’s chest with his hand cupped over September’s heart.
“I know you’re awake,” he rumbles, voice sleep-rough. September tenses, and Tom soothes by rubbing the hand on his chest in small circles.
“No, it’s fine. You can stay in bed if you like, but I’m going to get up. There’ll be coffee in about fifteen minutes, if you want any.” He presses a featherlight kiss to September’s temple and climbs out of the bed.
The smell of coffee drifting into the bedroom fifteen minutes later is the smell, September reflects later, of home.
It’s the first color he notices, while walking from the ferry terminal to Washington Square. It’s not that he hadn’t been able to see color as an Observer, it just wasn’t relevant most of the time, so he saw it, but he didn’t notice it.
The woman is dressed in black slacks, sleekly tailored, with a matching blazer and a crisp white collared shirt beneath. But her pumps, they are bright yellow, the color of fresh butter. It’s a small—but clearly not insignificant—act of rebellion. September can’t see through the ages anymore, but his knowledge isn’t as limited as he might once have thought. The yellow pumps are evidence: neither of this woman’s smooth cheeks will ever bear the tattoo of a Loyalist. In this knowledge, September is certain.
They make him uncomfortable. The barrier—plexi-glass sometimes, sometimes just a wire fence—between the humans and the animals feels like too much and not enough at the same time. And the idea of going somewhere to observe something for entertainment is distasteful.
September is an Observer no longer.