Part One - Jersey
Frank had stood at the small window in the evening as night was falling, when there was still enough light to look out over the high rooftops and sprawl of concrete streets in King’s Cross. He listened as Mikey tromped down each flight of stairs after they fought, and then watched from the window as he strode away toward the station. Frank would have time. Gerard, he guessed, wouldn’t be easy to find.
“Goodbye, Mikey,” he said softly and put his hand up to the glass, knowing that Mikey was too far away to hear or see him. Of all of them, Mikey was the one who had been the most thoroughly decent through it all. It wasn’t fair that now, after Frank and Gerard had both fallen to pieces in different ways, he was the one left to pick them up. But after tonight, Frank thought, he wouldn’t be asking Mikey to pick him up, or for anything else ever again. He would be taking himself and his broken pieces away. He couldn’t guess if that would even the balance for all that was still left to fix with Gerard. He stepped away from the window and went to pack his things.
The window was the only one in the main room that had been both living room and Mikey’s bedroom since Frank moved in in the spring. The flat itself was nothing more than an attic, really. It should have been a forgotten space, filled with boxes and dust, old toys and outgrown children’s clothes, cast-offs of the past. It was not large enough to live in, and it made Frank’s skin crawl now to think that he had lived here with two other people for months now.
As it was, no one could afford to live in such a big house anymore, at least not in the city. The large Victorian house, like its neighbors, had been carved up into flats, with people and problems packed into every available corner. Ferdia’s mother, and sometimes Ferdia, lived in the basement in comparative luxury: an outside door with steps up to the garden, a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom on the same floor. Ferdia came and went, and because Ferdia’s mother had given up on knowing her son’s whereabouts or his trajectory in life, the two could live there in relative peace.
Just above was the largest flat, a whole floor. A family from Pakistan lived there, and Frank saw the children, two girls, being shepherded to school by their mother, who always wore a headscarf and glanced nervously up and down the streets when they went out.
The second floor was all young women, two girls who were students in East London on the left, and in the smaller flat on the right a lonely girl named Alicia, whom Frank had never heard speak. He sometimes saw her dark gaze float after them as they trooped up the final set of stairs to the attic. Mikey said her name was Alicia and that she worked in a shop in Islington. He had said once, in a darker mood, that her shop was the same as the bookstore where he worked—you could work there and still not afford to buy anything.
Now it was dark, and Frank approached the small window again. His reflection advanced on him out of the shadows, a figure he could hardly recognize. The glass was strange. When he turned his head one way, he could see himself with a guitar in his hands and a crowd that writhed beneath him. When he turned his head the other way, he looked like his father.
His hair was cut now—that was the father part. Earlier that afternoon, between the fighting and the final moments of calm, Frank had gone downstairs and locked himself in the bathroom. He wet his hair in the sink and cut it, trimming the top carefully so that it matched the sides—no more mohawk, nothing left to slick up. Now he looked clean and presentable. It was a bit short, and still gave him an aggressive look, but it wasn’t enough to turn people’s heads anymore. People wouldn’t be eyeing him on the underground all the way to airport, at least.
The first time, he and Gerard had edged themselves into the tiny bathroom together, and Gerard had cut the sides of Frank’s hair short. Frank had smoothed the peroxide into Gerard’s hair as Gerard leaned over the tub, fidgeting as the peroxide burned. When they had turned up for the show that night sporting the new haircuts, Ferdia had whooped and slapped them gleefully on the backs. A Mohican, he had called it—Nice Mohican, Frankie boy!—and Frank grinned back and thought of Indians. After more than a year, he had still enjoyed the tiny differences in British English. But now, those little differences didn’t matter. He would go home to New Jersey and forget them.
In the window, his dark hair bled into the shadows behind him, and it was only when he moved that he could make out where the shadows ended and he began. Frank sniffed and turned his head. His reflection, sad and straight, mirrored him. He tugged at his shirt and straightened it—the most decent shirt he could find, nothing torn, no safety pins or frayed edges. He smoothed his hand over his head. Tonight, and the time when he’d gone out to meet Jamia—they were the only times in the last four months he could remember combing his hair.
When he turned to see the guitar and the crowd, he imagined himself on a stage, the crowd spread out before him in the black window glass, the shouting and microphone feedback merging into a seamless blanket of sound, indistinguishable from the ringing silence in the room. It would be like all the crowds they had been part of in the last year, at all the shows, except they would be the ones in front, facing the thrashing, many-headed creature, meeting its rage and venom head on.
He imagined himself with a guitar, raising his hands in the window’s reflection to strike an imaginary chord. The fantasy about the band made it feel like Gerard was near, as though he stood with Frank in the window’s reflection, was right beside him in the close room—even though he wasn’t, and never would be again. It was funny—the terrible thing about the room had been its size, how horribly small and crowded it had been, and yet tonight, Frank was alone, and it felt cavernous. And unspeakably lonely.
Frank regretted a world’s worth of things that night. Even so, he found it strange that one of the clearest memories was of Ray, a boy he had known in high school. It was something he had struggled to forget, yet he remembered it all with perfect clarity tonight—and he knew that, for all his wishing, he had never truly forgotten it, not for one second.
They had been best friends back then, back when Frank went to public school. Ray lived two neighborhoods over, and the families were all Puerto Rican like his—a poorer area, Frank’s mother couldn’t refrain from mentioning whenever Frank asked to go over there, but close enough that Frank and Ray could still spend every afternoon together, listening to records, smoking pot, sometimes making a half-hearted attempt at doing their homework. They spent most of their time at Ray’s because his family, though larger than Frank’s by several siblings, could at least be counted on to leave them alone. At Frank’s house, Frank’s mother was always nervously offering them snacks and encouraging them to watch television in the family room. In retrospect, Frank could understand that she was uncomfortable because Ray was Puerto Rican, uncomfortable because his family was poorer than theirs. At the time, he chalked it up to the obnoxious and inscrutable things the adults in his life were always doing. Maybe, in the end, those were two ways of saying the same thing.
They spent the summer of 1971 in record stores. The one near Ray’s house was decent, and they could spend hours flipping through the bins without the manager threatening to kick them out. They eavesdropped on the skinny, unkempt men working behind the counter who talked about David Bowie and The Velvet Underground. When Frank had the money, which was never often enough, they bought an album. Magazines were cheaper; they could get one or two a week. Ray never had money, so Frank paid always paid: Sticky Fingers, The Man Who Sold The World, Loaded, Led Zeppelin III, everything they saw in the rock magazines, and then later, everything they heard the clerks talk about.
Holding a new album, Frank always felt a small flicker of hope in his chest about what they might find inside. They would hurry back to Ray’s and lie side by side on his twin bed— the compromise they had worked out so neither one of them would have to wait to look at the jacket—and study the cover inch by inch as they listened for the first time. But after a few weeks, Frank felt the newness of the album wear down into frustration and disappointment inside him. He felt like he was looking for something he hadn’t found yet. It didn’t stop him from hoping, though, each time they brought home a new record.
He left all the records at Ray’s house. Because he didn’t have a record player at home, he said—which wasn’t true exactly. His parents had an expensive hi-fi system in the living room that Frank could use whenever he wanted. But he didn’t need his parents hassling him, for one thing, asking him where he’d got the money to buy the albums, which would have been a bad conversation. Also, the living room at his house just wasn’t the same as having Ray’s room all to themselves. They could listen to whatever they felt like, as many times as they wanted, without suffering any adult commentary—even if Ray’s record player was a second-hand piece of shit. It had a handle, and shut up like a suitcase, with latches on the lid. Both latches were broken, though, so you couldn’t actually use the handle to carry it. But at least it played. What else did a record player need to do?
Ray never seemed to be doing the complicated dance that occupied much of Frank’s time, trying to avoid the sharp frustration and disappointment that could lash out unexpectedly when he let himself relax into something new. Instead, Ray seemed able to love each new album completely, in an uncomplicated way—him and that beat-up guitar he was teaching himself to play. He was starting to get kind of decent at it, Frank had to admit, despite how much Frank loved to tease him about it. It was cool, actually, not that Frank would ever say so—Ray spending all that time, learning something like that. It was like he had a passion for it or something, Frank thought, sometimes with irritation and sometimes with longing.
Ray would listen to each song about a thousand times and pluck around on the guitar strings, finding the notes that matched, sometimes looking up chords on this tattered paper he had, a jumbled mess of squares and lines that he told Frank were supposed to represent the guitar’s strings and frets. Ray had gotten the paper from a music teacher at their school a few years back, a new one who was just out of college. He looked so young you could have mistaken him for a student. He played several instruments, including a shiny, honey-colored guitar that he brought in from time to time. He also learned all the students’ names, took regular attendance in band class, and seemed to be trying to actually explain something about music to the kids.
That was how Ray told it, anyway. He and the music teacher seemed to be speaking the same language. Frank didn’t know firsthand, about the teacher or about the music; he didn’t play anything and didn’t take music classes at school. He wanted to play the drums, but his parents had quickly decided that wouldn’t work. His mother said it gave her a headache just thinking about it.
“He played us this thing today,” Ray would say, his high voice full of excitement, the words coming quickly. “It was from a record he brought in. It was the song we were playing, but, like, a real orchestra playing it, so of course it sounded nothing like us. All of a sudden you could really hear what it was supposed to be like, and just—” Ray broke off in a sound that was either frustration at his own lack of words or awe by the memory of the song, transported to a place where Frank, listening expectantly, wanted to follow but couldn’t quite.
Ray would sneak back to the music room whenever he had a free period and ask questions about playing the guitar. He begged his parents to let him get one, and they did—from the pawn shop, the cheapest one imaginable. The finish was scuffed and battered, it was missing two strings when he got it, and didn’t have a shoulder strap. But, like the record player, it played.
The new music teacher lasted a year before quitting North Arlington to go work at a rich school somewhere in Bergen County. Now it was back to sad old Mr. Balderson, who also taught history—fat and frumpy with thinning hair, waving his baton hopelessly in front of the listless band students, conducting the tuneless roar of conversation and noise.
Once when they were at the record store, Ray picked out a record Frank didn’t recognize.
“Here, can we get this?” Walking over from a different section, Ray waved something under Frank’s nose.
Frank took the album and looked at it. There were foreign names all over it, and a man holding an acoustic guitar who had a double chin and thick glasses. The man looked like Mr. Balderson. “What is this?” Frank asked.
“A record. We should get it.” Ray watched his face anxiously. “It’ll be good, I promise it will.”
Frank frowned. “Segovia?” The name felt funny in his mouth. “Who’s he?”
“Guitar, look.” Ray tapped the picture on the cover unhelpfully. But he didn’t offer anything else. Frank started to smile. There was so much here to laugh at—the old guy on the cover, the fact that it was clearly a classical guitar record, and all the names on the cover which were probably the dead guys who wrote the music. It was priceless, and Ray was standing there, all expectant and trying not to show it. Frank giggled.
Ray grabbed at the album. “It’s okay, we don’t—“
Frank stepped back, pulling it out of his reach. All of a sudden, he saw Ray’s excitement in a different way. Ray was searching too, just like Frank was, and he thought what he was looking for might be on this record. And maybe it would be, how could Frank say? The excitement Ray was trying to hide—it suddenly seemed fragile and precious. It wouldn’t hurt, Frank thought, if someone for once in this fucking world got what they wanted. If anyone deserved that, Ray did.
“Well,” Frank ran his eyes down the cover again, making a show of evaluating it, and shrugged. “Sure, man, if you say it’s good. Let’s get it.”
It was crazy, that guitar music, like nothing Frank had ever heard before. But somehow, it didn’t annoy him as much as the David Bowie album had come to. Jesus, if he heard “Letter to Hermione” one more time, even by accident, it would kill him. Did you ever call my name just by mistake? Do you cry a little in the dark? It was every generic broken-heart love song rolled into one, saccharine and pathetic, and it made him gag.
The Segovia songs didn’t have any words. They weren’t anything but this guy, Andres Segovia, playing his guitar. That’s what didn’t make any sense—there wasn’t even a band or anything, and there were still all these notes and phrases and chords, interlocking like a complex knot, or the threads in a piece of lace. Frank was amazed that one person, one instrument, could create so much music. There was something going on in the music, even if Frank didn’t understand entirely what it was. Ray never got tired of the Segovia record. He would put it on after they’d shared a joint or two and Frank was falling asleep. He kept the volume turned down, but Frank could still hear it through his drowsiness, the strummed chords, the runs and arpeggios, a sea of notes that went on and on. He could hear Ray too, plucking softly at the strings of his own guitar, testing a chord, pressing the string against the fretboard just hard enough to hear the note, the strings vibrating with soft punk punk punk sounds without being plucked.
“Listen,” Ray would say. A shadow flapped somewhere above Frank’s closed eyes as Ray waved his hand at the record player.
“Do you hear how he does that?” More softly now, as he realized that Frank wasn’t listening. The bed dipped as Ray adjusted the guitar in his lap. There was a light scratching sound as his slid his fingers up the neck, over the cheap nylon strings.
“Mmm,” Frank said, rolling over sleepily, trying to convey by his intonation equal parts of yes, Ray, I’m listening and Can’t you tell I’m stoned? Ray was like that when he liked something, he would just keep talking, keep explaining it so—he seemed to assume—you would inevitably come to love it as much as he did. Frank listened to everything Ray had to say about the record, but what it really made him love was how the music lit up Ray’s face—how excited he got about such small things, how it mattered that Andres Segovia could play this one piece so well, or roll that chord just the way he did. And Ray would explain it all, in a weird, wordy mix of excitement and matter-of-factness, to anyone who would listen, which was usually Frank.
Frank didn’t know if Ray was playing the same things as Segovia. He didn’t know how much music Ray understood, or if someone could learn to play the guitar just from listening to a record. If Andres Segovia really was the greatest guitar player in the world, it was hard for Frank to believe that Raymond Toro, sitting with his bare feet folded under him on his unmade bed in Belleville, New Jersey, a pawn-shop guitar in his lap, would be able to approximate much of what he did.
Ray did know how to play one classical song, though. It was something the music teacher had taught him, before he ditched them for Bergen County.
“What is that, anyway? Does it have a name?” Frank asked one day. They were sitting in Ray’s room, Ray on the bed, fiddling with his guitar as usual. Frank was sitting on the desk with his feet propped on the window sill, paging through the latest issue of Creem.
“It’s a traditional song. It’s Spanish. It’s called Romance de Amor.” Ray started in on it for the twentieth time, the notes sliding down like drops of rain on a window pane, trailing underneath the high melody line. The notes stumbled to a halt as he approached the key change. “Romance of love, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know, it doesn’t sound so great in English.”
He was getting better, Frank had to admit. Maybe he even sounded a little like Andres Segovia. The thought made Frank lonely, like they were trapped in different worlds. Here Ray was, doing this thing that looked like talent, something real, and what was Frank doing? Reading another review of Alice Cooper? He didn’t even like Alice Cooper.
And the Segovia record itself was starting to make Frank feel bad, at least when he wasn’t high. It made the differences between them stand out. Ray knew just from looking that ‘Andres’ was pronounced in this impossibly light way, not at all the way Frank would have said it. And Ray rolled the r a little, or maybe fit the competing vowels of ‘Segovia’ together in a way different than Frank would have. It just sounded different, and noticing that made Frank feel bad. It wasn’t like Ray had an accent or something. It wasn’t like Ray didn’t speak English, a fact which his parents never seemed clear on. But sometimes, when they were at Ray’s house, his mother or brothers would say something to him in Spanish, and he’d answer back, and something in Frank would sting for just a second. Frank would look away, keep his eyes averted until they were done talking. It was a secret Frank wasn’t in on, and he had the premonition that someday the secret would rise up, black and impenetrable between them, and shut him out for good. Ray would be on the other side, and Frank would be alone.
When Frank felt these thoughts prickle in his mind, he ignored them. It made him feel disloyal. Ray was his best friend, after all. And Ray loved that record. Even if Frank didn’t say the name quite right, even if the whole guitar thing was something Frank could never completely keep up with, Frank was still the one who got the record for him.
Once in a while, they took the train into the city, to a bigger record store in Brooklyn. It was there that Frank found The Stooges album.
Frank felt an unpleasant tug in his chest remembering it. Was it fair to call that record the beginning of it all, of everything that was ending here tonight? In the dark of the attic apartment, he could still see the album cover, their four solemn faces lined up against the black, calm and defiant. If someone were to take a picture of him now, he wondered if his face would look the same way, impenetrable, still and closed. He hadn’t seen the album since. The Stooges were never big in the U.S., and Frank had never seen them at all over here. It was strange to see it loom again so vividly, strange to realize he’d crossed an ocean only to end up with the same album cover in his mind’s eye, the same raw music playing in his head.
Standing in the aisle at Halcyon Records, he’d pulled the album carefully out of the bin. “Look at this, come look at this,” he’d called softly across the aisle to Ray. “Look what I found!”
He could hear his voice getting high pitched with excitement, but he couldn’t help it. They didn’t have any Stooges yet, and Frank had been looking since he read the first review in Creem. The review had left him breathless. It railed against formulaic rock music, spelled Amerika with a ‘k’ like it was a fascist state. The review described Iggy Stooge, the lead singer—a matador baiting the vast dark hydra of the listening crowd, it said—like he was the next messiah.
Now, clutching the album and breathing shallowly, Frank felt dizzy and a little scared. Would this be it? Was he holding the manifesto that would lead him out of high school’s wasting boredom and into a new life? And out of the suburbs, he added mentally. Any true program of liberation would have to offer an escape from the Jersey suburbs.
Riding home on the train, Frank balanced the record on his knees, frowning at the four faces on the cover. He was annoyed at how excited he’d gotten. Beside him, Ray was singing to himself, inaudible over the train’s racket. They had been listening to Cygnet Committee, the longest Bowie song that would ever exist, before they left, and Frank thought he caught the words we want to live, we want to live. Or maybe he imagined it, letting the shapes of Ray’s mouth mix with the music that was always playing in his own head. Ray’s voice was high and clear, like David Bowie’s. Ray sang along with the records sometimes, and it sounded good. Also, Ray was completely embarrassed by his voice, which Frank loved, because it was only fair. Frank was short, but he figured he could hope for a few inches in the next couple years, and at least his voice wasn’t stuck back in seventh grade with the girls.
Standing on the platform, waiting for the next train, Ray wrapped his arm around Frank’s neck. Frank squirmed in a jumble of half-impressions—Ray’s arm, the bright sky partly blocked, his sweaty fingers slipping against the album’s slick cardboard, the muffled noise of the train as it pulled away.
“Why are you so quiet?” Ray asked. His voice was close to Frank’s head, somewhere behind his ear. “You get all serious when we get something new. You should be excited.”
“I don’t get all serious,” Frank growled into Ray’s arm. “Anyway, don’t make me drop it, idiot.” He slipped loose. Ray laughed and swiped his hand across Frank’s head, pulling his hair into his eyes.
There was no way to retaliate. Ray was taller and his arms were longer, and anyway, his hair was so curly there was no difference between when it was messed up and when it wasn’t. Ray waved his hand in a ‘give it here’ gesture. Frank relented, handing Ray the album, and raked his hands through his hair, tucking it behind his ears.
“Don’t worry, man,” Ray said, grinning. “It’s gonna be awesome. I can’t wait.”
Frank smiled grudgingly. He knew Ray was trying to be nice. He didn’t get restless the way Frank did. Ray would be happy listening to Bowie and Zeppelin forever.
Up in Ray’s bedroom, they peeled the record out of its case, and Ray set it carefully on the turntable. There was the crash of the needle hitting vinyl, and a moment of scratchy blank sound. Then the first chords reached out, bending and twisting, slippery against the lock-step of the drum kit, and Iggy’s voice floating out over it all, You all right? Frank smiled. He liked it already. Then the beat started.
“Oh my god.” After a minute, Frank realized he had said it out loud, under his breath. He and Ray were both crouched at the edge of Ray’s desk, heads level with the record player’s speakers, leaning into them. Frank felt like he could feel the sound, the way you could press your face into the cool air of an open freezer.
“Turn it up, turn it up.” Frank flapped his hands at Ray, powerless himself to do anything but listen. “This is amazing!”
They listened to both sides straight through, sitting on the floor in front of the player. Frank's legs got stiff from kneeling, but he didn't move. Ray didn't either. Frank imagined he could feel the sound move over his skin. Ray kept turning up the volume until his mother came and banged on the door. They were halfway through the second time when she called them down for dinner. Feeling guilty, Frank did his best to make polite conversation with her and the rest of the family, and when Ray asked, his mother agreed that Frank could stay the night, as long as they kept the music down. After dinner, Ray took the stairs two at a time. He beat Frank back to his room and was putting the record on again when Frank skidded through the doorway in his stockinged feet.
By the third time through, Ray was sitting on the bed with his guitar in his lap, fingers feeling their way on the strings. Frank sat on the foot of the bed, with Ray on one side of him and the record player on the other. It strained to play as loud as they had set it, the highest and lowest notes getting fuzzy with distortion. Or maybe that was just how the Stooges sounded, gritty and rough.
As soon as I Wanna Be Your Dog started, Ray poked him.
“Listen to that,” he said. “Do you hear? It’s only three chords. That’s easy. You could play that.”
“Huh?” Frank said, sitting up, jiggling the bed on its cheap box springs.
Ray pushed the guitar toward him and crawled to sit behind him, making the bed rock and sink. Frank hadn’t held the guitar before. He didn’t realize how enormous it would feel. Not heavy, but big and unwieldy, like he was holding a body or something. He struggled to make it fit inside his arms.
“Here.” Ray reached around him. He shifted the guitar in Frank’s lap and Frank’s arm and knee slipped into place against its curves. Ray pulled at Frank’s fingers, pressing them against the strings. “Here’s the first one. Play.”
Frank strummed at the strings awkwardly with his thumb. The three strings where he had his fingers snapped tunelessly and the open strings rang. The notes didn’t seem to match each other. “Um,” Frank said apologetically.
“No,” Ray said, “You got it, just press harder. And these, only play these three.” He pointed at the three strings on top.
Frank strummed again, and the flat popping sounds tightened into a semblance of pitch. He tried once more, pressing even harder, and felt the notes vibrate into being against his fingers. The strings bit into his fingertips. Ray pulled his hand down the neck of the guitar, showing him the second chord, and then readjusted his fingers for the third one.
It made Frank’s fingers sore, even three chords, but he was strangely pleased. He repeated the halting chord sequence, and giggled. In the background, the chords matched up occasionally with the song. They were at least in the vicinity, he could tell.
Ray slapped his shoulder. “See?” he laughed. “You’re doing it.”
Frank felt something inside him begin to relax, easing out of an uncomfortable position he hadn’t known he was holding. He leaned against the guitar happily, loving how it had settled into his arms, and turned to grin at Ray. “Okay,” he said, “Show me some more.”
It was strange to remember how good he felt that evening, like nothing at all stood between him and Ray. The Stooges growled and whined in the background, and Frank played chords over it all, simple chords that didn’t fit with anything. Ray laughed, and kept reaching around him to move his fingers on the fretboard, forcing him to play actual notes rather than strumming aimlessly, just for the noise, like a kid pantomiming being a rock star. Ray got out the battered chord sheet and showed Frank how to read it. He seemed to enjoy showing Frank as much as he enjoyed playing himself.
After the fourth time through the Stooges album, Frank felt dirty and exhausted with their sound and put on The Velvet Underground & Nico instead. Ray checked that none of his brothers were upstairs and kicked the rug against the crack under the door. He rolled a joint, and they smoked it sitting on the windowsill, wedged together in the narrow space and leaning into the open air, the summer darkness at their backs. It was hot. Frank could feel it where the humid air breathed against the back of his neck, in the warmth where Ray’s shoulder was pressed against his, in the raw smoke that scalded his lungs. His fingers stung from the guitar strings, so tender he could feel the tips throbbing in time with his pulse. His hands were clumsy and shaking when he took the joint from Ray.
Ray put the guitar away after that. Frank flopped onto the bed, knowing he should get up and find a blanket, go downstairs to the couch and go to sleep for real. The longer he waited, the harder it would be. He put his arm over his eyes to block out the light. His fingers stung, but the pot made it feel like it was happening somewhere else, and his arms felt funny, like could still feel the shape of the guitar pressed against him, unfamiliar and exciting, too big to hold. Ray sat down on the foot of the bed, and then stretched out next to him, his legs dangling off the end.
They lay there, letting the mellowness of the pot melt into the quiet that had settled in the house. Then Ray got up, jostling the bed, and walked over to the record player.
“What are you doing?” Frank said after a moment, blinking sleepily.
“Mmm,” Ray said, a preoccupied sound. Frank heard him messing with the record again. “I was just thinking.” More fumbling sounds. “About how when music is good, it can tell you things. Don’t you think it can sometimes? Like, things you didn’t know before?”
“What are you talking about?” Frank mumbled into his arm. He heard the static as the needle caught, loud and then quieter as Ray adjusted the volume, and then the low drone of We Will Fall. The light switch clicked and Frank peeked out from under his arm. The room was gray, distorted with light and shadows cast by the streetlight outside. Ray moved back to the bed, a dark figure haloed by his messy hair. He lay down and the bed sank. Frank felt it pull against him.
The song was a strange one for a rock album, stretching out long and slow, filling up half the first side of the record. It gave Frank goose bumps to hear it in the dark, with Iggy’s voice, dark and intimate, floating over the haze of sound. The record was good, Frank was sure of that now. It felt real. Parts were silly, maybe, but self-consciously so—not like the Beach Boys who were silly and shallow without even realizing it, no matter how well they sang harmonies.
Frank felt his high smoothing out, felt himself waking up a little more, refocusing. The pot made everything incredibly clear. The needle was tapping against the record’s center and he heard gears shift inside the player, lifting the needle arm and clicking it back into place. Ray didn’t move, but Frank could tell by the sound of his breathing that he wasn’t asleep. He seemed preoccupied, like he was thinking about something. It was rare that Ray thought about anything without it coming directly out of his mouth, but sometimes it happened.
Frank let himself lay there a little longer, his mind floating in the quiet. It would be weird, he thought, if Ray was listening to him breathe the way he was listening to Ray. He wished Ray would say something. It was late, everyone else was probably asleep in the quiet house, and they were lying next to each other, not saying anything. Frank’s body felt heavy. He wanted to curl around the ghost of the guitar he could still feel pressing against his chest. He turned toward Ray. The bedsprings made a soft metallic creak.
“Ray?” he whispered.
Ray didn’t answer, but rolled over in the darkness. Then something changed, and Frank was perfectly awake, the room standing out in horrible shadowed detail around him. Something was different in how they were facing each other, Frank could feel it. He didn’t know what to do.
“Are you asleep?” he whispered stupidly. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He reached over to poke Ray, or grab his arm, or any of the million obnoxious things he did when anything was boring or awkward.
Ray made a soft noise like he was laughing in the dark and grabbed at Frank’s hand, out-maneuvering him as usual, catching him by the wrist. But then something was different in the touch, too; Frank felt it opening up inside him. Ray’s fingers moved slightly, changing his grasp so he was no longer keeping Frank’s hand there. A long second passed. Ray squeezed his fingers, then let go. Idly, Frank let his arm continue on its trajectory, let it settle lightly, experimentally, against Ray’s side. He heard Ray take an unsteady breath. Another long second passed in the dark. Then Frank felt Ray’s arm come around him, his hand pressing against his back, large and warm through Frank’s t-shirt.
Crazy, a voice in Frank’s mind said. Neither of them moved, but Frank could feel them balanced on a knife-edge, tipping toward something that was even more crazy. His heart was pounding like he’d been running laps. He wondered if Ray could feel it too—how his heartbeat shook his whole body, threatening to break his skeleton apart. Frank thought he might start giggling, even though nothing was funny. Adrenaline twisted in his stomach, and he felt sick.
But underneath everything, almost as if it was happening in a body other than his own, Frank could feel the warmth of their bodies together. It was nice, being close to someone. And who else would it be besides Ray, who he liked better than anyone else in the world? Who else had there been that summer, who else that mattered? Frank felt that weird mix of feelings again. Ray was so fucking kind and earnest, it embarrassed Frank sometimes, but there was an honesty and courage about it too. It was what Frank loved most about him. Frank tightened his arm.
It was an accident that they moved at the same time. Ray slid his other arm underneath Frank, pulling him closer, and Frank was terrified, dizzy with the emergency signals coming from his brain. He had an erection, and if Ray was close enough to feel his heart beating, he couldn’t miss feeling that too. Frank started to pull away. In the awkward rearranging of bodies, he felt Ray’s dick press against his thigh, warm and hard through his shorts.
Frank made a surprised, breathy sound. This was all out of order. He’d never even kissed a girl before. Wasn’t kissing supposed to come before this? Was this ever supposed to come at all? He didn’t have any experience to go on—crushes on some girls at school and two humiliating conversations about growing up, one with their priest, and another—far, far worse—with his father. As if there were two men he wanted to be less like when he grew up.
And now both Ray’s arms were around him, and he could feel his own face flushed and hot, and sweat starting to prick along his hairline and under his arms. And Ray’s dick against his leg—he could feel that too. Maybe this was how you could tell you were really growing up, rather than just getting lectured about it—when you found yourself alone in the dark with someone else. No parents, no rules, nothing except two bodies and the heat and gravity between them. Even if he’d listened to those stupid talks, would it have helped him now?
“Ray, wait,” Frank whispered. Even with no advice to go on, he was willing to guess what came next. He disentangled himself from Ray’s arms and sat up. Filled with something he thought might be courage, he pulled off his shirt and struggled out of his shorts, kicking them to the floor. Ray moved beside him, doing the same, thank god. Adrenaline tingling in his fingers and toes, Frank let himself drop back against the bed, let his arms sprawl open and lay where they’d fallen. A breeze from the window moved over him, chilly and unfamiliar on his bare skin. Ray looked down at him, his face shadowed against the silvery streetlight. He put his hand out and brushed his fingers along Frank’s stomach.
The touch was gentle, shy even, but it dragged through Frank; his whole body strained toward it. He sucked in a sharp breath and his hips twitched involuntarily. Along with it, a realization flashed across his mind: they were alone together and nothing was there to stop them from falling. No parents, no rules, nothing.
So Frank moved then, reaching out for Ray. Ray leaned into the circle of his arms, lying down, stretching out against him. Frank could smell his body, his sweat—a warm, alive smell, like sunshine outdoors in somewhere that wasn’t the city.
He squeezed his arms around Ray and Ray squeezed back, only this time, there was so much more of them touching, so much skin and heat everywhere, that it was almost more than Frank could take in. Frank pulled against him, wanting him closer, wanting to keep feeling their chests and stomachs pressed together, but worried about what would happen farther down.
Ray shifted a little. He touched Frank’s shoulder and pulled his hand all the way down, across Frank’s stomach and over his bare hip. Frank shivered when Ray’s fingers crossed the place where his underwear would have been.
Ray slid closer, leaning over him carefully. Frank couldn’t look, couldn’t open his eyes, but he could feel Ray there, warm, settling closer, covering him. Frank felt the rough scratch of their pubic hair together, a heartbeat-length hesitation that echoed with alarm as he realized what was coming, and then Frank felt Ray’s dick slide against the inside of his thigh, hot against his bare skin.
The feeling, the shock of it, flattened Frank against the bed. He realized his mouth was open, his head twisted back against his own shoulder. On his next breath, though, his body recovered. He could feel the way his hips strained upwards, could feel his desire to rock against Ray. Frank pulled their hips together, letting himself press into the weirdness and electricity of their dicks together against his stomach. He rocked, and Ray did too, and Frank felt the adrenaline that washed through him start to give way to something else, something watery and deep, like the ocean.
Protest flickered through his mind. It didn’t make sense. What they were doing, it wasn’t anything two people could do, was it? It was like they were headed somewhere and got stuck halfway along the way. But despite this, despite the fact that their body parts didn’t match up in any way Frank recognized, all he could do was cling to Ray, breathless and shaky with relief, as if their bodies moving together like this was the most precious discovery in the world.
Then Ray was pulling away slightly, sliding one knee up beside Frank’s hip and edging himself downwards. His dick traced a wet line down Frank’s leg as he moved. He slipped his hand somewhere between their bodies, and pressed his dick up between Frank’s legs. Frank gasped and twitched as it brushed his balls, then slid against the very bottom of his ass where the two cheeks touched. It felt ticklish. His stomach was loose and watery, in a dangerous way, like his body might come apart if this kept going. Jesus, it was weird. He didn’t even touch himself there. He didn’t understand how any of this worked. But at the same time, the deep open feeling dragged at him. It made him want to spread his legs, bend his knees, do anything he could to open up, for any imaginable way their bodies could be closer.
The thinking part of his mind faltered, objecting. How could boys even—?
He pressed his hand against Ray’s hip. “Uh—don’t.”
“Mmm.” Ray made a wordless sound and readjusted himself. He put his dick against Frank’s, wrapped his hand around both of them, let them slide together. This—Frank felt it without thinking it—this was safer, there were no more objections. He felt everything in him rush toward Ray. Ray let more of his weight settle against Frank as they drove their hips together, and Frank loved the feeling of it, how spread open he felt, naked against Ray.
Frank’s ears filled with the noise of his own breathing. Farther away he could hear the sounds Ray was making, ah, ah, ah, his voice high and strained with the effort to stay quiet. Frank clung to him, holding their bodies as tightly together as he could. He could feel his arms, his chest, his thighs, everywhere they were touching, getting slippery with sweat. The room and the night breeze were gone now, everything had telescoped down to the feeling that started between his legs but now made his whole body heavy and electric.
Everything mixed together, the shadows of the room and the darkness behind his eyelids, the flashes of white static that clawed through it all, blanking out everything except the knowledge that it was Ray against him, warm and solid. Then it was enough, too much, the deep feeling inside him cresting and breaking like a wave, and he was coming, only half-hearing the choked sound he made.
Ray lifted himself up, leaning heavily on one arm. His head was tipped forward so Frank couldn’t see his face as he reached down to touch himself, as his body convulsed and Frank heard him gasp. It scared Frank a little—the sounds he made, seeing his shoulders writhe and jerk, silhouetted against the window and the streetlight, witnessing this thing Frank had never really imagined could be shared with anyone else.
Ray let him go and they moved apart from each other. They lay still, not touching. Frank listened as their breathing returned to normal. He felt around for something to clean up with and found the bed sheet. He wiped off his stomach, cringing at the thought of the stains. There was a lot to clean up. Neither of them spoke.
Frank stole a glance at Ray in the dark. They were different, he thought. Ray was taller, bigger. His hair was wiry where Frank’s was smooth and straight. But they were both different, weren’t they? Ray was Puerto Rican—but Frank was Italian, which was different too. Their skin was the same color, especially in the summer when they were both tanned dark from being outside. But Ray actually spoke Spanish. Frank didn’t know any Italian, except for his grandmother calling him caro and piccolo. He only thought about being Italian sometimes. Usually when he was thinking about Ray being Puerto Rican.
Frank bit his lip anxiously, pressing it between his teeth, surprised at how sensitive it was. He was staring, he realized. It was like he was seeing Ray for the first time. Ray’s lips were thick where Frank’s were thin. When Ray turned and met Frank’s gaze, his eyes were gentle and unworried. It made Frank feel small and fragile, a pencil sketch rather than a person.
“Oh, Frank, god, that was—” Ray whispered. “Are you—”
“Yeah,” Frank whispered back. “I’m okay.”
Ray’s mouth twitched in the beginning of a smile. “Me too,” he said. But then the smile fell away and he was serious, looking at Frank, searching for something in Frank’s face. He moved a little closer. Panic fluttered in Frank’s chest. They were going to kiss. Could they kiss if their lips were so different?
Frank must have lifted his chin. Ray’s mouth pressed against his. Somehow, Frank hadn’t imagined a boy’s lips could be soft. He did his best to kiss back, not sure what he was doing, worried his mouth would be thin and tight, worried Ray would find too little in him that yielded.
Ray didn’t seem to notice. He followed as Frank pulled away and kissed him again, pressing forward more insistently, opening his mouth, wet and sloppy against Frank’s. Frank let his mouth come open a little too, let their tongues touch.
It was slimy and strange at first, but in a minute stopped being weird and started making sense, the same way feeling their bodies together had. Frank could feel Ray relax and open his mouth further to Frank’s shy tongue.
And then Frank found himself pressing up against Ray and turning them both over, Ray turning easily onto his back and Frank leaning over him, still kissing. Ray wrapped his arms around him, and Frank didn’t feel so insubstantial anymore. He slid his hand across Ray’s stomach, innocently at first, and then down. He couldn’t let himself look, couldn’t even think about what he was doing, but he could feel that Ray was half-hard again already, could feel how he arched into Frank’s hand, sparking another wave of electricity that crawled across Frank’s palms and the arches of his feet. Frank smiled against Ray’s lips. He wondered if Ray could feel him smiling. He hoped he could. Maybe this would be okay, all of it.
They were up all night, moving together in the dark. Frank dropped to sleep when gray light was showing behind the buildings outside.
He woke up, exhausted and disoriented. He stared at the ceiling, not sure where he was. Something was making him worried, like he had stayed out too late without calling his parents. He hadn’t meant to make them angry, but he had an awful feeling about what would happen once he got home. He rolled over and felt Ray beside him in the bed.
Frank sat up with a jerk, shivering at the feeling of being naked. Sensations from the night before flicked uncomfortably through his body. He slid quickly out of the bed and collected his clothes from the floor.
Next the words welled up, filthy words he’d heard but only half-understood—worse by far than any of the words his mother warned she’d slap him for, words he assumed his mother didn’t even know, words he would never dream of saying out loud. He wondered which ones were the words for what he and Ray had been doing.
He was buttoning his shorts when Ray moved sleepily behind him. He glanced back. Ray stretched and gave him a slow smile, and then glanced at Frank’s clothes.
“Are you up?” He put his hand out, reaching across the bed.
“Uh,” Frank said, and backed up. It was just a fraction of an inch, hardly a movement at all, but it put him out of Ray’s reach.
“I need to—my parents, I—” Frank muttered something nonsensical. Ray frowned and started to sit up. Frank could see the beginnings of an awful question in his eyes, and Frank just wanted to get away, to get home, because he didn’t know how to answer.
Frank shook his head apologetically and edged out of the room, leaving Ray staring after him.
When Frank got home, the house was still and empty. His parents were both at work, of course, and he had the house to himself. He let himself in and threw his house keys so hard they slid across the table and onto the floor. In his bedroom, he undressed, kicked his clothes into the closet, and went to take a shower. He told himself that his hands on his own skin, slippery with soap, didn’t remind him of Ray’s hands, pretended that he couldn’t still feel Ray’s hands and mouth on him everywhere, blurred but lingering, the afterimage of a too-bright light. The fingertips of his left hand were red and painful from the strings of that stupid guitar. Frank could hardly bend his fingers.
When the hot water was gone, he got out and put on different clothes. He lay on the living room couch and put on his mother’s copy of All Summer Long. His mother liked the Beach Boys; she thought they were handsome or something awful like that. Before he let himself fall asleep, he turned the volume up a few notches so he wouldn’t hear the phone, even if it did ring.
For days after that, Frank was sick with desire. When his mind wandered, it filled with moving bodies. His breath caught just thinking about it, he could feel his skin remember Ray’s hands. He could feel his dick start to get hard.
Ray didn’t call. Frank stayed at home, lurking and pacing like a shut-in. His parents might have asked him why he was suddenly home all the time, but they seemed as preoccupied as he was, alternating between moody silence at breakfast and strained polite conversation at dinner. They talked to him instead of each other, asking him careful questions about his day but not seeming to hear how he answered. They didn’t notice whether he ate anything or not.
During the long empty days, Frank listened to every record his parents owned. For the most part, it was terrible: the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, The Mamas and The Papas. Every good album was still at Ray’s house. And he wouldn’t have been able to listen to anything good anyway. Frank wanted to isolate himself; he didn’t want to be touched the way the music would touch him.
Frank wondered about those words he thought he knew, what they meant, and what kind of people did those things. The things he had done with Ray had pushed open a door, flooding his mind with pictures and feelings he didn’t want. Frank found himself imagining something (something nameless, but alive with heat and intention) pressing between his legs, sliding over the cleft of his ass in a way that made him feel carved in half. His legs twitched with the desire to spread them, to yield to something. He could feel how his body longed for intrusion, something at the center of him waiting to be filled. He could feel his desire turning him inside out.
He imagined the weight of someone else’s body (nameless, faceless, a person who didn’t exist) against his back, heavy and solid, pressing him down, someone who might grasp him with a grip stronger than he could break—someone who wasn’t flimsy and fragile, the way he’d shown himself to be.
He would catch himself, sitting on the couch, the noise of his father’s stupid Crosby, Stills, and Nash albums in his ears, rubbing his knees, squeezing the tops of his thighs while he stared off into space. Even the rough feeling of his fingertips against his jeans—it made him sweat, made his fingers tingle in this perpetual state of arousal he now seemed to be in. He came to his senses with a greater sense of shame and dread each time.
Not long after that, his parents sat him down and explained they were getting a divorce. His father already had an apartment in New York, his mother said, and would move his things that weekend.
“And another thing, honey,” his mother added, wringing her hands apologetically. “You’re not going back to North Arlington this fall. We’re enrolling you at Pencey instead. We both agree you need a little more . . . structure.”
Frank knew instantly what they meant by structure. He saw the Pencey Prep kids sometimes, pretend-adults who stood out miserably in their ties and jackets. He tried to keep his face blank as the list of summer misdemeanors piled in on him: the cigarettes, the broken curfews, the untouched lists of chores. He was seized with violent remorse for the times he’d taken money from his mother’s purse, not for the stealing itself—how else would they have paid for records and pot?— but for his own carelessness. And the pot and the stealing were minor, irrelevant even, compared to his most recent offense. If only they understood what he and Ray had done, the thing he was still thinking about every waking moment, and dreaming about at night, they would forget the rest completely. He wanted to laugh. If they knew what he had done, they would know that going to Pencey couldn’t fix him.
He knew his parents had argued about his school before. His mother, with a resolve that had apparently cracked today, had wanted to spare Frank some of the harsher Catholicism both his parents had grown up with. She’d always insisted that public school would be fine. His father was a Pencey alum, with chummy private-school enthusiasm for his alma mater and a healthy sense of the Jersey public schools’ slow decay. And somehow, now that his father was washing his hands of the family—he wouldn’t even be living in the same state as Frank, for Christ’s sake—he had managed to win the argument over where Frank would spend his last two years of high school.
His mother was still rambling about Pencey, what a good school it was, they were really doing him a favor, it would help so much when it came to college. He glanced at his father, searching for the sign of irritation or disagreement that was usually there, that he could use to play off his mother. He normally played his parents off one another with some skill, though it was dawning on him why that strategy had worked so well. Today, there didn’t seemed to be an argument anymore. For the first time in their entire marriage that Frank had seen, his father and mother were in perfect agreement.
He saw Ray later, by accident. Ray was standing with some boys from his neighborhood, arms crossed and leaning against a wall. Frank rounded the corner and there he was, just standing there.
Frank’s face went slack and surprised. He could feel himself staring like an idiot, wide-eyed and still. Ray looked too, and caught his eye. Frank felt the fear and recognition spark between them, like it would pull them together. For a second it seemed like the whole mess might dissolve. Frank would cross the street, and Ray would make some teasing, innocent crack about him, and punch him in the arm. But Frank wouldn’t punch back, he’d be too grateful. They’d go back to Ray’s house and put a record on Ray’s shitty player, something that would wash the taste of the Beach Boys and Rod Stewart out of Frank’s mouth. They wouldn’t have to talk about the other stuff, they could just forget it.
But Frank felt it grab at this throat, all the things he needed to tell Ray—how his parents were freaking out, how his dad was gone and living in the city and he wasn’t coming back. Frank’s feet stayed rooted on the sidewalk and he couldn’t change his idiot expression. He stared across the vast black expanse of asphalt, feeling the distance between him and Ray rise up like a wave, like it was the only thing they had ever shared. The other kids, the Puerto Rican boys, were turning to look now. He heard murmurs of their conversation in Spanish. Ray narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms a little tighter.
Frank knew it was over then. Something in him wanted to scream. It was so unfair, how this was all falling apart in his hands. He wanted to spit at Ray, to shout curses across the street. Ray used to be his friend, his fucking best friend, the asshole. Frank almost shoved his hand in the air to raise his middle finger at Ray, the fucking queer. That was a word Frank was sure of, and if he said it, Ray would know just what he meant. Then he realized there were four others over there, even if Ray didn’t join in. Frank jammed his hands in his pockets and walked away, fast. He felt Ray staring after him.
“¿Qué te pasa, Toro?” one of the boys said. “¿Se está metiendo contigo?”
Frank heard Ray’s voice. “No le hagas caso. Él no importa.”
Frank’s hands itched in his pockets but he forced himself to keep walking, head down. He waited for the sound of their feet on the asphalt behind him and wondered if he’d fight back or just let them do it. If the Puerto Rican boys did come after him, it would be a relief, he thought. It would be what he deserved.
That fall, going to Pencey hardly touched him. The crucifixes over doorways and above chalkboards stared down at him, and Frank couldn’t feel their eyes. Jesus could hang up there and rot like a lynching victim for all he cared. He mumbled along in Mass and only sometimes tried to keep from rolling his eyes.
The good thing about Pencey was he never had to see Ray at school again. Frank didn’t care about the public schools, whether they were as bad as everyone said or not, and he didn’t care about how Pencey was a “good” school either. Didn’t care about fucking New York disintegrating, the dirt and the crime and the asphalt and broken windows. It was on the news all the time, how the city was running out of money and everything was falling apart. And here in the suburbs, washed up like a ring of grime on the edges of a filthy bathtub, he didn’t care if people’s eyes flicked toward him because he stood out in his Pencey blazer while he loitered in front of the magazine stand. He thumbed through the rock magazines every day, sometimes bought one or two, or slipped one inside his jacket if no one was looking, which was never often enough.
When his father called, he asked about school, which teachers Frank had and was he making any friends. Did it matter if the kids who shoved Frank in the hallway were probably the kids of his father’s friends? Did it matter if one of Pencey’s finest had given Frank a bloody nose in the bathroom that afternoon? Frank had skipped his next class and leaned his cheek against the cool tile wall in one of the stalls, waiting for the bleeding to stop. The blood ran down the back of his throat like iron, and he spat into the toilet, listening for the bell and for the noise in the hallways to recede. Most of those boys had come out of the same four North Jersey parochial schools and were headed for the same three Ivies when they graduated. A new kid who showed up for two years in the middle had a fart’s chance in church at fitting in, and what was the point in getting angry about it, really? All Frank did was promise himself he would never go to another school like that again, not once he had a choice in the matter.
His mother hadn’t noticed the day he came home with his nose swollen and tender, not that Frank mentioned it to her. And his father, well, his father never saw him at all, so there was no reason for him to know. His parents, however diligently they kept up with talking to him over dinner (his mother) or calling him regularly on the telephone (his father), were losing track of him. They moved further and further away on the horizon, out of his line of sight, and Frank couldn’t bring himself to be upset by it.
Two years at Pencey made Frank used to being alone. He would talk to Pencey students from time to time, just as an experiment, to see if they were as dull as he imagined. They were. After Ray, it was impossible to imagine having a friend, almost impossible to imagine even wanting one.
The only thing that made Frank angry in all this was how cheerful his parents were about him attending private school. As far as he could tell, he was the only one who doing time for his sins. You’re the ones getting a divorce, he imagined saying to his father over the phone. Did you forget the Church frowns on that?
For a while, he imagined telling his father the things about him and Ray. How the words would crack like a whip and suddenly, there would be quiet on the line, his father would be stunned—really listening now, sick with disgust and terrified of what Frank might say next.
Could he really say those words? Say them strong, to make his father turn his head and listen, shock him into silence in the middle of a worthless question about economics class? Say them and keep his voice from breaking, no matter how much it hurt to still be missing Ray, and how little it mattered that he did? Frank thought he could. He’d been trying them out in his head, and each time he said them, they sounded worse. And stronger. He imagined saying them and laughing, the sound floating hollow and disembodied over the line to the city, so his father would understand that this hobby of engineering Frank’s future was doomed. That even Pencey Preparatory Academy, his father’s precious alma mater, couldn’t make Frank turn out right. That it was too late.
And then sometimes he toyed with the idea of confessing the things about him and Ray—not to his father, of course, but maybe to one of the nicer priests at school. He would say the words in the dark booth, and they would float away like incense smoke. Or they would fall to the ground like stones and stay forever inside the seal of the confessional, and Frank could walk away from them.
In the end, though, Frank didn’t believe in the whole penance business enough to try it. How was it possible to change things by saying the same prayer a hundred times? Or a thousand? It was just stupid words. And if it worked, what would happen then? It couldn’t make him and Ray go back to being friends. If he somehow managed to cleanse himself of what had happened, all it would do was wash away the only pieces of Ray he had left.
After graduation and a summer of his parents’ quiet disappointment—because all the money spent on Pencey tuition hadn’t delivered more results, Frank supposed—he started at Rutgers. There were differences between Rutgers and Pencey, but fewer than he had hoped for. The crucifixes were gone. The students were a little less stuck up, at least, and now his classes had girls in them. Some of the girls were cute, and Frank went on dates once in a while. It made him nervous and confused, going out with girls. They would smile and giggle, and he couldn’t always tell what was funny. They were always looking at him with these big, sincere eyes and asking him questions. Frank sometimes wondered if they didn’t have anything of their own to say. He couldn’t get a bead on where they were coming from, and trying to carry on a conversation like that left him tired and anxious. Kissing them wasn’t much better—they were still giggly and flustered and uncertain. When he was kissing a girl, he couldn’t tell what she wanted, couldn’t tell what he wanted. Should he try and put his hand under her shirt? It was impossible to tell. Sometimes she let him and sometimes she didn’t. It didn’t make a difference. When there was a second date, which wasn’t often, it wasn’t much different than the first.
Some of the girls he remembered afterwards and some he didn’t. They all had a certain uniformity of curves and cardigan sweaters that Frank found impossible to decode. There were the ones with names like Deja, Sunshine, and Jamia, whose parents must have been beatniks or hippies—although in the end, they weren’t any more or less memorable than their than their Alice, Marie, and Ruth counterparts. They were spots and flashes in a long stretch of boredom.
The other difference about college, the one that mattered more, was that he could go out to the shows now, the ones he kept reading about in the weekly rock magazines. So now, whenever he had the money, he did. He told his mother he had a test, and he was staying over with friends to study. She didn’t need to imagine him tangled in the sweaty crowd at the foot of the stage, invisible in the blur of sound, or leaning heavily against graffiti-streaked walls in cinderblock bathrooms, pissing away beer he was only just old enough to buy, or blinking dazedly into his coffee cup in all-night diners.
She didn't need to know that the first time he found the hole in the wall club, the one he’d been reading about, it was in a neighborhood so bad it scared him, even though he'd been working up his nerve to go for weeks. He stood in the crowd outside the door and then pressed through the people talking at the bar, keeping his eyes low, so no one would have a chance to size him up and find him lacking.
The band shuffled onto the stage, five skinny men stepping carefully among the wires and amplifiers. One slid behind a fortress of keyboards at the back, two reached for wires to plug in guitars. People talked, bottles and glasses clinked, but Frank could feel something spread across the room. The crowd's watchfulness shifted like the tide, spreading toward the dingy low stage.
One guitarist adjusted his sunglasses. The second gave a quick 4-count, and they launched into their first number in a clash of guitars like breaking dishes. Mic feedback squealed and some conversations faltered, and more heads turned toward the stage. A few people standing on the wall tapped their feet and nodded. Frank felt a tickle in his chest, behind his heart. He tipped his chin just a bit higher and glanced at the people standing on either side of him for just a second.
The first song ended as violently as it began. The singer tugged at his ripped t-shirt and turned to exchange a glance with the man behind the keyboards. He started a simple chord pattern that looped and repeated. It was quieter than everything else, and more conversations stopped. The singer let the piano repeat, waiting. Then he pulled the sunglasses off his face, put out a thin arm to pull the microphone stand close, and Frank realized it was a woman.
She had a long equine face and the same longish haircut that all the boys, including Frank, were wearing right now. Frank felt his face flush. He swallowed hard and had to blink, because he'd never seen a woman like her before. She was nothing like the pretty, respectable girls in the classes at Rutgers, who straightened their sweaters modestly every time they moved.
The piano chords looped again and she sang—alternating between a poem and a garage band jam, growling the words in a low, throaty voice that made Frank sweat. Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine. At least that's what Frank thought she said, what he remembered when he was sitting in a diner later that night, waiting for the trains to start running again.
The stage lights lit her up like an angel, her angular body sexual and sexless, a man and a woman at once. The lights made a golden nimbus behind her black hair, and her dark, heavy-lidded eyes were sad and still, and when she looked at the audience, her gaze took in all of them—the bikers in leather jackets, the black men with their tall Afros, the girls in tight jeans, and Frank, too, somehow, him too—and Frank felt less alone. Gloria, the song said, and Frank thought it was an angelic chorus, although he understood before long that it was a name. The woman sang it, counting out the letters of the name like beads on a rosary, in time with the drums. Gloria, the men behind her sang, echoing it back. Gloria, shouted the crowd, itself a chorus of angels, and Frank was transfixed and breathless.
The songs that followed swung between the piano's hypnotic elegy—with the woman's husky voice chanting trance-like images of horses and blood and stars—and hyped up guitars and crashing drums. Frank reeled in the haze of music and the vivid words. Then they did a cover of “My Generation” and the crowd laughed and shouted. The woman howled and writhed, flinging her arms out, wiry with power and violence. Frank shook his head, dazed, and stepped back from the stage, keeping his distance and wiping the sweat off his upper lip. He hadn't met any women like that in his history and business classes at Rutgers. Maybe, he thought, maybe things would be different with a girl named Gloria.
My sins, my own, they belong to me. Frank remembered those words too, sitting in the diner, before the sky outside started to get light. He lingered over cup after cup of coffee, trying to clear his head and calm down. When the tired waitress disappeared into the kitchen and didn’t come back for a while, Frank left his half-full mug on the table and hid himself in the men’s room, locking himself in the stall and jacking off furtively, embarrassingly, into his hand, trying to erase from his mind the image of the tall, sexless, angelic woman named Gloria.
He bought the album the next day and let the words curl like smoke in the dark place where he carried secret things. Patti Smith with her black hair and heavy eyes, her mannish voice, would join the others: Ray and his hands over Frank's on the long neck of the guitar, the guitar pressed against his chest, the guitar’s slippery curves that changed into the feeling of Ray’s bare skin.
Frank came to the club as often as he could after that. The last time he went there, he watched the Ramones, this dressed-down band in jeans and t-shirts. They all had the same last name like they were brothers or something, but Frank didn’t think they actually were. The show was short, short as a fistfight, and when he got out, he just walked, not seeing the neighborhood, not seeing anything. The night air touched his flushed cheeks with cold, and his pulse beat with the sound of voices shouting Hey, ho! Let’s go! in time with the rhythm of his feet on the sidewalk. He always felt like this afterward—warm and loose and alive, clean somehow, the way it felt to hear The Stooges that first time in Ray’s bedroom. It never lasted.
Frank made it back to the station just in time to catch the last train, racing down the stopped escalator. The train heaved itself groaning away from the platform, away from the city, back to the suburbs that clung to the city like a bad smell, even as the city itself was crumbling.
It didn’t make sense, any of it, Frank thought. This fucking useless city. He’d seen his father’s apartment exactly once. The whole fucking country—Frank didn’t understand how anyone could stand to live here, with the washed up hippies saying things were going to get better and everyone else eating TV dinners and watching the Watergate hearings. Would anywhere else be different than this? As if he even had a choice in the matter, as long as his father only gave him money for school. Even if he returned half his textbooks before he read them, it only gave him so much money. It was all such a waste of time, but Frank didn’t see any other way out. If he wasn’t at school, what would he do then? Get a job like his father and wear a jacket and tie every day, like he was back at Pencey?
Frank shivered, sticky with old sweat, smelling the beer and cigarette smoke in his hair and clothes. His eyes were wet for no reason. He blinked hard, willing his anger to go away, and then leaned his head against the window and let the train and the heavy music of the wheels and tracks rock him, like a lullaby.
Later, Frank picked up the papers for Rutgers’ overseas programs. Imagining he was David Bowie—or Ziggy Stardust, really—he checked the box for the London program. He considered briefly, and then quickly filled words into the rest of the application blanks, humming to himself I could fall asleep at night as a rock ‘n’ roll star. I could fall in love all right as a rock ‘n’ roll star. In the airport, boarding the plane for Heathrow, Frank felt himself disappearing in the press of bodies, being submerged, like in the crowd at a good show. It was just the way he wanted it.
Gerard would ask him, more than once, had there been other boys? No, Frank said, never. Even when he could tell Gerard didn’t believe him.
Part Two - London
It was the end of the spring term, shortly after he had secured the begrudging extension on his overdue thesis, that Frank met Gerard.
Or Frank thought he had secured the extension. The university didn’t seem to know about these arrangements, or perhaps just didn’t care—as they communicated quite clearly in the notice in his mailbox, telling him he was overdue to check out of student accommodations.
Frank crumpled the notice loosely in his hand and thought for a moment. It was true, he hadn’t been to see his tutor since the middle of spring term. And there was a deadline, Frank was only recalling the details of it just now, where he was to have turned in a certain number of pages. Or chapters. Or something. He hadn’t.
Frank frowned. He had been slowly losing his grip on the paper since winter started turning into spring—when he had started seeing the punks on the streets. When he saw the first one—leaning on a bench near a bus stop, with a glorious dyed-green mohawk and a sneering expression—he had smiled fiercely to himself, appreciating how much petulance and anger could be conveyed just by what you were wearing, without having to say a word. When he saw the next ones, a group of them walking in the street, the disapproving glances from the adults around them were visible from the bus window where Frank watched. It made him catch his breath. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. For the first time since he had come, the streets of London seemed expansive and beautiful. On impulse, he yanked the pull cord, and the bus groaned to a stop by the side of the road a few blocks later.
Frank tumbled out onto the pavement and walked quickly. The air was chilly and bright and clear, and he scanned the street and the shop windows, looking for something—he wasn’t sure what. The group of punks in the square receded behind him, but seeing them burned in him like a shot of whiskey. They were so vivid, so alive. Eventually, he found a record store and went inside. He came home from the store the first time with six different magazines, bought with half his food money for the week—NME and Sounds, but also a handful of cheap mimeographed zines that looked like ransom letters with their jagged images and hand-drawn covers. He read them voraciously all weekend long, instead of his class reading. And that had been the beginning of the end of the paper.
He’d gone back to the store, again and again, scanning the counters with their stacks of flyers that said where the shows were. He started stopping in front of telephone poles to read what was posted there. And then, when he went to his first London show, he met Ferdia. And Ferdia’s friends.
Frank frowned and looked once more at the notice in his hands. The backside was a stern accounting of what he owed for summer rooms. This didn’t worry him much; the first address they had on file for him was the room he would be vacating in several moments, and the second was his father’s, who, when they last talked on the phone, weeks or months ago, had complained that he wasn’t hearing enough about how Frank’s studies were going. Maybe the bill would fill him in on the details Frank had been leaving out of the phone calls.
Frank hurried up to his room, stopping to grab a paper bag lying crumpled at the end of the hallway, and gathered his books and papers into it. He jammed his clothes and everything else into his suitcase and lugged both downstairs to the basement storage room, currently filled with the bicycles of students who were on holiday. He stashed the bags in the back corner of the room, where he thought they would be safe enough for the time being.
The last thing he did before leaving the student house was use the telephone on the first floor to call Ferdia. Frank had never phoned him before. The number Ferdia had given him, Frank came to understand belatedly, was for Ferdia’s mother’s flat. It took several awkward moments for him and the friendly, absent-minded woman on the line to figure out that it wasn’t a wrong number and that Frank was, in fact, calling for her son. He could hear the television playing loudly in the background. Frank sputtered through several false starts before recalling how to negotiate a conversation like this.
“Ferdia,” he coughed out finally. “I’m calling for Ferdia Lester. Is he at this number?”
“Ohhh, goodness, I’m sorry,” the woman said cheerfully and without a hint of remorse. “Now I understand. I heard your voice, you see, and I wondered if you weren’t calling for the American gentleman upstairs, and if maybe you didn’t have the wrong number.” She leaned away from the receiver—not far—and howled out, “Ferdie!”
“Was that your mother?” Frank demanded when Ferdia got on the line.
“Course it was. She’s a gem, isn’t she?” Frank could hear him grinning.
“Christ’s sake, you could give a person some warning.” Frank’s cheeks were burning with embarrassment.
Ferdia laughed, loud and long. He wasn't the type to warn anyone about anything, which Frank knew about him, had known since they’d first met at the show.
When Frank had gone to see The Damned, it had felt to him like the first time he had been out, really out, in London at all. He had spent the long autumn and winter months fretting too seriously over his politics and economics classes and making the effort, which turned out to be enormous, of learning to ride the tube and the busses to mundane places like the grocery store. Frank swore off music, telling himself it was to pay more attention to his studies, but really because, in a place he didn’t admit to himself, he was angry at David Bowie for presenting himself like a kindred spirit when London itself felt so foreign.
By the spring, Frank had only just gotten the shapes of the London boroughs and neighborhoods in some kind of order in his head, and he still felt awkward to be out on the streets, like being an American showed on his face. Going out that night, despite the fact that he took the right bus in the right direction on the first try, made him nervous. Then he was angry at himself for being nervous, angry the evening wasn’t turning out. Even more so when he got inside the tiny bar and found himself standing squarely behind a skinny man who was head and shoulders taller than Frank was. The man was talking loudly with a group of friends, laughing a braying laugh, and somehow managing to keep himself planted between Frank and his view of the stage. No way that Frank maneuvered himself let him see, even as the band was coming out and plugging in their instruments, and Frank got frustrated enough to try and squeeze around the man, maybe a bit roughly, between him and some of the friends.
It was Ferdia who punched him first, something Frank had forgiven him for long ago—mostly because Frank, who had gotten better at fighting back since Pencey, had punched second, soundly. For a moment, they were locked in a scuffle, jabbing hands, Frank trying to pull away enough to land another punch, the studs from Ferdia’s jacket scraping his hands.
The first guitar chord echoed from the stage and filled the room and, for just a second, the crowd opened up around them. Then it swelled back like a wave and broke over them, in the form of the hands of the strangers whom Frank later came to know as Ferdia’s crowd. Hands were everywhere, grabbing at both of them, pulling them apart, then throwing them apart, tossing Frank solidly into a group of strangers while the man disappeared in the opposite direction. Frank caught himself stumblingly in the moving crowd. They were stomping and shouting, and as the band got into their first number, they started to jump, bouncing against each other. Then, somehow, Frank found himself jumping too, his anger and anxiety dissipating into the sound, a dirty mix of feedback and the driving rhythm guitar.
“Look, Ferdia,” Frank said stubbornly into the phone, “Are we going out tonight?”
“Out?” Ferdia asked blankly. “Out where?” His tone was opaque and Frank could picture his expression, duncelike, being willfully difficult.
“Out,” Frank insisted. “Anywhere. Drinks, a pub, a show.”
“Next show is The Adverts, you know that, Frankie. Next Tuesday.”
“Well, drinks then. Are you going out tonight?” Frank pursued.
“Ohhh, I don’t know,” Ferdia drawled. Frank waited silently, stubborn in his own right. “Tell you what, Franks,” Ferdia said finally, lightly, as if it had been his idea all along, “You come out, and I’ll bring you someone.”
Before Frank could ask what that meant, Ferdia leaned away from the phone. Drinks, Frank heard him repeat, away from the receiver, at the Thornhill Arms, down the road. Someone answered back in a low voice, but the television covered it all, an indistinct murmur.
Frank chewed on his nail and thought about his clothes and books in the storage room and then about drinks tonight. He liked Ferdia’s friends well enough, and another one of that lot would be fine.
In the end, his first fight with Ferdia was the same as The Damned’s songs, quick and sharp as the taste of blood, then over again, mostly forgotten, and on to something new. As The Damned labored on, sweating under the stage lights and laughing and cursing at the crowd, Frank felt all the pent up energy about his classes, his fellow students, about London itself, leaving him. He jumped and shouted. The sound pressed aggressively against him like the headache he would have in the morning, and Frank was surprised to find the same tall man immediately next to him. The man pulled a face at Frank and broke into his braying laugh. Frank couldn’t hear it, but he could see the man’s face split apart with glee. The man gave Frank an enthusiastic and poorly aimed swat against the shoulders and was swept away into the crowd again. Frank realized he was laughing too, feeling it rather than hearing it in the dense sound.
After the show, when the sweaty crowd boiled out the pub doors and into the street, Frank found himself pulled along with the tall man and his group of friends as they exclaimed and shouted superlatively about the band and the music. Frank let himself be swept with them into the next pub. He grinned and laughed and drank with them, gave his name when asked, and mostly kept his mouth shut, listening carefully until he understood that the tall man’s name was Ferdia, not Freddie. Ferdia’s accent seemed different than the others, worse somehow, even though Frank had been studiously teaching himself the quirks of British English in order not to look foolish among the other students. Frank only half-understand him the whole night.
Even so, at the end of the night, Ferdia had slapped his back and said, “You, then, Frankie, you coming out? We’re at the Buzzcocks Sunday night.”
And that’s what they’d done since then: go out—go out to shows, go out to pubs, go out. On nights when there wasn’t a show they knew of and the pubs didn’t hold their attention, they roamed the streets like a pack of hungry wolves, listening at the doors of bars as they passed, and going in wherever they heard a racket that was loud enough. And soon Frank had got himself a pair of heavy black boots at the charity shop near the university and spent an entire Saturday carefully putting hundreds of safety pins into his military jacket. He could feel the eyes of other students on him as he walked to class, but he didn’t care. He felt like he was part of something, for the first time since he had come to London, and it wasn’t his economics thesis.
“Yeah.” Ferdia came abruptly back on the line. “The Thornhill Arms. Drinks. We’ll meet you there.”
So, then. Frank had a plan. And somewhere to go.
He put on the military jacket and the boots, and he stepped out into the streets of London. He didn’t know where he would sleep that night, and he tried not to think about that. It felt like pressing into the crowd at the Newark airport to get on the plane, or into the crowds at CBGB, sliding into that anonymous press of bodies to get closer to the stage. His fingertips buzzed with anxiety, but he kept walking away from the university anyway.
At the pub, Frank slid into a booth and sat, waiting. Across the room, on the other side of the bar, Teds were starting to congregate. The men adjusted their natty jackets and ties. A Teddy girl with shiny blonde hair blew cigarette smoke dramatically at the ceiling.
The Teddy Boys were a fact of life, Frank was learning, particularly as you got away from the university and went further north, where they were about as plentiful as punks. On one hand, the Teds seemed like Pencey students, in their careful, prissy suits, and so they annoyed Frank a little. But on the other hand, Frank could tell by looking at them that, despite the affectation of their clothes, they weren’t rich, the way most of the Pencey kids really had been. The Teds were poor. The clothes were mostly a put on. Frank was tempted to ignore them, but he’d been out with Ferdia and his friends often enough and run into Teds who wanted to shout at them or worse that it left a sour taste in his mouth. And along with whatever happened on the street between the punks and Teds, there were the news stories that kept showing up in the tabloid weeklies about fights, riots, and even murders. The more those headlines graced front pages, the heavier Frank could feel the eyes of people on the street press against him—adults staring disapprovingly even when he was out by himself. The unspoken but palpable disapproval annoyed him as much as the Teds did, and he could feel himself wanting to strike back at it, could feel it infecting how he responded to Teds, even in social interactions that should have been harmless.
One of the Teds turned to eye Frank. What Frank was wearing was enough to be recognizably punk, but tonight, in a quiet bar with no music, probably not enough to start a fight as long as he behaved himself. Frank stared back at him for a moment, feeling his eyes narrow and his gaze harden. Then, reprimanding himself, he pointedly dropped the boy’s gaze and looked away.
When Ferdia came, he would look like he always did, hair aggressively short and poking up in spikes, heavy boots, his magnificent leather jacket, maybe dog chains around his neck. But Ferdia knew this bar. He had been drinking here for years, and the bartenders never hassled him about how he dressed. Half the people casting eyes at Frank now were probably friends of Ferdia’s older brother. Ferdia’s presence, no matter how punk he was dressed, would cement the evening into an uneasy peace.
When Ferdia strode into the pub, he nodded to the bartender, and then broadly to the group of Teds, some of whom gave reluctant little nods in return. He had some kind of smeary-looking red color rubbed into his spiked hair and he grinned hugely at Frank from across the room. Following behind him, there was a skinny, smallish man Frank had never seen before. Frank saw the man hang back for a moment at the doorway as he took in the busy room. He was wearing black clothes that had no discernible style, which was to say, he didn’t look like a punk, but Frank could tell that he wasn’t a Ted either. He didn’t even look like the other students Frank knew. The man trailed Ferdia across the room to the table like a reluctant shadow, and Ferdia gestured him into the booth across from Frank.
“Frank,” Ferdia said, indicating the man, “This is who I told you about. This is Gerard.”
The man gave Frank a quick smile and ducked his head as Ferdia scooted into the booth beside him. Frank nodded back, but he could tell the expression on his face was a puzzled frown. He didn’t know what to make of this one. The man looked fragile, with big dark eyes looking out of a pale face. His hair was longish and ratty black, uncombed, falling in clumps. Most of Ferdia’s friends weren’t so soft. They were more likely to be wearing chains and leather.
“I wondered what it was had you so uptight on the phone, Frankie,” Ferdia said.
Frank turned his frown away from the man and toward Ferdia. “I was not uptight. I just asked if you—”
“Wanted to go out. Right.” Ferdia nodded slowly like Frank was being dull. “Well, here we are, aren’t we? Out?” He pulled a face that was a cross between a grin and a grimace and looked between Frank and this new person, Gerard.
“Look, then,” Ferdia said, “I’ll just leave you two to chat amongst yourselves.” He waved his fingers at them, pantomiming the exaggerated talking they were supposed to do. He stood up, leaned to smack Frank lightly on the back of the head, and started up to the bar.
“Oh,” Ferdia said, turning back over his shoulder. “Gerard’s American, too.”
The frown fell off Frank’s face. He turned back toward the man, still huddled awkwardly on the bench across from him, and put his hand across the table. “Frank.”
The man shook his hand and flashed the bright, ephemeral smile again. “I know,” he said. “Ferdia thought I should meet you, I guess.” He glanced forlornly at Ferdia’s back across the room and then turned quickly back to Frank. His accent was perfectly American, easy on Frank’s ears. “Is he always—?”
“Yeah,” said Frank, nodding, almost smiling. “He always is. He’s nice enough, though. You don’t ... how do you know him?”
The man bit his lip. “I live in the flat at the top of his house. His mother has the bottom floor. So, you know. We met.” His voice dwindled away, and he shrugged.
“Where are you from?” Frank asked, anxious to keep him talking, wanting to keep hearing his voice.
“Um,” the man said apologetically. “New Jersey.”
“No way,” Frank said, feeling his face warm into a genuine smile. “I am too. Newark.” Frank had been stumbling over how to say where he was from the entire time he’d been in London. With most of the people he met, Brits or sometimes other international students, he had started saying he was from New York, just to keep things simpler. People knew New York, at least, and he didn’t have to go into explaining anything. Half the time, people who weren’t American seemed to mishear ‘Newark’ as ‘New York’ anyway.
Gerard nodded. “The same. Newark area. But the suburbs really.” The smile on his face seemed to have gained a little staying power. He gestured between them. “Did Ferdia know that we both—?”
“Who knows what he knows,” Frank said, and laughed, suddenly fiercely fond of Ferdia and his stubbornness. Gerard seemed ready, almost, to cautiously laugh with him.
They chatted amiably about Jersey, about the interstates and the shore towns and the boardwalks.
“It’s different over here,” Gerard said. “In London, it’s like you can feel the weight of everything pushing in on you, all the time. All the history and old buildings and, like, everything with all this momentous importance.” He looked down. “I mean, it’s great. It just can get heavy sometimes, like there’s no room to breathe.”
“I miss the seashore,” he said after a moment, with a faraway look. “Even when it’s shitty there, windy and cold, you still feel like you can breathe.”
Frank felt a wave of longing for home wash over him. Yes, he wanted to say, but the words didn’t quite make it to his lips. Instead, he just nodded and kept listening. Gerard was kind of awkwardly chatty now that he had gotten going.
Frank thought of the other Americans in his study abroad program, the ones he had spent most of the year avoiding, turning down countless invitations to take the train or the ferry to their exotic destinations over weekends and holidays. He didn’t think he could face traipsing around with them and their dogeared tourist guidebooks—every place they went, looking for little signs that explained what everything was and what you should think about it. He supposed that’s what he should be doing on an international study trip, and he couldn’t explain why the thought of it left him cold.
“I don’t know,” Gerard was saying. “It can’t really be as different as all that, here and there. It just sometimes feels like it is. What about you?” He looked at Frank, his eyes brave and inquisitive. “Do you like it here?”
“Like it?” Frank said, surprised. He blinked. “Well, I was here for school—for university,” he amended, “on an exchange program. I liked it in the beginning, because it was different. It was different from home, and I thought I might die of boredom there.” Frank let his eyes pull away from Gerard as he tried to think what to say. He felt like he couldn’t explain why he had come, couldn’t articulate the feeling of needing to do something before he exploded, needing to get away from the states and from his parents, away from everything he knew.
“But then, I decided to stay a little longer. I hadn’t finished one of my classes...” Frank trailed off and shook his head. “But it wasn’t that. That wasn’t why I stayed. And I think I quit my program today, anyway,” he said, with a finality that surprised him. He met Gerard’s eyes across the table.
Gerard looked at him and Frank felt alarmed at the words he had just allowed to spill out of him. Frank had never talked to any of Ferdia’s crowd about the university or what he did. It didn’t come up that much, honestly, between talking about shows and music, teasing each other, complaining about the cops, the Teds, about bad music when there was nothing but pub rock they could find playing. He didn’t know if they even knew he was a student. He wasn’t sure of what they did, either, but somehow he doubted they were students.
“That’s big,” Gerard said finally, nodding, and it seemed to have a sympathetic tone to it. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
Frank exhaled and felt himself deflate a little. He didn’t say anything. He thought about the money he had, how little there was, and how it wouldn’t be long before it was gone. The only thing his father would pay for at this point would be a plane ticket back across the ocean. “Maybe I’ll go home soon,” he said, without much conviction. “How about you?” he asked, because he couldn’t imagine what was coming next for him. “What do you do?”
“I’m an artist,” Gerard said with a mischievous smile. “I take pictures.” He pantomimed pointing a camera at Frank and clicking the button.
“Oh, wow,” Frank said. “Wow. Really?” For a split second, seeing Gerard’s face through the square of his fingers as he held the imaginary camera to his eye, Frank remembered a record by Andres Segovia, the famous guitar player—hearing the way those notes rose and fell, cascading, twisting together inextricably. Remembered his own feeling—not envy, exactly, but awe and longing to imagine a person who understood something that was beautiful, a person who could love something as purely as an artist must love his art. “I’ve never known someone who was a real artist,” he said, and then cleared his throat because his voice seemed to hit a false note.
Gerard laughed, and a pink flush came to his cheeks. “It’s not that special, I promise. I hardly even have a darkroom to use.”
“Well,” Frank stumbled. “What do you take pictures of?”
“A lot of things,” Gerard said. His face got the same faraway look it had when he was talking about the Jersey shore, like he was seeing something in his mind’s eye. “Buildings and trees. Water. Anything with good light and shadows in it. Sometimes people.” He looked down at the table between them. “Not usually, though.”
They were interrupted by Ferdia plunking two pint glasses down at the end of the table. Frank reached for the glass nearest him, leaving the ring of foam on the sticky table.
“You shouldn’t have,” he said sarcastically, switching quickly back to the banter that he was accustomed to speaking with Ferdia and his punks.
“Well, you lot looked like you’d never get up to the counter, and I didn’t want them to kick you out.” Ferdia gave him a look. “Anyhow, why don’t you try and behave for Gerard here, since he’s new?” He slid into the booth beside Gerard.
“Where’s yours?” Frank said.
“I drank mine.” Ferdia belched, none too politely. “So, are you telling him all about getting along in the Great Land of Britain?”
Gerard had retreated behind his pint glass, but Frank could see him smile slightly.
“Yeah, I told him he shouldn’t worry, that I couldn’t understand you for the first month we knew each other,” Frank said.
Ferdia laughed his braying laugh and Gerard’s smile got just a little larger. “And yet here you are today,” Ferdia said, “Taking the piss with the best of them. You can be proud.”
Emboldened by Gerard’s smile, Frank followed Ferdia’s lead and proffered more insults, finding himself hoping he landed on something that would make Gerard laugh again. Gerard was so different from Ferdia and the crowd Frank had been hanging around with for months now. The punks were hard, hell, Ferdia had punched the shit out of him that first night for no reason, and that’s what Frank had liked about him—about them. Everything bounced right off them, from adults’ glares to Teds shouting at them in the streets to getting chased by the police because of how they were dressed. They were always the ones giving it a stir, and that was the fun of it. They were never soft, which was what Frank wanted for himself.
But here was Gerard, and he was so completely different from the punks that it was confusing to even see him and Ferdia sitting together in the booth across from him. In the few moments they had spent talking alone, Frank could feel pieces of himself readjusting in response to Gerard’s unaffected sincerity, moving in ways that seemed to uncover new parts of him, making him vulnerable. That was why Frank had stumbled into telling him about school, when he hadn’t told anyone else and could hardly understand himself what had happened. God only knew how long it had been since he had told anyone anything about himself.
He wondered what else he might tell Gerard or Gerard might tell him if they had more chances to talk. But along with that, he felt the anxiety creeping in. Even as he kept up with Ferdia and his jibes in the conversation, Frank drank his beer too fast and it sloshed heavily in his stomach. He felt the buzzing in his fingertips again.
Later, much later, Ferdia and Frank and Gerard were out on the pavement, smelling of beer and chips. They had successfully avoided any altercations with the Teddy Boys at the pub who, all told, had been well-enough behaved and who had mostly kept to themselves.
“You need a bus back, Franks?” Ferdia asked.
“Well,” Frank said, the time calling back the detail that had never truly gone from his mind the entire evening. “They lock the doors,” he said. “At eleven on a weeknight. At the student accommodations. They’re already locked, actually.” Any happy, buzzy feeling he’d had from the pints went away immediately, replaced by a chilliness in his chest. The momentum of the evening vanished, and for a moment he was afraid that Ferdia and Gerard would disappear, leaving him standing by himself on the pavement.
Gerard glanced from Ferdia to Frank. “Frank, you can stay with us if you need to,” he offered.
Frank didn’t know who “us” was, and realized, simultaneously, that he wasn’t in a position to care. He didn’t want to walk all night, or sleep on a park bench, even though he’d done both before. Everything today had made him tired.
“Um,” he said. “Well. Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
Ferdia raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. They started off down the road, Ferdia and Gerard leading the way and Frank looking at his boots, feeling his face hot with discomfort at the fact that he had needed to accept an offer for help. He was confused and a little put off that Gerard had so quickly offered it and mortified that Ferdia had been there to witness it. He felt himself trailing behind as Ferdia and Gerard walked in the direction of the house where they apparently both lived, which Frank had never been to.
As they walked in the chilly air, Gerard said to Ferdia, “Did you know that Frank and I are both from Newark?”
“Newark?” Ferdia said. “You? Him?” He looked between them. “Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course.” He nodded vigorously. “I know all those places you got over there. Newark and Flewark and Blewark, all of ‘em.”
Frank snorted with laughter despite his miserable self-consciousness. “But still,” he said from behind them. “It’s a coincidence, right? I mean, for us to meet—but here instead of there.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Gerard said, and Frank felt uncomfortably corrected, even though he could hear a smile in Gerard’s voice. When he had judged Gerard as soft, it hadn’t included assertiveness like this. In the nighttime air, following both Gerard and Ferdia, uncertain where he was going, it only increased Frank’s anxiety.
They trudged back to the house, and stomped up to what Frank would come to know as Ferdia’s gate—or Ferdia’s mother’s gate, really, when it came down to it. The door to her flat was off to the side of the house’s main entrance and down several steps. But the door opened directly from the garden into their flat, without having to walk through several floors, a fact Frank would come to be slightly jealous of. Ferdia paused at the stair and looked at Gerard and Frank with woeful resignation. “It’s like I run a boarding home for Yanks,” he said.
Frank trailed Gerard up the steps to the front door, and up several flights of stairs to Gerard’s room.
Frank’s first impression of the room was its darkness and its smallness. He had followed Gerard from Ferdia in the garden up the stairs to a hallway, past closed doors to another door at the end. Gerard opened the door and the dim yellow light from the hallway fell in onto another narrow flight of stairs. Frank let his hand brush the wall as he climbed the stairs behind Gerard. There was no railing he could find in the close space.
The room was at the top of the house, nestled in under the slope of the roof. When Gerard carefully opened the door at the top of the narrow stairs, it opened on to grayish darkness—more space than the narrow hallway, but just barely. Close above them, Frank could sense the slant of the ceiling pressing in on him as he stood in the doorway. Gray light fell into the room from a small, high-set window across from the doorway. An attic window, Frank thought, because that was surely what this part of the house had been. The light in the room was only enough to suggest dark rumpled shapes. A white wall was at their right and the slope of the roof descended away into shadows on his left.
Gerard crossed the room, leaving Frank standing in the doorway. As Gerard walked, Frank heard the floorboards creak, a muted sound that seemed to echo cavernously below them. Frank was reminded of how far up they were. He kept his hand on the doorframe to combat a sudden unsteadiness that brushed against him. He and Gerard must be soaring above the city, floating in the breeze like empty shirts on a washing line. Frank felt chilly and exposed.
“Mikey,” Gerard whispered and jostled a dark shape on the floor with his foot. “Mikey, wake up.”
The dark pile rustled and made a soft noise. Gerard knelt down and spoke to it in a low voice. “Mikey, someone’s here. You need to come in and sleep with me.”
From the swath of shadows near the floor, a person sat up. Frank’s eyes had adjusted to the twilight enough to make out a silhouette as the person called Mikey clumsily disentangled himself from loose blankets on top of a bare mattress on the floor. Mikey’s face was mostly shadowed, but he looked at Frank with a dark scowl. Gerard was feeling on the floor for something. Mikey aimed a small nod of greeting in Frank’s direction, but didn’t unfurrow his brows.
Frank didn’t return the nod. This Mikey seemed angry, and Frank was starting to feel uncertain about the situation himself. He eased backwards until his back pressed against the doorframe and tried to catch his breath in the tiny room. The narrow staircase behind him was a smudge of blackness and the air smelled stale, like sleep and unwashed clothes. Frank felt his chest getting tight.
“Here,” Gerard stood and pressed something into Mikey’s hand.
Mikey unfolded a pair of glasses and put them on. His face relaxed and he blinked at Frank with sleepy disinterest. After a moment, he rubbed at his face and made his way unsteadily across the room with the heavy footsteps of someone only partly awake, disappearing behind what, Frank saw, was a sheet tacked up to cover a doorway.
“My brother,” Gerard said. “That’s the bedroom.” He indicated the sheet-covered doorway. “Oh, and the bathroom,” he continued. “It’s downstairs, sorry. We went by it when we were coming up. It’s just on the right once you go down the stairs.”
Gerard disappeared behind the sheet curtain, leaving Frank standing in the close room. He took off his jacket, letting it fall to the floor. He could hear Gerard and Mikey moving behind the thin wall. Frank had had a roommate in his rooms at the university, but there things had been orderly, with parallel beds and desks with books, and a clear ownership of the sides to the room. This room, in contrast, was disorder, and Frank, his breathlessness growing, could feel how lines bent and broke in the darkness around him. He toed some of the dark shapes on the floor—clothing, it felt like, or blankets—and sat down on the end of the single mattress that took up almost half of the floor space in the room. His chest still felt tight. He took a shallow breath and wondered if he might suffocate in the tiny room, with the brothers close enough behind the thin wall that he could hear their muted voices as they talked.
Frank rose to his feet again in the dark and walked softly to the doorway and into the narrow stairway, letting the voices recede behind him. He crept down the stairs as carefully as he could, trying to judge where to put his feet by the dim light from the cracked door at the bottom. Even so, he slipped on a shallow step and only caught himself by bracing his arms against the bare walls. He hung for a moment in what seemed to be midair before his feet found their place again on the uneven stairs beneath him. Heart pounding, he made his way down the remaining steps, into the main hallway, and into the bathroom where he shut the door with shaking hands and leaned against it.
After a moment, he hooked the latch firmly and crossed the room, opening the bathroom’s tiny window. The cool night air came in. He leaned his head and shoulders out the window as far as he could. Where was he? Nothing looked familiar. This was a part of town he didn’t know. He gazed over pitched rooflines and the tops of houses against the dark, smudgy sky. Frank couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a star.
After a while Frank began to feel that he could breathe again. He pulled himself back inside the window and sat on the edge of the bathtub. The bathroom had the tub with a shower and a shoddy curtain, and a grimy sink with two taps. Impossibly, the bathroom felt more spacious than the room he had come from. Frank eased himself to the tile floor and sat there for a long while.
The feelings of kinship and interest for Gerard that had swelled up in him at the bar seemed far away. Even though they shared a hometown, Gerard was a stranger, made even more strange by meeting him here, in this strange and hopeless place. Soon, Frank thought, he would have to call his father about a plane ticket.
A long time later, Frank trudged, resigned, back upstairs to the room, and to the mattress on the floor. The room was stuffy but quiet; Gerard and Mikey must have been asleep behind the sheet. Frank lay on the mattress in the quiet for a long time, feeling the darkness press against him.
In the morning, light came in the small window over Frank’s head and he woke up at an hour that seemed impossibly early. He felt dreadful and hungover and he crept downstairs to the bathroom and put his head under the cold water tap to drink and drink. It seemed as if he had spent all night awake worrying about the rooms at the university, his things, imagining phone conversations between him and his father about plane tickets. In the end, there wasn’t a difference between whether he had been worrying and awake or worrying in his dreams.
He splashed water on his face and went back upstairs, walking quietly. The room was full with the hush of sleeping people and Frank tried to move quietly, wanting to delay the morning’s first contact with Gerard as much as possible.
He rubbed his face, thinking back over the night before, the flush of connection he’d felt with Gerard and how it had snowballed so quickly and unexpectedly into him sleeping in this room last night. And now he was here, and it was morning, and he wasn’t drunk anymore, and he would certainly have to negotiate another conversation with Gerard, and probably Mikey too, in the near future—something he wasn’t looking forward to.
In the grayish morning light, he tried to make sense of the room. The mattress on the floor and a confusing mix of clothes and blankets strewn about. The sheet tacked over the doorway into which Gerard and Mikey had disappeared last night, and through which Frank could hear no sounds. But next to the wall that separated him from the bedroom, stood a shape that, with a flush of pleasure, Frank recognized as the grouping of an amplifier, tall speakers, and a record player.
He was flipping through the albums that leaned next to the player when Gerard came out from behind the sheet. Frank smiled up at him, because he had just found that they had Transformer and Low, then frowned as he realized Gerard was catching him looking through their things. Gerard flashed him the same warm smile that Frank remembered from the night before and sat down beside him to look at the albums.
They put on Transformer and set the volume low, with a minimum of conversation, and Gerard waved Frank into the narrow area opposite the bedroom door, which turned out to be a makeshift kitchen area with a very tiny refrigerator sitting under a counter, an electric kettle, and a toaster. They were all crammed into the narrow corner area, which did nothing to decrease Frank’s feeling of claustrophobia in the small apartment. Gerard went down to the bathroom to fill up the kettle and Frank put slices of bread in the toaster. Eventually, when they had made up several mugs of coffee, Mikey came out from behind the sheet. Gerard reintroduced Frank, now that Mikey was awake. Mikey smiled, shook his hand, nodded appreciatively at the music that was playing, and Frank lost a little of the apprehension he’d had about Mikey from the night before. In the daylight, it was clear he was younger than Gerard—tall, awkward, and angular, still unsure of himself.
“So I was thinking Frank could just stay here for a while,” Gerard announced to the room as they were drinking their coffee, with that same assertiveness as the night before.
“No,” Frank started, “I really just—”
“Fine with me.” Mikey said before Frank could explain anything. He shrugged, not lifting his eyes from his coffee.
Frank wanted to disagree, but, as he looked back and forth between the brothers, he realized he didn’t have any other plan at all that didn’t involve leaving London. He kept his mouth shut, not wanting to reinforce that option by speaking it aloud, and felt the same sense of breathless sense possibility opening up around him—the band taking the stage after a long wait. If he had a place to stay, he could stay, and nothing would have to be ending right now. So he just exhaled uncertainly.
By the end of breakfast and another record, Frank was starting to feel the weight of the ceiling over them again, and the apartment’s tenuous hovering over the city, a balloon tethered by a string. He told Gerard and Mikey he had to go pick up some things and escaped from the building into the gray day outside.
At the university, in the basement where his things were, he picked out his favorite, tightest, most punk clothes and left the collared shirts and dress trousers behind. He dumped out his books and papers to take the paper bag they had been in, but otherwise didn’t touch them. On the way back to the house, he stopped and bought two loaves of bread in plastic sacks, a jar of jam, instant coffee, and several tins of soup—something meager he could contributed to the pantry in the tiny room.
In the evening, when it was starting to get dusky, several of Ferdia’s other friends had come round—Jax, Ollie, and Bernard. By the time they were all standing out in the garden, Frank could tell they were spoiling for trouble. It was the kind of restless fix they got into any night there wasn’t a show, no place to go that was a container in which to spill all their energy. Standing in the garden, they counted the pubs where they could go but didn’t want to, naming off places that had had good shows in the past, places they had gone to and, ideally, not been kicked out of.
“No,” said Jax after a moment. “I think we should go over to the East End. Have some fun, play some music. Maybe dance a little.” He chuckled. “They’ll like that, don’t you think?”
An appreciative murmur ran through the group. The East End was full of factories, and anywhere they went would be full of men off their shifts at work. Even their clothes would be enough to make people stare and fuss, if it ended there, which it most likely wouldn’t. It was the kind of attention that fed them—Ferdia and Jax especially—like a drug.
Jax was shorter than Ferdia, but solidly built, someone Frank would prefer to be on the same side as in every fight. He kept his light-colored hair too short to spike, so short he looked bald. Tonight he was wearing his bondage trousers, another impressive piece of punk gear that Frank envied, covered in zips and straps. The longest straps hung like empty suspenders off his waist and thighs, crossing in back.
As they set off, Jax’s straps swung and clinked as he walked. Gerard fell back beside Frank and looked at him, silently asking for more information. Frank explained quickly in a low voice—the factories, the pubs, who would be there. Frank told himself he didn’t go in for rabble rousing the same way Ferdia and some of them did, but he could feel himself start to smile as he explained the evening. “They won’t be glad to see us,” he said to Gerard. “You’ll see.”
“Don’t worry, Gerard.” Ferdia had somehow overheard their conversation and was suddenly walking beside them. “Consider it . . . like a social experiment. What they don’t understand is that this is good for them. Shakes up the monotony. Gives ‘em a little something to complain about with the wifey and kids. It’s all for the best. You’ll see.”
Gerard nodded and Ferdia strode ahead again to walk with Jax. Alone for a moment at the center of the string of them, Gerard put his hand into his pocket and Frank saw him fiddle with something tiny, turning it on his palm. Then he quickly pressed his hand against his mouth and tipped his chin up, swallowing something Frank couldn’t see. When Frank came up beside him again, Gerard flashed him a quick smile, but didn’t say anything.
They turned on to Brick Lane and walked for a bit before finding a medium-sized pub. Ducking inside, they saw it had a dingy, deserted dance floor at the back, and a decent-sized crowd of people, mostly men nursing pints. Jax chuckled as he surveyed the crowd and led the way to a long table. Eyes began to pop up from booths and tables as the punks made their entrance. Frank saw some men exchange disgusted glances. The punks talked loudly amongst themselves, relishing the feel of the eyes on them.
Gerard hung back a little as they entered, the same reluctance as Frank had seen the night before at the Thornhill Arms, as though he hadn’t quite warmed to the idea of being there. The rest of the boys filed up to the counter for drinks. Frank and Gerard were last, and as the bartender handed them their glasses, he said, “No trouble, now, d’you hear?” Frank gave him half a smile and didn’t answer.
They returned to the table with their glasses and Jax came back from putting a few coins in the jukebox. Something offensively mainstream started playing.
“Did you have to?” Bernard said loudly, making a disgusted face.
“Nothing to be done, mate, that’s all there is in the jukebox,” Jax said, shrugging. “We’ll have to make do.”
They settled into their seats, starting in on the beer, talking and joking raucously. At first, Jax and Bernard kept lowering their voices when they made comments about the other pub patrons. But after they’d warmed up and the room had settled into an uneasy equilibrium, they began to gain more boldness. Heads no longer snapped round when a roar of laughter rose from the table of punks; instead, the men in the pub seemed to be bracing themselves, steeling their resolve not to validate the punks by looking at them.
“I myself feel bad for the working man,” Ollie said, in a voice deliberately too loud, calculated to carry easily to the other tables. The table burst into muffled laughter, everyone snorting into their hands. Frank laughed too. The words hung in air.
“It’s true,” Jax intoned, after he had calmed himself enough to speak coherently. “His life is a dead end—day in, day out, nothing different from the last.” His voice fell apart at the end and he collapsed into a fit of laughter that he stifled with his elbow.
Grumblings from behind them became more audible. Lazy cunts. Wouldn’t know a day of work if it bit ‘em in the arse. Frank heard the phrases drift from a tables he couldn’t see. Some men were glaring openly at them now.
“It’s a modern tragedy, my friends,” Ferdia said evenly, holding his composure better than anyone else seemed able to. Frank saw that Gerard’s glass was almost empty. A different song came on the jukebox. “Listen,” Ferdia cocked his head. “I quite like this one. We should up and dance, don’t you think?”
Jax and Bernard were up immediately, heading to the small space for dancing at the back of the pub. Pub patrons glared openly as they passed, turning their heads to follow them with their eyes. Jax fed more coins into the jukebox, pushing the stiff buttons, and Bernard ventured into the tiny, empty dance floor, waving his arms about jerkily. It was what most of the dancing looked like at shows, minus the exaggerated jumping, minus the deliberate physical contact of fists with faces.
Ferdia watched Bernard and Jax jumping and jerking about on the dance floor. Ollie joined them after a moment and Ferdia nodded appreciatively. “What really winds them up,” he said to Frank and Gerard, the only ones left at the table, “is if you dance together. I got my nose broken at the Spitalfields Market the last time Jax and I did that.” He laughed and slapped the table. “Fucking brilliant, if you ask me.”
“Another social experiment,” Gerard said, with a faint smile. “Right?”
“Exactly,” Ferdia replied, grinning.
Gerard was beginning to take off his coat and, as Ferdia stood up, he laid his hand Gerard’s shoulder heavily, stopping him. “I wouldn’t, mate,” Ferdia said. “We may be leaving quickly.”
Ferdia made his way to the back of the pub, leaving Frank and Gerard at the table by themselves.
“What do you know about social experiments?” Frank asked, with faint annoyance that Gerard seemed to have some kind of shared vocabulary with Ferdia that Frank didn’t even know about—even as Gerard was the one dressed like Johnny Cash, like he was the man in black, the one being morosely dragged along to their fun.
“You know, like he was saying earlier. Something that shakes them up. Makes them angry, makes them think.” Gerard shrugged. “I think it is good for them,” he said. He looked calmer now, his face open and confident. He smiled at Frank. “So. Shall we?” He cocked his head toward the dance floor and stood up.
“I didn’t think you were like this.” Frank felt the words slip out before they got to the dance floor, and somehow he had said it loud enough for Gerard to hear. Gerard turned to look back and Frank saw him, framed by the colorful punks behind—plain, small, someone Frank never would have looked at twice before. And yet, now that he’d been forced to look closer, Frank could see something in Gerard’s face that drew him.
Gerard stared back at him for a moment, a half smile on his face. “We’re only dancing,” he said, then he ducked and grabbed Frank’s wrist and pulled him out into the center of the dance floor. They danced crazily, bouncing off each other and the other boys. Gerard kept ahold of Frank’s hand and finally Frank reached out and grabbed Gerard’s other hand. Frank heard Ferdia hoot with laughter, seeing them together. Frank felt bolder, like he was doing something transgressive. There was a break in the music and Frank let himself lean against Gerard for a moment, smiling and breathless, a simple extension of the jumping and dancing, only the contact was a little less violent.
Gerard swung his arm around Frank and let it rest around his waist. It surprised Frank, and suddenly he felt cold and frightened. They were in full view of the rest of the pub. People were looking and Frank could feel eyes on him like the freezing slap of an ocean wave.
“Get on,” a man’s voice called from somewhere toward the front of the pub. “None of that now.”
Frank froze, unable to move away, stuck and panicky next to Gerard. He was aware of the heat of Gerard’s body and the burning blood in his own cheeks. He had never been this close to a man, not like this, not like—he refused to remember—not like anything. And people were looking, they were starting to see him. He could hear the stirring sound of chairs sliding against the floor as men began to stand up, the sounds not completely drowned out by Eddie and the Hot Rods on the jukebox.
Ferdia moved past them, knocking them aside, breaking Frank out of his panicked stupor. Jax and Ollie were close behind him. Ferdia, with a look of greedy anticipation on his face, took his pick of the several men who were approaching the shabby dance floor. When he swung at one of the larger ones, it was with commitment. By now, Frank had witnessed enough fights in London—at shows, in pubs, between football fans, among youths, among men—that he knew the Brits didn’t hold back when it came to a fight, and not just the younger ones either. As Ferdia landed his first punch, and Jax and Ollie scrambled forward to join in, Frank could see more of the pub-goers standing up matter-of-factly, as though joining in was as obligatory as punching their timecard.
Frank had shoved his arm out, intending, he realized, to keep Gerard behind him, scared for him, worried that Gerard didn’t understand how quickly and completely the pub would descend into an all-out brawl.
Nancies, someone called.
“Police, you guys, at the front,” Gerard shouted from behind him. Frank looked toward the main door of the pub to see two men coming in, both with the black-checked hats of police constables. He lunged forward and reached Ferdia and Jax, grabbing at them, catching Ferdia by the coat and Jax by one of the straps of his trousers.
“Come on, come on,” Frank shouted, pulling them away.
Jax shot one look toward the front and ducked toward a hallway at the back. Frank and Gerard followed. Ferdia got in one last swing and ran after them. They raced past the bathroom doors to where, mercifully, they found a back door. They banged noisily through it and out into the dark alleyway.
They ran, Ferdia with his long legs easily taking the lead and directing where they went, ducking down side ways and avoiding the main streets, Jax close on his heels, and Frank and Gerard bringing up the rear. They dodged around garbage bins and Frank thought he heard loud voices as the pub door opened again behind them. He ran harder.
Suddenly, their way opened out onto a little square, an intersection of several streets and far more open a space than Ferdia had intended to lead them to, with no chance to calculate their entrance as anything other than the flight of troublemakers about to be caught. There was another constable on the street only a block down.
“Christ!” Ferdia yelped, scrambling to about-face and taking off in a different direction. Jax shouted incoherently as he stopped and retreated, following Ferdia down another alley as the policeman jerked his head around and shouted something incomprehensible after them. Frank pulled Gerard after him and they kept running. Somewhere in the pounding of his feet and the fear of the police officers, fear which was really more giddiness in its simplicity, Frank felt something being jarred loose inside him. He was full of adrenaline, with no room for worry—same as he had felt at The Damned show when he met the punks. The panic that had enveloped him on the dance floor with Gerard drained away into the night. His arms and legs were warm, and he felt free, like he was flying.
Gerard had overtaken him and looked back over his shoulder. He made a barking sound that Frank understood soon enough was laughter. At him. Gerard was laughing—at him, at them. Frank was struck with the ridiculousness of the entire night, even as it all felt so warm and light, and he started laughing too—something he couldn’t keep up while running. He slowed to a walk, coughing and gasping, and still laughing.
There didn’t seem to be any immediate sounds of pursuit, and the rest of them slowed as well, glancing back down the alley, working their way away from the pub and from the main streets. Gerard and Frank, walking together, still inadvertently setting each other off laughing, caught up to Ferdia and Jax.
“What’s so funny?” Ferdia demanded, turning, and walking a few steps backwards to look at them. Then he said, “And where’s Ollie and Bernard, then?”
There was a moment of silence as they looked at each other, and then they all burst into laughter, stopping, collapsing against the brick alley wall in breathless, heaving guffaws.
“I’ll tell you where they are,” Jax howled. “Back at the pub, locked in the ladies stall with their feet up!” Ferdia whooped and punched Jax in the arm. Frank slid to the ground, sides stinging, gasping for breath. Gerard wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
After a while, when they were able to walk again, Ferdia led them in a wide circle, taking them back to streets they knew. As they walked, they joked, telling and retelling the juiciest bits of the evening. Ferdia’s knuckles were bleeding, just from the one or two swings he had gotten in before they were forced to abandon the bar. “I think I got one of ‘em in the teeth,” he said, pleased, showing off his hand to Jax and Frank under a streetlight. Jax had seen the bartender making the phone call—presumably the call that had led the constables to the bar’s door, not that he had said bothered to mention it to anyone else.
“But you—” Frank sputtered. “You just let us keep on—” He gestured incoherently.
“Aw, mate,” Jax said mock-sympathetically, patting his shoulder. “I knew we could run.”
“And—” Frank squeaked, over the others’ laughter. “How do you even run,” he asked, “with all those straps on your trousers?” There was a moment of silence, and they all turned expectantly to Jax, as though his answer would solve some important mystery.
He guffawed loudly, all on his own. “Well,” he proclaimed loudly to the alley, to the night. “I keep ‘em loose, don’t I?”
Back in their own neighborhood—Frank supposed it was his neighborhood now, too—they came out of the alleys and walked on the streets again.
“And you,” Ferdia said appreciatively, falling in beside Gerard, elbowing him in a rough, friendly way. “I’d say there’s hope for you yet.” Gerard smiled and his cheeks got pink.
Some way from home, before Jax had even turned off down his road, Gerard slung his arm around Frank’s neck. Frank walked with him comfortably, the adrenaline in his system high, fighting away any memories he had of other times, other friends with their arms comfortably around his neck—keeping at bay any inkling Frank might have about the trajectory he and Gerard had started on, any premonition he might have had that none of this would work.
At the top of the narrow stairs, Gerard put his hand up, motioning Frank to be quiet. Frank fought to suppress the giggles he was still struggling with, even after walking all the way home.
“Mikey might be asleep already,” Gerard said in a low voice and eased the door open. “Sometimes he has to work early.”
In the close dark of the room, Frank could see the shape of Mikey sprawled on the mattress on the floor—upside down, with his head toward the door, opposite of how Frank had slept on it last night. Although if a mattress had no bed clothes on it, Frank supposed, it didn’t really have a right way up. As his eyes adjusted, he realized Mikey had a pair of headphones on and he was laying at the bottom of the mattress so the headphones would reach to plug into the record player. His eyes were closed, and his glasses lay on the floor beside him. As they watched, the record player lifted and retracted its needle, clicked. Another record dropped and the needle arm reached over it. Mikey didn’t shift or open his eyes.
“Come on. We shouldn’t wake him,” Gerard whispered. “You can sleep in with me.”
Gerard pulled aside the sheet and led Frank into the other room. A double mattress was in the corner, heaped with blankets, and around it, the floor and walls were covered with white scratchings, squares and lines that overlapped and jumbled. Frank stopped in the doorway and squinted to make sense of it in the dark.
“Oh, sorry,” Gerard muttered. “There’s, like, a path to the bed, can you see it?” Frank looked closer and could indeed see a dark path that cut through the jumble of white lines.
“What is all this?” Frank asked, a little awed.
“Pictures,” Gerard said.
The lines resolved themselves more clearly into shapes as Frank’s eyes adjusted to the dark, and he could see them becoming the white, square edges of photographs—squares tacked to the walls, laid out in piles covering the floor, stacked and overlapping. Higher on the walls, there were larger prints. They glowed, hanging in the darkness.
“Wow,” Frank said, awed. “That’s a lot of pictures.”
“Yeah, well,” Gerard said, and nothing more.
“In the morning, you should show me some,” Frank said. He could hear his voice, weightless and bright from the running and the laughing, how overeager it sounded in the dark room.
Gerard didn’t answer.
They got into the bed, Frank next to the wall that divided the main room from this makeshift bedroom, and Gerard on the side in the center of the room. The room didn’t feel as suffocating as it had the night before, and Frank could breathe in the dark.
They talked easily, and the conversation turned, as it had the first night, to London, the feel of it, the ways it was different. They’d both been here for more than a year, and Frank found it strange to suddenly be putting into words the things he’d been feeling for so long. He hadn’t talked to anyone like this since—well, since a long time.
“With the art students, even with other photographers, I’m still mostly an American and only partly a photographer,” Gerard said wryly. “I thought I might have a chance with them.”
“Are you an art student?” Frank realized he didn’t exactly know.
Gerard snorted in the dark, and Frank could hear a smile in his voice when he answered. “No. Do I look like one?”
Frank chuckled. “I only know what politics students look like, and they tend to be ... a little stiffer, you know? What does an art student look like?”
“Well,” Gerard said slowly, “An art student looks like they have no money—so that’s like me.” He giggled. “And they look like they do drugs—lots of drugs, any kind of drugs they can get their hands on. They look like they haven’t been sober in years.”
“What?” Frank asked. “Why?” At his university, the drugs had been relatively low profile; most of the students Frank had known—along with the student he’d been trying to be—were, honestly, too intent on studying to spend more time on them than smoking an occasional joint on the weekend.
“They’re scared,” Gerard said after a moment. “Because no matter what, no matter who has the best exhibit, or the most radical piece of the semester, they all have to graduate one day—and what then? There’s no future in any of it. They all know that, even if they don’t dare talk about it. No one gets to make a living on talent. You know—not here, not there, it’s the same for all of us.”
“And it’s all pop art and conceptual,” he continued with a little huff of what might have been distaste. “Like Warhol, right? But not as good, even if you do like Warhol. And—do you know what?” He rolled over to face Frank. “They do all these images of America, and politics, like Kent State and Vietnam and shit.”
“My god, why?” Frank exclaimed.
Gerard scoffed. “I guess they’re being political. They think it’s fun.”
“Jesus Christ.” Frank threw his hands over his face. “It’s not fun when it belongs to you. Did you tell them that?”
Gerard laughed. “I tell them whatever I think they’d like to hear, because that’s how I get my paper and a darkroom. I still have friends at the school near where we used to live, and I can get into their darkroom at night or on the weekend, when no one’s around. I use the chemicals and the paper. As long as I can do that, I’m happy to see their work, and say nice things, no matter what it’s of.”
“You little thief! Shame on you!” Frank poked at Gerard, and Gerard slapped his hand away, laughing.
“No!” Gerard said. “It’s just ... desperate times, you know?” He yelped when Frank poked him again and they slapped at each other’s hands. Frank dissolved into high pitched giggles, and Gerard laughed a loud, open-mouthed laugh, lying limply on his back.
There was a thumping on the wall beside Frank, and they froze.
“Oh no, Mikey, god,” Gerard yelped, his voice going high and alarmed. He tried to stifle his laughter with his arm. Frank covered his face with a pillow and laughed into it until he saw sparks in the darkness in his peripheral vision.
“Okay,” Gerard called out after a moment, “Okay, we’re being quiet now,” which set Frank off again laughing.
After a while, they quieted, lay in silence. Gerard sighed. “I didn’t mean that,” he said. “What I said about their work. Some of it’s good, really good.”
He turned to Frank again. “Bernard and Ollie are probably okay, right?” he asked. “You don’t think they got arrested or anything, do you?”
Frank snickered. “Even if they did, they’ll be out in the morning. They keep you overnight, that’s all.”
“How do you know this?” Gerard whispered sharply.
Frank grinned in the dark. “Not me. Ferdia. He doesn’t always run when the police come. Only sometimes.”
Gerard was quiet, and Frank could feel Gerard’s eyes on him and hear him breathing softly.
“I didn’t think it would all go to hell like that,” Gerard said finally. “I thought we were just joking around.”
“We were. It was a joke,” Frank agreed. He yawned, and the room was quiet for a moment.
“But really,” Frank went on, “Nothing’s a joke here, at least not with the adults. That’s why ...” He felt sleepily for the words Gerard and Ferdia had used, “... your social experiments work so well. If all anyone can ever do is get mad, if that’s, like, the only thing they have—then you go ahead and make them mad.” Frank yawned again. The adrenaline had been seeping away from him since he lay down, and everything around him—the white lines against the walls, the outline of the doorway, Gerard’s profile—was growing soft and blending together.
“Well,” Gerard said. “I’m sorry. I feel like I started it, because I ...” He didn’t finish.
“No, no.” Frank tried to wake up to dissuade him. “You didn’t start it. They wouldn’t have left without a fight, you know that. That’s what we went there for.” He rolled over to face Gerard and nestled himself a little deeper into the blankets. He felt himself slipping under in the dark, moving unwillingly toward sleep. He tried again.
“What you did wasn’t bad. It was nice, there was nothing wrong with it.” He could only see the shadowy suggestion of Gerard’s face. Half asleep, it was easy to feel bolder, like his words wouldn’t have consequences, easier to let himself grasp again at the thrill of telling things to Gerard. “I thought it was brave,” he said. “You were being brave.”
Gerard didn’t say anything in response, and Frank fell silent, searching with his groggy mind for the right words to say what Gerard was. How to describe the way Gerard was hard and soft together, in all the right ways—soft in ways that seemed risky and brave, not weak, and bold in ways that seemed sincere, not just stupid. Not the way that—Frank could admit this—the punks sometimes were. Frank wanted to be brave sometimes. He tried again at explaining the thought that had taken root in his sleepy brain, tried to be honest about the thing they were both circling around.
“It’s why,” Frank began, quietly but a little desperately. “In the bar. It’s why they believed it. That you were a ...” He couldn’t find a word that didn’t alarm him, even in his sleepy state. He recalculated clumsily. “But I don’t think that. I think you were brave. But, you’re pretty enough to be, is the thing.” His voice trailed off, getting lost somewhere in the blankets around them. “And they saw it. That you were pretty. And you just are,” he said helplessly into the dark.
Gerard rolled over, away from Frank, and pulled a pillow over his face. Frank wondered if he should wake himself up, so he could feel more shocked at what he had just said, or so he could apologize. But Gerard didn’t seem angry. Frank had the impression he was laughing, or at least pleased.
“Gerard?” Frank tried to pat at him clumsily, but his eyes fell closed.
After a while, Frank heard Gerard roll back onto his back. His voice was closer. “Frank, that’s nice,” he whispered.
Later on, after Frank was certain they were both asleep, in a moment he would remember afterward as a dream, either his father or Gerard asked him, “Are you still going home?”
“No,” Frank said.
The Sex Pistols
In the tiny room, the mornings came early, with soft gray light and silence. Frank woke up alone and listened for sounds of Mikey or Gerard in the next room. Sometimes Mikey stumbled blearily out from behind the sheet, apologizing to Frank in a low voice because he had to go in to the bookshop early. But Frank was always awake before he came out, even on the early days. Frank stared at the pitched ceiling, listening for Gerard, waiting for light to creep in the high window. Most days, the sunlight wasn’t clear enough to shine through the window or cast shadows. Instead the light was gray, shapeless, monotonous, seeping through the window, but also, Frank imagined, also through the walls and the pores of the house, livening the space with a dull glow, but never enough to clarify anything. He kept waiting to hear the sounds of Gerard moving in the next room.
At night, there were other people. Frank was content to stay out and do anything anyone suggested. Pub nights with Ferdia and the boys where Gerard would come along, always sitting next to Frank. Nights at Jax’s flat, listening to records, talking and laughing over the loud music, because Jax didn’t have a mother in the next room, as Ferdia did, or a makeshift bed in the main room to accommodate a house guest of uncertain status, as Gerard did.
And the shows seemed to be getting bigger. They were still at the pubs and colleges, but then Subway Sect played the 100 Club—an actual music venue, if a small one—and there were proper tickets and a line at the door and everything. It got rowdy enough, and Jax and Ollie both came home with black eyes and bruised knuckles, but there were no police anywhere, as if they had placed their crusade against punk on hold and agreed, just for that night, to let it happen. Gerard refused to come out for shows, big or small. He said he’d rather stay home and work on his projects.
But back in Gerard’s room, no matter how long the evening had gone on, Frank and Gerard ended up sitting together on the floor on the mattress in the main room, playing records, smoking cigarettes with the high window cracked open. Gerard and Mikey’s record player held several records at once, dropping them one by one onto the turntable after the previous one finished. Gerard would carefully queue up three records, consulting with Frank on which side they wanted to hear, and line them up in a stack on the tall spindle. The overhead light—a switch by the door and a bare bulb at the highest point of the ceiling—was terrible, and so they mostly left it off, even as the evenings slipped into darkness. The darkness relieved Frank, helped disguise the claustrophobia of the room, let him pretend not to understand what a narrow slice of space these evenings took place in.
Those nights were the closest Frank came to feeling comfortable in the room, but they was still tinged with an unsettled air of waiting. Eventually, the last record would finish and the needle would tap once against the center. The arm would lift itself and settle into the rest at the side. Frank listened to the complicated whirrings with apprehension—would Gerard take this as his cue to disappear behind the bedsheet doorway and into the other room? Sometimes he did; usually they queued up another set of records.
In the music and cigarette smoke, Gerard’s shoulder would sometimes lean and touch Frank’s. Frank wouldn’t move away, and neither did Gerard, as though he didn’t notice it happening. During moments like these, holding himself still so as not to disrupt the careful equilibrium of himself and Gerard together, Frank would see flashes of himself turning to Gerard, leaning to put a hand or a knee on the mattress on the other side of Gerard’s legs, giving himself the leverage to lean forward to put his face near Gerard’s neck or into his hair. His mind gave him this image, and Frank shook it away each time, blinking hard, giving his head a little shake to clear it from his mind’s eye.
“Are you okay?” Gerard asked, sitting up a little and glancing toward him.
“Oh. Yeah.” Frank rubbed at his eyes to banish the images behind them. “Tired, I guess.”
“Mmm,” Gerard said, taking a long draw on his cigarette and blowing smoke toward the ceiling. Frank shook another cigarette out of the pack they were sharing and busied himself fiddling with the matchbook.
Frank saw the pills. Gerard didn’t make much of an effort to hide them. If he caught Frank looking at him after he swallowed one, he gave a quick, apologetic smile, and looked away. Frank, for his part, didn’t say anything either. He waited for the moment when Gerard would swallow a pill in front of Mikey, and Frank, watching them both, would see what Mikey knew. He wondered if Mikey would talk with him about it. He wondered if Gerard was like the art students—never sober.
The pills made him relaxed and calm. Frank could count the minutes between watching him swallow one and seeing the transition Gerard would make from anxious to warm, reluctant to talkative. Frank sometimes wondered if it had been the same on the night they met. But what he hoped more than anything else was that, whatever Gerard had or hadn’t taken that day, he would be relaxed enough to settle slowly against Frank when they sat together on the mattress at night, talking as the records played.
A topic Gerard frequently returned to was his art projects, his pictures—the pictures he had taken and had yet to take, pictures he had developed and had yet to develop, what he was going to do with them all. Selling them was always somewhere in that constellation as he worried over them. Frank came to understand the implicit arrangement: Mikey had the job now, earning the money that paid for the tiny room and their food, occasional rolls of film for Gerard, and precious little else. And Gerard was supposed to be taking the pictures that would find their way into a gallery, a show, into the hands of interested patrons who would pay. And that would be—something. It would let them stay.
From time to time, he would show Frank some of the pictures he had taken—new ones he’d brought back from the art school darkroom or older ones that had been uncovered by the shifting tides of paper debris on the floor of the bedroom. He fretted over his various projects—a series of concrete benches and arching trees along a walkway at the edge of the canal—was it too simple? An entire roll of film on a building crosscut with shadows at different times of day—was it too abstract? The haggard profiles of warehouses in an industrial area of town—was it too depressing?
But when he saw the first zines Frank left lying on the mattress or on the counter that was the kitchen area, Gerard had been captivated with their rawness and ease. One of his favorites had a hand-drawn rendering of the lines and boxes that Frank recognized as guitar chords. This is a chord was written under the first fret diagram. This is another, next to a second. This is a third. Now form a band.
“We could start a band,” Gerard said, not taking his eyes off the page, which he had folded the zine open to. “Mikey would play bass, don’t you think?” He chuckled. “And you would play guitar.”
“I can’t play guitar,” Frank said, even as imagined himself on a stage, in front of a crowd like so many crowds he had been part of, and felt his breath catch. “I had a friend once who played the guitar,” he said.
“We could make a zine,” Gerard suggested, turning a page, still not looking up. “Look at these pictures, how they combine. The photocopy blends it all together, turns it all into one image.”
The next evening, when Frank stumbled upstairs after a Vibrators show, Gerard was waiting up with a zine-style montage. He had mixed photos of two city busses of mismatched sizes that seemed to protrude and recede in opposite directions, framed by angular but unidentifiable building pieces from the series of warehouses. Order and decay was hand-lettered around it, one word on either side.
“Wow.” Frank blinked at it. As he looked closer, he saw the pictures were carefully torn into shapes that made them flow together easily. “Your pictures, how can you tear them?” he asked, shocked. He ran a finger along the torn edge of the thick white photo paper.
“But you like it, don’t you?” Gerard asked.
Following the changing course of Gerard’s projects was like watching eddies in the river as it dipped and rose, curling back onto itself. Staring at the montage, Frank was reminded of the trash he could see when they walked under bridges sometimes, paper cups and bits of newspaper and other unmentionable things that stuck together and then parted, taking new, unpredictable shapes, strange and unsettling.
“Of course I like it,” Frank said. The music from the evening was crawling through his veins. Baby, baby, baby, won’t you be my girl. He could still feel the bass line humming. The only sappy love song, and it was the one he got stuck in his head. Being punk was supposed to mean you didn’t have to bother with feelings. Love songs shouldn’t be allowed, he thought.
After Gerard had finally gone to bed, that night and every night, Frank would lie in the main room, staring at the ceiling. He breathed deeply, trying to relish what counted for space and privacy in the tiny room. He told himself he wasn’t lonely for being in the bedroom with Gerard, talking and laughing loud enough to make Mikey bang on the wall to shut them up. As he got closer to sleep, and the outlines of the room blurred around him, he imagined kissing Gerard, wondered if Gerard’s sadness would be something he could taste on his lips.
Gerard most reliably came out with them when they went to drink at the Thornhill Arms. They were there—Ferdia, Jax, Gerard, and Frank—when one night, late, Ollie came in and slapped something down on the table between them.
“What’s this, then?” Ferdia asked. Frank and Gerard glanced at each other.
“They just put them up,” Ollie said breathlessly.
The piece of paper was torn at the corners—a flyer from a utility pole or the side of a building. On it, in the mismatched ransom lettering of a rock zine, it said The Sex Pistols. A show, coming in several days. It would be the biggest show any of them had ever seen.
Ferdia and Frank caught each other’s eye and Frank felt the expectancy crackle between them.
“And you’ll come too, right?” Jax said loudly across the table to Gerard. Frank winced, caught between wishing against hope that Gerard would come out with them, and wishing that Jax had an ounce of sense not to embarrass Gerard like this. Frank felt Gerard fold imperceptibly closer to his side.
“Yes?” Frank heard him say uncertainly.
“What?” Ferdia asked sharply.
“What?” Frank echoed.
Walking the few streets home to the house, Frank laughed and jumped and slapped his hands against every Sex Pistols flyer he saw along their way. There were quite a few—Ollie was right, they must have just been through putting them up. Gerard still seemed a little subdued and uncertain since he had agreed to go.
“What’s got into you?” Ferdia asked Frank.
“Nothing,” Frank huffed. “The show. It’ll be amazing!”
“If you’re going to come, we have to cut your hair,” Frank told Gerard on the afternoon before the show.
“What?” Gerard looked stricken.
“Your hair,” Frank said. “It’s so long. If you go out tonight with your hair like that, they’ll think you’re one of the Beatles. They won’t let you in.” Frank started to giggle.
Gerard’s hair fell over his ears and collar, and across the side of his face, and he brushed it back with one hand. “Is it that big a deal?” he asked, frowning.
“No, no, it’s not,” Frank said, trying to soothe him. “But you should still cut it. It’ll be fun. I’ll help you. And I have to do my own, anyway. I’m gonna cut mine into a mohawk.” He fixed Gerard with a serious gaze. “I need you to help me.”
Gerard looked uncertain, but let Frank cajole him downstairs and into the tiny washroom, after stealing the best pair of scissors from Gerard’s art supplies. Frank felt a burst of illicit excitement as he locked them both inside the bathroom. He rummaged under the sink for what he thought he had seen there before—a hairdryer, probably left there by one of the girls in the hallway. He also found a dark colored bottle.
“Peroxide,” he said. He turned to face Gerard, and held the bottle out. “What if we dyed your hair?” He gave the bottle a little shake. There was plenty in it.
“I don’t know—” Gerard started, pulling back a little.
“Wait,” Frank said, “What if it was an art project?”
Gerard didn’t say anything, but met Frank’s eyes, and his frown went away. The smile he gave Frank was a tiny one, but Frank felt his breath stop at the way Gerard’s eyes held his. Gerard put out his hand for the bottle. Frank didn’t let go, didn’t remember how, and he felt Gerard’s fingers touching his.
“Okay,” Frank said after a moment, clearing his throat and looking down at the peroxide bottle, at their hands. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Gerard echoed, and Frank could hear the smile in his voice.
“Um,” Frank said. “You have to get your hair wet.” He gestured toward the tub pulling their hands apart.
Gerard leaned under the water in the tub and Frank rummaged for an old towel, one that no one would notice if it got peroxide spots on. Gerard wanted to stand in front of the mirror and watch as Frank cut his hair, but Frank made him sit on the edge of the tub instead.
“You can see it when it’s done,” he told Gerard, touching his hair hesitantly at first, and then with more confidence, watching it fall in chunks on the floor. As he moved around Gerard, Frank leaned to look at him front-on, checking the haircut, enjoying the excuse to lean close to him and study his face. He put his hand against Gerard’s chin and turned his head one way and then the other to see the sides. Gerard turned his head compliantly. As his hair got shorter, it made his eyes bigger and more serious, his browline more pronounced. Frank let his hand linger against Gerard’s jaw for a moment.
“Feel it, but you can’t look yet,” Frank told him. Gerard ran his hands through his short-all-over, still-damp hair. He smiled. Frank uncapped the bottle of peroxide.
“Just lean over, and I’ll put it on,” he said, gesturing Gerard to kneel at the edge of the bathtub again. Frank massaged the peroxide into Gerard’s hair as he leaned into the tub.
“Now we just have to leave it for a while.” Frank said, squeezing drops of peroxide out of Gerard’s hair and into the tub. He rinsed his hands in the sink and helped Gerard sit up and pin the towel around his neck before any dripped onto his shirt.
“It’s burning.” Gerard said, wrinkling up his face.
“Here, you need to help me,” Frank told him. “It’ll take your mind off it.” Frank helped him stand up and pressed the scissors into his hands.
Gerard watched as Frank combed his hair and separated out the longest pieces at the center, and then Gerard started cutting, slow and precise. Frank watched his face, calm in its concentration.
“This must be what it feels like to be your art project,” Frank said, feeling Gerard’s fingers in his hair. Gerard’s eyes flicked toward his with a brief smile, and then he went back to cutting carefully.
“Does it still hurt?” Frank asked.
“Yeah, but only if I think about it,” Gerard said absently, not taking his eyes off Frank’s hair. Frank relaxed into the pulling and smoothing of Gerard’s hands, the accidental touches on his ears and neck, and the silence except for the snipping of the scissors and the sound of their breathing—a perfect point of silence, counterpoint to the fray they’d be immersed in soon.
When Gerard was finished, he brushed the stray hairs from Frank’s ears and shoulders, and Frank collected himself, blinking away his reverie. He looked around the bathroom shelves. Gerard followed Frank’s gaze.
“I need something to put it up,” Frank explained. “I thought maybe the girls would have left something in here I could use, but what would really work is an egg.”
“An egg?” Gerard made a disgusted face.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “The egg whites. They’re like glue. Nothing’ll get it stiffer than that. Ask Mikey if he’ll go down and get one from Ferdia’s mother.”
Gerard looked skeptical. “She won’t think that’s odd?”
“Just have him ask. She won’t think anything of it. She’s related to Ferdia, for Christ’s sake. She’s used to this.”
Gerard unlocked the bathroom door and Frank heard him going up the stairs to the room.
A moment later, Mikey stuck his head in the cracked door of the bathroom, and watched Frank as he pulled the strands of his hair, testing its length. The longest strands in the center reached the middle of his nose.
“You’re crazy,” Mikey said to him in the mirror. “Both of you.”
Frank laughed. “I’m not crazy. This is going to be the best night ever. You’re jealous.”
“I don’t think so.” Mikey shook his head, chuckling. “I’m going out tonight too. With Alicia. Down the hall. I’d much rather be doing that.”
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely, but would you just get me the egg?”
“You did a good job with Gerard’s hair,” Mikey called, disappearing down the hallway.
Ferdia’s mother surrendered an egg to Mikey’s earnest pleas and Gerard sat on the edge of the tub and watched as Frank smoothed the whites into his hair and dried it into a stiff mohawk spike with the hair dryer. When Frank pronounced Gerard’s hair done, Gerard rinsed the peroxide out, and Frank stood behind him, watching over his shoulder, as he looked into the mirror.
Gerard stood, eyes fixed on his reflection, quiet and a little awed.
“Do you like it?” Frank asked finally.
Gerard nodded, smiling.
Then Frank watched as the smile faded from his face. He felt like he was watching the person he had seen clearly in the mirror turn and flee. Distracted, face fallen, Gerard moved away, feeling in his pockets, pulling out the familiar tiny white pills.
Frank caught him by the wrist. “Do you have to?”
Gerard pulled his hand away. “I want tonight to be fun, Frankie. I want to feel good.” His voice was loud in the bathroom. He turned half away from Frank and swallowed the pill—pills, maybe. Frank couldn’t make out exactly what he did. They stood in uncomfortable silence.
“Why do you do it?” Frank asked.
Gerard sighed and stood still a moment before answering.
“I get—” He exhaled deeply. “I get anxious, I guess. With all the people, and the noise.” He glanced at Frank and then quickly away. “I want to be able to have fun. With you. And everyone.”
“Look, we will have fun,” Frank told him. “It’ll be incredible. You’ll see.”
The show was at a huge warehouse in a neighborhood of darkened windows and shoulder-to-shoulder buildings whose walls stretched forever. The streets were so empty of the usual city life that it raised the hair on the back of Frank’s neck.
The only people in the streets were other punks—but so many of them, especially as they got nearer to the show. Frank hadn’t imagined there could be so many in all of London. Groups of stragglers joined into streams that trailed down the block, shouting, laughing, cursing, as they walked in the streets. In a group of kids that appeared from a side street and joined them, Frank saw two women walking together. One was wearing fishnet stockings and a skirt so short that Frank could see the tops of her stockings, and garters that stretched over the round curve of her ass. The second girl had on a . . . dress, it was like a dress, but it was open knitwork, more holes than fabric. She turned to her friend and Frank saw, perfectly, the outline of her bare breast and the downward swoop of her belly. He blinked and looked away quickly, aroused and surprised and ashamed all at the same time.
Ferdia knew the way, of course, and soon he was near the head of a growing regiment of spike-haired, jagged-edged, foul-mouthed minions—a tide of rats, or of children, it was impossible to tell which. Frank realized he had always thought that all the punks in London must belong to Ferdia somehow, and seeing him at the crest of this multicolored tide seemed to confirm it. Even so, the flood of them was larger than Frank could have ever imagined. And they kept coming.
“This is perfect,” Jax said, surveying the blank-eyed buildings and dirty streets, empty of everything but the tide of punks. “Anywhere else and it would have been crawling with police.”
Walking beside Frank, Gerard was all huge eyes, looking up the streets they passed, staring at each group joined the river. He kept close to Frank’s side, uncomfortably close, and it gave Frank a weird double vision. He saw the ecstatic, multicolored river through his own eyes, but it was overlaid with how he imagined Gerard must be seeing it. Every little thing seemed to startle him, and, preoccupied with staring, he kept stumbling against Frank.
Among the bodies in front of them, someone’s jacket came into view with a large swastika done on the back in sloppy white paint. Frank felt Gerard recoil as his eyes landed on this, felt him pull them back. Frank shrugged his arm away from him. With a stab of annoyance, Frank thought, We’d both be happier if he’d taken more pills.
Early on, Frank had asked Ferdia about the swastikas, why did some punks wear them, what were they supposed to mean? “Nothing really, mate,” Ferdia sighed with perfect boredom. “Why?” He raised his eyebrows at Frank. “Does it make you angry?” And in the space where Frank didn’t answer because he was too dumbfounded, Ferdia said smugly, “Well then, it’s working, isn’t it? Be careful you don’t turn into my mum with your sensibilities.”
At the warehouse, they made their way between the men taking tickets at the door and into the vast empty room that would hold the show. There was a stage at the far end and high windows around the top—no other way to see out. The crowd got deeper and deeper, pooling around the stage, stretching to the back. The sound of voices grew as the hall filled, echoing in waves in the concrete space. It was bigger than all of the pub shows, even the very best ones, bigger than anything Frank had ever seen.
Punks milled and stood in groups on the concrete floor in the dim room, talking idly together and to the other groups around them. They had to speak more and more loudly as the room filled, and soon they were shouting to each other. Frank listened to the roar and waited, trying to marshal the anticipation he’d felt earlier.
The opening band was called the Clash. Frank hadn’t heard them before, and too many of their songs were confusingly melodic. Frank swayed idly with the crowds around him, but the excitement he felt had been slowly souring since Gerard and the pills. Why did Gerard need them, tonight of all nights? Why couldn’t he just feel good because they were going to see the Sex Pistols? Why couldn’t he feel good because he and Frank were together?
One chorus had words he could make out—“London’s burning,” even though the words that followed seemed to be mostly nonsense. Frank shouted along to a few syllables half-heartedly. The crowd sloshed and rolled, people waving arms and fists. Christ, Frank thought, here he was getting everything he wanted—the biggest, best show, and Gerard finally agreeing to come out with them, and somehow he was managing to turn it into a disaster anyway.
Beside him, Gerard seemed to settle down—Pills must be kicking in, Frank thought bitterly. The burden of Gerard’s anxiety had made him angry, and the feeling lingered. But then, he thought, even if it wasn’t Gerard, it would be something else. There was always something else. Something ruining the evening, stealing from him what should have been uncomplicated and free, something that was easy for every other person in the room—the women with their unself-consciously bare breasts, the men with their white hot, uncomplicated rage; even the swastikas, Christ, what did you have to do that wearing a swastika wasn’t complicated?
It was easy for all of them, and not for him. Even if this concert did live up to his hopes for it, even if it was the best show he had ever seen, ever would see—in the end, it would be over. The show would stop, and he’d have to go back—back to Gerard’s confusing, suffocating room, back to the feelings that stayed no matter how hard he pushed them away, feelings he couldn’t do anything with. And ultimately, at the very end, back to America, to a future he didn’t want, that led nowhere.
The Clash ended a song, and then the lights went out with a pop, suddenly and completely, as if a fuse somewhere had blown. In response, the crowd screamed and Frank could feel bodies around him starting to shove. The stage lights flashed on again soon, bathing the crowd in their stark glare, and the Sex Pistols sauntered on to the stage. Frank felt Gerard shrink a little closer against him, and the moment reeked of anxiety. Frank squirmed.
The howling of the crowd rose to a new peak. Johnny Rotten sneered and spat at the crowd, and the band launched into their first song. Rotten, skinny, almost frail-looking, crouched and leaned out over the crowd as he shouted.
In a break between songs, a swell of the crowd near the edge of the stage reached up toward Sid Vicious, the bassist, seeming to claw at him. Sid kicked out with his heavy boot. It was impossible to see exactly what happened, but from the way the recoil snapped back through the crowd, Frank had no doubt the kick had landed on something—someone—solidly. He wiped his face.
Paul Cook laid down a drum beat that waited patiently while the crowd roiled, pulling together the random riffs as Sid and Steve adjusted their instruments, easing under Johnny Rotten as he laid into the crowd again.
“Right bunch of faggots,” he drawled, surveying them disdainfully. The beat crawled under his words. “Here we go now. A sociology lecture, with a bit of psychology, a bit of neurology, a bit of fuckology—”
Rotten whooped and the guitars crashed into chords that ... Frank knew. Not from the million times they had played Never Mind the Bollocks at Jax’s flat in the past month. It wasn’t a song off the album. Frank listened with growing horror, coming to a standstill as the people around him jumped and pushed. It was a cover. A song off a Stooges album, played on a shitty record player, in the heat and the humid air of a New Jersey summer. No Fun. The first song on the second side, the record Frank had felt so lucky to find at the New York record store that day. As he understood what he was hearing, Frank felt a painful scissoring in his chest.
He cast about wildly, looking for Ferdia in the crowd. He grabbed at him, trying to pull away from Gerard, to put Ferdia in between them—anything to separate himself from Gerard, to not be standing near him while this song, these memories, played.
No fun, my babe, no fun. Johnny Rotten shouted it in his lilting, tuneless snarl.
Frank turned away from the stage and the dazzling lights, searching the shadows at the back of the room, wondering if he could make it to the door before anyone thought to come after him. He started to back away from all of them, but the sound roiled in the air around him, enveloping them all. The crowd refused to yield.
The guitar squealed and disappeared in a gale of microphone feedback. The stage lights flicked as if they were about to go. The crowd gasped and Frank pushed himself through them, striking out toward the wall, hoping to get to the edge of the room, hoping the crowd would be thinner there.
In his flight, he ran solidly into the back of another man, who jerked around sharply. The man sized up Frank with a flick of his eyes and gave a little smirk as he turned to face him and set his feet. Frank’s rage blossomed. Simultaneously, he was flooded with relief. Here was what he needed. Shortly, his nose would be bleeding, or his eye would be swollen shut. He might be lying on the concrete floor, seeing the stage lights through a forest of people’s feet. His rage would eclipse him—erasing his thoughts, his feelings, this day—and then, after it was over, things would be different. He couldn’t move himself, or Gerard, but here, now, in the man in front of him, was something he could very easily provoke to action.
Something moved in the man’s hands and Frank saw he was holding a bicycle chain. Frank grinned, showing his teeth. He’d seen someone get clipped—just barely grazed—by a chain in a fight, and it had been ugly. If the chain hit him—and it would soon, Frank could feel it—there would be a lot of blood.
Then, somehow, Jax and Ferdia were there. Jax stepped easily, nonchalantly, between Frank and the man. Ferdia stuck close to Frank, boxing him in. Frank tried to get round them, lunging for the man, not wanting to lose out on the fight. But wherever he reached, he kept running into Jax’s back or Ferdia’s raised elbows. Jax faced the man with the bicycle chain, but Ferdia faced Frank and shouted.
The only part Frank could make out over the violent racket of the Sex Pistols was when Ferdia’s voice peaked at “the FUCK.” He looked outraged, sincere for once in his life. Frank laughed at him, mouth open, feeling anger bleed from his body. Ferdia swung his arm out—but not to punch him, as Frank thought at first. Instead, he grabbed Frank roughly, locking an elbow around Frank’s neck, pinning Frank against his side, and started back to where the rest of them were standing, dragging Frank along. Frank stumbled along with him, hearing the intermittent snatches of words Ferdia was still muttering—only he must have been shouting for Frank to hear it at all—“Bloody moron, fucking Christ sakes.”
Frank caught a glimpse of Gerard, the white smudge of his bleached hair shining in reflected light from the stage. Ferdia held him tightly, and Frank stayed curled over awkwardly, trapped in the crowd, close to Gerard, feeling his nearness like an uncomfortable searchlight that found and exposed Frank no matter how he tried to run.
Impossibly, it seemed very quiet in the crook of Ferdia’s elbow as Frank stared at the dark ground and the outlines of people’s feet and the legs of their trousers. He only caught glimpses of the band on the stage when Ferdia moved. Frank concentrated on breathing. He could—again, impossibly—hear the breaths he took in and out.
I’m missing the show, Frank thought. I’m missing the best show this year, the best show ever, because I’m being an asshole.
What had been rage a moment before peeled back into hopelessness, a yawning void. Frank sagged in Ferdia’s grip, his neck hurting because of the awkward, bent angle he was standing at. He couldn’t see anything. It didn’t matter. For three songs, Ferdia didn’t let him go. When he finally let Frank stand, he gave him a good shake and then shoved him hard toward Gerard. Ferdia shouted something to Gerard—something about fucking trouble, probably “keep him out of fucking trouble”— that Frank, blinking and rubbing his neck, didn’t quite understand.
One of the stage lights went dark in a shower of sparks. After aiming a few curses and a rude gesture toward the banks of stage lights, Johnny Rotten counted off for a new song, and the band launched into the growling wall of sound that, Frank recognized shortly, was the introduction to Bodies. The crowd started to shout along to the short, clipped lines, and Frank felt like he was hearing the rhythmic shouting from footage of a Nazi rally. He looked around himself uncomfortably. He was coming down from the sharp, desperate rush of the almost-fight, starting to feel relief that the boys had stepped in when they had.
In the emptiness left by the adrenaline, Frank stood in the crowd. He felt lost, a million miles from anything, and the people around him looked strange and unfamiliar. And then, slowly, he felt the music come back into him. It was only four stupid chords, like they all said—everyone who thought it was trash, what they said was true, Frank knew it, everyone here knew it. No one thought the bands could play, or that anyone here was something special. It wasn’t beautiful; it was ugly. It wasn’t made for artists or for Andres Segovia. It was for people like Frank, like the broken, ugly people around him, people who weren’t special and didn’t have anything. It was noise and racket and anger and fear, that’s all it was—but Frank put his arms up. He shouted, and let the music flow into him and fill him up. The sound pulled him around and electrified him.
He found Gerard beside him, and Gerard was shouting too. Gerard caught his eye and Frank saw him, his face stark in the light and shadow of the stage lights. Gerard was as afraid as anyone here, and yet he had come tonight, despite his fear. He was with Frank, there to catch him as Ferdia shoved him off, a life raft in the ocean of Frank’s rage, rescuing him from drowning.
Frank let his arms spread, let the crowd rush against him like an ocean wave. Then Gerard was grabbing him around the shoulders, starting to jump and thrash, pulling Frank with him into the heaviest parts of the fray. Frank let himself be pulled, and let the bodies crash around him. An errant arm caught him across the face, knocking his head soundly and dragging his lips across his teeth. He tasted blood in his mouth and on his lips, rich and salty. They were here, together, and the music ground over everything.
On the way home, they shouted and slurred and whooped in the street, crazy with the energy of the show. They walked with another group of punks that Ferdia had somehow picked up at the show, stretching in a loose group across the street and up and down the pavement. They were all sweaty and filthy, chilled in the night air. Jax cuffed Frank lightly and asked about one of the songs, had he seen how Sid Vicious had thrown a bottle into the crowd, the glass spraying in fragments—and Frank saw that Jax had forgiven him for the scene at the show, that it was already forgotten.
Climbing the narrow stairs to the room, Frank braced himself for parting ways with Gerard at the bedsheet doorway, for being alone in the bereft silence of the front room—silence that, tonight, after the Sex Pistols’ massive roar, would be especially anticlimactic. Frank felt disappointment stealing back in. It would be the final, fitting letdown that the evening had been demanding since it began.
At the top of the stairs, Gerard stumbled against the closed door and Frank ran into him. Gerard flung the door open into the streetlight-rimmed darkness of the room. The room was empty.
“Mikey?” he called.
Frank stood in the doorway, not wanting to move, not willing to push the night toward the finality of Gerard disappearing behind the sheet. Gerard listened to the silence and called Mikey’s name again. He took a step farther into the room and turned back to Frank, his face dark and serious. Frank stared at him hopelessly. He was unable to mask the disappointment he knew must be showing full in his face, unable even to hide it from Gerard by looking away.
Gerard grabbed his shirt and pulled him forward, over the threshold, toward the bedsheet doorway. “You’re not sleeping out here tonight,” he said. He pulled Frank through the makeshift doorway and the sheet fluttered down behind them.
In the bedroom, Gerard dropped his hand, letting go of Frank’s shirt. Frank stood still, not knowing what to do or expect, uncertain even where to step in the room without crushing photographs beneath his boots.
His mind flitted back to the first night they had spent together in the room. Did Gerard think they were going to talk and laugh tonight? Frank didn’t think he could—not now, not after everything. His feelings for Gerard were too close to the surface, making everything impossible, even the chance of a simple end to the evening where they giggled and talked too loudly in the dark. The evening couldn’t end simply anymore. It was too late for that. Everything had become slashed across with these dark feelings and Frank’s confusion.
He took a small step forward, and Gerard did the same, and for a moment, standing in the center of the room, they leaned sadly together. It felt almost sympathetic, a shared frustration at being stuck. Their bodies were close, like at the show, but everything was quiet now, and Frank’s ears rang with the ghosts of sound. Feeling Gerard so near, he had the thought to shake him away, to hit him, to strike out against how trapped he felt.
Frank pulled back, the anger of a fistfight coalescing around him again. Gerard grabbed at Frank’s head, tangling his fingers in the stiff mess of Frank’s hair. He pulled Frank’s head back and kissed him roughly. Surprised, Frank kissed back. The cuts inside his cheek stung, and he could taste blood again.
Gerard’s hand was at his crotch and Frank leaned into him, rubbing clumsily against his hand. This—Frank wanted to laugh bitterly, seeing himself finally like this. It came out like a whimper against Gerard’s mouth. How could this be happening now, to him, after he had run so far from home? He grabbed Gerard’s hand and pulled it tighter against him, between his legs.
It happened quickly. Frank struggled against Gerard’s grip, and Gerard held him tighter. They stumbled against the wall, and Gerard held him there for a moment, pressed against him and still kissing him. Breathing hard, Frank with the taste of blood still in his mouth, they came apart for a moment and struggled out of their clothes. Then Gerard reached for Frank again, his hands electric against Frank’s skin, and wrestled him down to the mattress, their limbs tangling. Gerard held him, turned him, and Frank let himself be turned, kneeling on his hands and knees, bracing himself against the mattress, the darkness around him smelling of cigarettes and sweat.
It hurt, what Gerard did, and Frank leaned into it, hearing the frantic, pained sounds that both he and Gerard were making.
In the dark, feeling Gerard bent against him, Frank let himself fall. Gerard’s arms were heavy around his chest—the weighted, drowning pull of the half-formed desires that had followed him out of Jersey, down the back hallways of New York clubs and diners, all the way across the ocean.
It was everything he had wanted from as far back as he could remember. In the darkness of the miserable, hopeless room, Frank felt something inside him breaking, surrendering, and, finally, he was satisfied.
Frank woke up alone. The makeshift bedroom was darker than the main room, and he had slept later. Gerard wasn’t there. Frank listened in the main room, and heard someone moving, heard the electric kettle click. The bed next to him was cold. He couldn’t remember when or how they’d fallen asleep.
Gerard’s absence didn’t even register as a disappointment. Frank was relieved he didn’t have to look him in the face just yet. He sat up unsteadily and leaned against the wall, breathing slow breaths until he was mostly able to stop shaking. When he could to stand, he pulled himself into into last night’s clothes and stumbled through the door. The sounds were Mikey busying himself with the kettle.
“Hey,” Frank called, his voice scratchy from sleep and all the shouting the night before. “When did you get home, anyway?” A shade of worry passed through him, imagining what Mikey could have heard.
“I don’t know exactly,” Mikey said without turning around. “You guys must have been asleep.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Probably.” He hesitated for a moment. “Do you know where he is?”
“At the darkroom,” Mikey said. “Sometimes he goes there in the morning, if he wants to think. You want coffee?”
“Yeah,” Frank said, and sat down on the mattress edge.
Mikey sat down beside him while the water heated.
“My brother likes you,” Mikey said. “Before he met you, he was talking about going home, like he was ready to give up on ... everything, I guess. But he stopped talking like that once he met you.”
Frank scrubbed his hands roughly over his face. He wanted to be drinking the coffee Mikey had promised. He wanted to be doing anything else in the world besides sitting here, realizing that the situation he was in with Gerard was no longer a fantasy or a suspicion. It had taken on enough substance that Mikey could see it, was commenting on it, was trying to explain it to Frank. It seemed to take up the whole filthy room, and Frank felt suffocated.
“What are the pills?” Frank asked finally.
Mikey was quiet for a moment, looking at his hands. “Mandrax, I think. Or, you know, quaaludes,” he said, giving the American name. “I wish he wouldn’t, but . . .” Mikey shrugged. “I don’t think he does anything more than that.”
Mandies. Frank considered. They were around sometimes among Ferdia’s friends. They seemed harmless. And now he knew that Mikey knew, and Mikey only cared a little. Frank could be like that—knowing, and only caring a little.
Mikey filled the coffee mugs and brought one to Frank, sitting back down near him on the mattress. Frank sneaked a glance at him, trying to read more in his face. He didn’t seem as young as Frank had thought at first. He knew about the pills and had made an uneasy peace with them. He saw that Frank and Gerard liked each other—did he understand what that meant?
Mikey looked at him. “Don’t be scared of him, please,” he said with an apologetic smile. “He’s not that bad.”
For the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon, Frank paced like cat. Downstairs to smoke cigarettes in the garden, upstairs and back into the caged feeling of the room, making more coffee on the kitchen corner and forgetting to drink it, refusing any of the toast Mikey made as he gathered his things for work. Frank stopped going down all the stairs to the garden and smoked his last two cigarettes leaning out the bathroom window.
Mikey left for work and Frank sat alone in the room, listening to his footsteps recede down the narrow staircase. The footsteps stopped, and Frank heard low voices. A fresh wave of anxiety moved through him, and he was on his feet, hovering near the door. The voices stopped and a different, slower set of footsteps came up the stairs.
“Frank,” Gerard said, wincing visibly, unpleasantly, at finding Frank so close inside the door. His face was pale and exhausted. “You’re here.”
Frank gave a weak laugh. “You idiot,” he said. It came out breathless and shaky. “Of course I’m here. Where else would I be?”
Gerard stood in the doorway and pressed his hand hard against his forehead.
“Don’t,” Frank said. “Don’t. Just come inside.”
Gerard stood still. Frank pulled him inside and shut the door behind them. Gerard stopped where Frank had pulled him and stood numbly. His face was desolate and still. Frank watched him, but he wouldn’t raise his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Gerard said numbly, to the floor. “I’m sorry that I—that—that we—”
Frank put his hand around the back of Gerard’s neck and Gerard stopped talking. After a moment, Frank felt Gerard’s body soften slightly toward his. He touched Gerard’s forehead to his own, cradling their heads together for a moment. Then he kissed him and kissed him like there was nothing else.
The room and its inhabitants settled into a new configuration—easily, quietly, with no comment from anyone involved. Frank and Gerard slept together in the back room, sometimes talking in low voices late into the night, sometimes kissing, sometimes doing other things—as quietly as possible if Mikey was asleep in the front room, with more abandon whenever he was out.
The part Frank liked best was them lying together in bed, at night or late into the morning, talking—about anything, Gerard’s latest picture set or the show last night, the weather as London warmed into summer—and Gerard’s hands roaming everywhere on Frank’s body. His hands were aimless, inquisitive, soft, and Gerard laughed when they made Frank lose his train of thought or when Frank had to interrupt himself to draw in a shaky breath. When Gerard laughed, Frank grabbed the offending hand and put it to his mouth, sucking on Gerard’s fingers, biting them.
Frank settled into an ease he had never imagined. It was more than sex, more than the things he—sometimes hesitantly, sometimes voraciously—discovered were possible between his body and Gerard’s. More even than the simplicity of becoming comfortable with Gerard’s nakedness and his own. It was the feeling of waking up languidly with Gerard sleeping beside him, how Gerard would pull Frank to him, even in half-sleep, keeping their bodies wrapped together in the dark sanctuary of the room, and Frank didn’t have to look, didn’t have to appear, only had to be—still, eyes closed, the moment silent except for the heavy sound of Gerard’s breathing, absent of every feeling except the warmth of their bodies together.
But even when they weren’t in bed, shielded by the covers and the bedsheet doorway, even when they were fully clothed, in the main room, when Mikey was there, Frank sometimes still let his hand wander to Gerard’s hip or the small of his back. It was the way Mikey didn’t stare and, at the same time, didn’t pretend not to see when Gerard nuzzled Frank’s neck when he was making coffee and Frank turned, reached for him easily, and kissed him.
“Guys,” Mikey would say from across the room, where he was reading or putting on a record. “Guys, please.”
They would pull apart, giggling.
“Sorry,” Gerard would tell him, and then turn to kiss Frank again.
Gerard invited Frank to the darkroom, and Frank went there a lot at first. The soft, complete darkness and the strange red light fascinated him at first, but it quickly turned in to Frank waiting and smoking outside, away from the chemical smells that made him cough, but which Gerard somehow didn’t seem to mind. Gerard stayed in the room, exposing endless test strips of the same print, carefully burning in the heavy shadows he liked in his landscapes. He had a patience Frank could hardly comprehend to make the right picture appear out of the delicate mix of time, focus, and chemicals.
Frank found the camera in a pile of things near the door, tucked among Gerard’s jacket and his bag, the things he took with him when he went out. It was black and silver, with neat, sharp edges, covered everywhere with dials and gauges. It was the first time he’d touched it.
“This is your camera?” Frank asked, picking it up gently.
“Yeah,” Gerard said. “I got it from my grandmother. She’s dead,” he added, his face suddenly closed and far away.
“Oh,” Frank said, because he didn’t know what to say and was still fascinated by the camera’s dark, compact weight in his hands.
“Here,” Gerard put his hand out, and Frank gave him the camera.
Gerard set the case aside and twisted off the camera’s lens cap. He felt in his bag and pulled out another lens, shorter, and replaced it, letting it click into place. He looked experimentally through the eye piece, focusing inside the room, adjusting for its light, turning the knobs on the top and the rings on the lens.
“Here.” He handed it back to Frank. “Now all you have to do is focus it. When you look through, just turn it right here until it gets clear.” He pointed to a ring on the camera’s lens.
Frank took the camera and pointed it at Gerard, looking at him in the boxed view. He turned the ring cautiously, seeing the view sharpen. Then he snapped the shutter and dissolved into giggles.
“See?” Gerard said wryly. “Not that hard, is it?” He took the camera back and advanced the film.
“Mikey,” Frank called to him. “I’m taking a picture of you.” He focused on Mikey from across the room, who looked up obligingly from his book.
Frank snapped several more haphazard exposures of Mikey before ordering Gerard across the room next to him, so he could get them together in one shot.
“Here, I can do you two.” Mikey gestured for the camera. Frank handed it over and flopped against Gerard, who pulled an extravagant face. They made faces and struck poses all afternoon, with Gerard taking some pictures in the end—to finish the roll, he said, so he could load the camera with something different for tomorrow.
When Gerard brought home the developed pictures, Frank spread them out on the mattress in the main room and lifted one after another to examine it closely. Some were fuzzy and out-of-focus, but others, a surprising number, were clear and sharp. Gerard and Mikey with their faces close together. The half of the high window and the angled edge of the ceiling—a mistake, probably Frank’s. More of Frank and Gerard that Mikey had taken. Their faces close together, Frank mid-laugh with sleepy, half-closed eyes, and Gerard making a crazy face, his mouth a dark gash and his eyes rolling. Gerard frowning while Frank gestured widely.
He stopped at one. In the foreground, Gerard was laughing, his face bright and clear. Behind him, over Gerard’s shoulder, Frank was looking at Gerard, smiling a wide, open-mouthed smile. His eyes, his whole face, were soft and fond.
“Look at you,” he said to the photo. All the light in the dark, close room had somehow gathered in Gerard’s face, and Frank was amazed at the naked affection the picture showed in his own face. He hardly recognized himself.
Then he got to Gerard’s shots, the second half of the roll.
There was Mikey, thoughtful and serious, his gaze focused beyond the camera’s view, his face a cross between the childish fullness of his mouth and the angles starting to harden his chin and jawline. Mikey’s hands on a coffee cup that somehow showed equal parts escape and bracing for the day and its troubles. Frank and Mikey talking, then laughing. Frank sitting by himself, leaning against the wall, his eyes raised shyly to meet the camera’s gaze.
Every one of them was frozen perfectly mid-moment. The way the light and shadows played around a person’s face and figure gave them movement, made a small shades of expression revelatory and immediate—it was the thing, Frank saw, that Gerard was trying so hard to wring from his landscapes and abstracts.
There was another picture, this one of Frank by himself. He didn’t remember Gerard taking it, and in the picture, his head was turned, eyes to the side in a surprisingly inward gaze. The boy in the picture was fragile, uncertain. Frank was filled with sympathy for him—the things he needed, the things he didn’t know. The gaze that framed the picture—Gerard’s gaze—had turned this person into something worth looking at, had somehow made him an object worthy of love.
Frank stared at it. Gerard glanced at him.
“You took this one.” Frank held it out. It wasn’t a question.
Gerard took the photo from him and studied it. He didn’t say anything.
Frank felt his cheeks flushing, and embarrassment made him talkative. “These are really good, seriously. You could sell your pictures in a gallery—I mean, not these ones obviously, they’re just us,” he chattered, “But they’re really good. The way you do this, with people, this is really good.”
Mikey and Gerard had fallen silent. Gerard looked at his hands, and Mikey was watching Gerard.
“I told you, I don’t really do people,” Gerard said finally.
Frank frowned. “You did Mikey,” he said. He tossed one of the photos of Mikey toward Gerard on the mattress. “You did me.”
“How is it different?”
Gerard took the photo of Mikey and slid it carefully under a pile of photos near him. “I took pictures of someone once, a girl I knew. They were really good, actually, and I knew it.”
“And so I sold them. After she told me she didn’t want me to, after she told me not to show them to anyone. I did it anyway.” Gerard held Frank’s eyes, staring at him with a hint of belligerence. “Happy? Is that what you wanted to know?”
Frank didn’t say anything. He looked down at the photos, but Gerard kept talking.
“I knew someone—someone my grandmother had known who had a little gallery in the city. So I took them there. And she bought them from me.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve always thought it’s a fine line with nudes.”
Nudes. Frank blinked, the word exploding behind his eyes. Nudes, and She told me not to show them to anyone.
“Even with fine art nudes, there’s a sort of ... nastiness that comes with figuring out where to sell them. I mean, you certainly don’t have to ask people twice to look at them. The gallery owner seemed to think she could sell them no problem. I don’t even know what kind of people came to her gallery. I only went back once, to see the pictures when they were up. I wanted ... to feel like I had a show, I guess. They were all up there, matted and framed, and my name was on the little cards. I’d never seen one of my pictures in a frame like that before.” He shook his head.
“The biggest print—she gave me $200 for it, and I thought I was getting a good deal. In the gallery, it was tagged $675. I just ... I didn’t know the money worked like that. I didn’t know. I saw that, and I didn’t even talk to the owner. I just left.”
“Jesus,” Frank breathed.
“Who knows?” Gerard said with an ugly lightness. “Maybe she never sold them. Maybe no one wanted them. But that was where the money came from—for us to come here. Two plane tickets and a little extra.” He started pulling the piles of photos together and didn’t say anything else.
Later, Mikey and Frank were standing together in the garden, smoking, flicking cigarette ashes on into the hedge.
Mikey had been quiet since Gerard talked about the photos, but now, he said, “That girl—the girl Gerard took the pictures of? Her name was Eliza. They were going to get married. He bought her a ring. When we came over here, part of the money was from the photographs. The rest was from selling the ring back.”
“Oh my god,” Frank said. “I didn’t know.”
Mikey shrugged. “There’s no reason you would. He doesn’t talk about it. Ever, really.”
Frank stayed in the garden for another cigarette.
When he went back upstairs, the photos were gone and Gerard had gone to bed in the back room. Frank undressed and crawled quietly into bed beside him.
In the night, Frank felt Gerard’s hands against him, questioningly. In answer, he took them, pressed them against his face, kissed Gerard’s palms. He felt the mattress move as Gerard leaned and then straddled him, settling his weight carefully across Frank’s hips.
“Mmmm,” Frank said, reluctant to wake any further.
Gerard moved over him, bending first to kiss his neck, pressing their stomachs and chests together. Frank felt Gerard’s erection warm and hard against his stomach, felt his own body responding. He wrapped his arms around Gerard, feeling that in the sleep-heaviness of his grasp their bodies might melt together. He pulled his hands down Gerard’s back and pressed his fingers into his thighs, squeezing hard. He heard Gerard exhale softly.
Frank let Gerard sit up and then raised himself on his elbows.
Gerard put his hand against Frank’s chest. He didn’t move from sitting over him, pinning him at the waist. “Shhh, Frankie, just—stay there,” he whispered. “I want to do it this way. I want—” His voice broke and he paused. “I want you inside me.”
Frank felt an electric rush, a tinge of anxiety. They didn’t usually do it like that. He lay back down slowly and looked up at Gerard.
Gerard looked at Frank for a moment, then bent his head as he began to carefully reposition himself over Frank. Frank felt the touch and slide of body parts together and squirmed slightly against the mattress in an effort to keep still as Gerard moved—feeling Gerard’s hands, Gerard’s thighs spread against his waist, the slide of his cock against the open cleft of Gerard’s ass.
Gerard lowered himself onto Frank—slowly, slowly, a centimeter at a time. He made tiny movements to ease their bodies together, holding himself still for long moments, breathing deep, slow breaths. He closed his eyes, and Frank watched. They rarely did things slowly, and Frank was usually too absorbed in the greediness that came from believing it would all end too soon. He had never seen it all happen on Gerard’s face.
But this time, he watched as minutes crawled past—saw Gerard coax himself through the ordeal of becoming so vulnerable another person, saw the effort it was taking written on his face, in his frame, in his careful measured pace. Naked already, Gerard seemed to be undressing under Frank’s eyes, peeling away layers of himself down to the very center, showing Frank everything. Frank marveled at his courage—the courage that always surprised Frank when it appeared, in moments where Frank hadn’t even imagined there was a courageous thing to be done.
Watching Gerard held Frank’s attention, and he only felt twitches at the periphery of his awareness as his body accommodated this way of being intertwined. But finally Gerard moved more deeply against him and Frank felt it all. He felt how the feeling had been quietly building in him, and when he raised his hands to Gerard, his arms were clumsy and his hands jerked away. His skin hummed with electricity, and his arms and legs felt weightless.
Gerard caught Frank’s hands as they moved in the darkness. He folded them firmly against his hips, one on either side. Frank could feel Gerard’s hips move and felt suddenly as if his hands were all that was anchoring Gerard, keeping him here. The night wind seemed to blow around them both.
The room was very dark, and Gerard’s weight pinned Frank against the mattress. Gerard seemed very high above him, his body pale and luminous as an angel. His own erection strained against his belly, belying the languid pace they’d been moving at.
Gerard let his head fall back as they moved together, exposing his throat, his chest spread open to Frank in the half-light. Frank saw a sensation move through his body; Gerard writhed. His mouth came loosely, wordlessly open and his hands crept behind his back to rest on Frank’s thighs. He leaned back into Frank more heavily.
Frank touched Gerard’s chest and stomach clumsily, pulled against his hips, grunting with the effort of pressing into him—anything he could do to grasp him firmly, to anchor the two of them together. If Frank could hold him more tightly, even if he hurt him by doing it, it would mean Gerard was still here, still with him—that he wasn’t so preoccupied with the past he was slipping away into it, that he wasn’t still grieving the things he had done, as though by enough wishing he could undo them.
They moved, and Frank felt the room hazing out at the edges as the humming in his skin and limbs eclipsed everything else. The noise reached its zenith and he came, breathless and gasping, pulling Gerard against him and then letting his arms and legs fall open against the mattress, panting. In the mess of his feelings, Frank caught a glimpse as Gerard made a small desperate movement, sweeping his hand up over his cock, clutching for a moment, curving himself painfully inward as he came. Frank felt hot drops falling on his stomach.
Frank breathed, slowly finding his way back to the room, back to himself, and raised his hand to wipe sweaty hair away from his face. Gerard moved away carefully, unsteadily, climbing off of Frank, wiping his hands on the bedsheets, keeping his face downcast.
Frank watched in a daze. It was the reverse of what Gerard had shown him before—now he was pulling away, trying to make himself invisible even through Frank was right there.
“Hey,” Frank said. “Hey.”
Gerard kept his face turned. Frank heard him make a soft sniffing sound, and had the sudden, discomfiting realization that Gerard might be crying. Frank turned to try and see him better and thought he could see the glint of light pooling at his eyes, sliding in wet streaks on his cheeks, as Gerard pulled further away and lay down with his back to Frank.
“Hey,” Frank said again. “Shhhh.” His voice was breathless and weak, and he made wordless comfort sounds to Gerard as he moved close to him, reaching his arms around him.
He settled his arms around Gerard, then his legs, and felt how Gerard didn’t relax against him, how he stayed rigid, curled in on himself, kept his arms stubbornly closed across his chest. Frank held him anyway, kissing his ears and the back of his neck, breathing into his hair. Finally, Gerard let his arms come open an infinitesimal degree, and he let Frank press his grasp in between them, and then he wrapped his hands around Frank’s arms.
His voice, when he finally spoke, was soft and cracked. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to float away.”
Frank let his arms come tighter around Gerard. “You won’t,” Frank told him. “I’ll hold on to you forever.”
And Frank imagined he could see all the things about Gerard, the long shadow of Eliza, the photographs, all the things he had done and would do. He hadn’t forgiven himself for things from an eternity ago, half a world away. He felt more equal to Gerard now, Frank thought, both of them full of a history’s worth of filth.
But for Frank, the things Gerard held so closely dissolved in the dark, until the only thing left was his fragile, wrecked body in Frank’s arms. And in the spaces where the bad things had vanished away, Frank held him tight and tried to kiss the sweetness back into him.
Hang On to Yourself
By the time it was over, Frank had less than six months. While it was happening, it seemed much longer. Time stalled and twisted in the room; sometimes Frank couldn’t remember ever having lived anywhere else. Sometimes he worried he would be there forever. Later, he would wake up at night, or in the early morning, and before some detail brought him back to the present—the feel of his ring, Jamia’s form next to him—he would feel the room’s embrace around him and would suspect he lived there still.
But for all that the room had become his and Gerard’s shelter, the cradle where they rocked, it began to grasp him tighter, and the closeness ground on his nerves. The little pantry never had any food in it. Someone was always in the bathroom downstairs with the door locked, and everywhere, cigarette butts spilled out of mugs and glasses. Frank had less and less money, and Mikey and Gerard, although they never talked about money or about any pragmatic details as far as Frank could tell, had traded in their usual easy silence for pointed avoidances that were sharp and chilly. Frank didn’t know what they said to each other when he wasn’t around.
When the silences grew too uncomfortable to navigate, he escaped downstairs to find Ferdia. They walked to record stores where they couldn’t afford any records, bookstores where they couldn’t buy books, pubs where they could hardly buy a pint or any food, and finally just outside on the streets, in the sticky, unseasonable summer heat, where pedestrians eyed them suspiciously as if they were hooligans. Frank had grown too weary to care, and Ferdia never had in the first place. The weather had sedated the Teds so there were hardly any fights on the streets anymore, and punks and Teds could pass each other with only a huff and a glare. The Sex Pistols played the 100 Club again but the tickets cost more this time—he traded them for pints or tins of soup he couldn’t buy; another zine he couldn’t get to give to Gerard. With everything he bought or didn’t buy, Frank watched numbers in his head counting down to zero, when the money would be gone.
And the show was contrived and stupid. Johnny Rotten’s insults were getting repetitive. Sid Vicious had track marks on his arms and scars on his chest, and was so high he stumbled on stage and messed up the bass line on Anarchy in the UK. It was five notes, Frank thought. Even Mikey, as the imaginary bassist in Gerard’s imaginary band, could have played that. Frank left with a sour taste in his mouth.
In the nights, the room caught the day’s heat that rose from the lower floors of the house. It filled with hot air and seemed to float like a balloon. They propped the tiny windows open with Mikey’s books, desperate for a breeze to stir the still air. They stayed up smoking or sometimes went down to Ferdia’s and sat on the steps to the garden, playing cards. Frank and Gerard sweat into the filthy sheets in the makeshift bedroom, too hot to be near each other for long.
Gerard still went out to take pictures, but at strange times, for longer. He stopped showing the photos to Frank, stopped asking what Frank thought about them. Frank saw them sometimes, stacked in a pile in the back bedroom or by the front door where Gerard had dropped them, abandoning them as he came inside. They were surreal and blurred, too dark. Something was wrong with them.
“What are these?” Frank asked clumsily, trying to rejoin the conversation about Gerard’s pictures.
“I’m trying something different,” Gerard said, and distractedly ran through some explanation about exposure times that meant nothing to Frank anyway.
The bright sun and the heat seemed to make the room darker somehow than the half-light of a clouded day. The sun dressed the room in clear, sharp shadows, and the shadows seemed to be seeping into everything.
Gerard was out late at night sometimes. Frank waited, telling himself that he shouldn’t wait up for Gerard—that he wasn’t waiting up for Gerard—and by the time Gerard got home, Frank was fiercely irritated, or sullen and unforgiving. But when Gerard moved close to him, putting his face in Frank’s hair, kissing his neck, saying “Shhhh, Frankie, don’t be angry,” Frank clung to him, feeling like something was slipping. Reluctantly, he allowed Gerard to coax him out of his irritation, tried to take comfort in his nearness, his smell. He couldn’t be sure he wasn’t the one crying as their bodies entwined.
In the middle of the night, when light from streetlights moved in the windows, Frank felt the whole city shift sickeningly under him. As Gerard moved over him, Frank saw it only in flashes—Gerard’s face silhouetted in the light and then in the darkness, his eyes heavily shadowed. Frank held himself still as Gerard moved through him, feeling Gerard’s sadness penetrate him. Frank could feel the loneliness coming back, all the foreignness and out-of-place-ness he had ever felt in London. He waited up for Gerard so they could be together and the loneliness would go away—only it had stopped working like that. Even so, when the dizziness gripped him, he clung to Gerard as if Gerard could save him.
When Frank was on top, looking down into Gerard’s face, he felt uncertain and off-balance, like he might tip into Gerard and disappear. These images that burned themselves into his mind’s eye made Frank feel like he was losing hold of his mind. He started to become certain that he would lose his mind if he stayed much longer in this attic room, floating above the concrete maze of London, a city full of problems that didn’t belong to them.
Gerard slept easily when he got home late, and Frank stayed awake more and more. He sat up and leaned against the wall, watching Gerard sleep, his face turned away or half-hidden in the dark. He couldn’t stay in this room, Frank thought. The realization chilled him, and he felt cold for the first time in weeks.
“Wake up,” Frank whispered. He lay down next to Gerard, pressing close to him, trying to work himself into Gerard’s embrace until Gerard roused enough to sleepily put his arm around him. Frank kissed him, making himself unnecessarily clumsy and rough so Gerard couldn’t keep sleeping. Frank badgered him with kissing and touching until he heard Gerard’s breathing quicken, until Gerard started to grab back, until he slid his knee between Frank’s legs and rolled over to flip Frank onto his back and settle against him heavily. Frank managed to explain wordlessly that he wanted it rough, and Gerard complied, twisting one of Frank’s arms behind his back, biting his neck until Frank heard himself gasp.
“I love you, I love you.” Frank could hear himself saying it, gasping it, could feel the tears leaking silently out of his eyes. The syllables dissolved into one another, and it sounded like he was admitting a dirty secret. His voice was wretched and scared in his own ears.
Afterward, he pulled Gerard to him and buried his face in Gerard’s neck. They held each other in the dark, but Frank could feel how he was losing his grasp on everything—himself, the room, the city, and Gerard most of all. How could he have predicted this, Frank thought, how could he have foreseen that Gerard would become too heavy, too slippery, too complicated to hold.
The days changed too. Frank was tired and irritable, after staying up so late, and Gerard even more so, sleeping until late in the morning, waking up angry and silent, hardly willing to talk to Frank or Mikey at all. Before it had been his anxiety that kept him quiet and withdrawn, and the pills seemed to help. It was a solution that made Frank uncomfortable, but parts had worked. Now, Frank saw the pills only sometimes. He started to wonder if there was something else.
“Did you go?” Mikey asked as Gerard was boiling water for coffee. “To the gallery? Like we talked about?”
There was a long pause. Gerard leaned against the counter. Frank wanted to disappear. He wondered if he already had.
“Look, I will soon.” Gerard said finally, without turning around. “Tomorrow I’ll go. Or Tuesday.” He shook his head like he was trying to brush away something unpleasant. “I’ll go on Tuesday.”
And when Tuesday came, Frank went back into the bedroom late in the morning, and Gerard lay in bed, face to the wall. He stirred at little as Frank came in and stood looking down at him.
“Gee, are you getting up?” Frank tried to say it gently.
“I’m tired today, Frankie,” Gerard said into the pillow, without turning over to face Frank.
“You’re tired a lot. Are you okay?” Frank knelt by the bed. He didn’t know what else to ask.
Gerard rolled over then and sat up slowly. He propped himself up against the wall. His face was pale with dark shadows under his eyes, purple and yellow like bruises.
“I would be fine if I didn’t know you were leaving,” he said finally.
“What are you talking about?” Frank said. It came out sounding hurt and incredulous, and Frank was glad for that.
Gerard shut his eyes wearily and put his hand over his face.
By the late afternoon, Gerard was up and dressed. He paced in the main room, gathering his things, moving stacks of photographs, putting his camera into his bag, taking it back out, putting in rolls of film, finding a different lens. Frank sat on the mattress, playing with one of Mikey’s books, pretending to read.
“Can I come with you?” Frank said loudly, and then held himself very still, bracing for the answer.
“What are you talking about, Frank? I’m just going to the darkroom.” Gerard hardly paused, picking over the room and the things in it like a bird.
“I don’t know.” Frank shrugged, even though he knew Gerard wasn’t looking at him. “I thought maybe I could just come along.”
Gerard kept packing his bag and didn’t answer. Finally, when he was done, he stopped by the doorway.
Frank stood up and went to him. “Whatever you’re doing—we could do it together.”
He leaned close to Gerard. He had thought to make a tender gesture, but when he was next to him, he thought differently. He leaned into Gerard, pressed him against the wall. He shoved a hand into Gerard’s pocket, pushing deeper until he felt the tiny pills. Still there—like Frank had known they would be. He grabbed one and dropped it into his mouth. It was bitter on his tongue and he swallowed. He felt Gerard stiffen.
“See? I can do it too.” For a moment, he thought Gerard might shove him away.
Then Gerard relaxed, shoulders slumping. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Because I want to,” Frank answered. He felt himself pleading against the way everything had telescoped down to such a narrow, confined space—the room, the impossible heat, the few hours at night when things felt manageable. “At least let me come with you.”
Gerard shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll like it, Frankie. You won’t—” He stopped, swallowed, then tried again. “You won’t like me, I don’t think.”
It felt like the most Gerard had said to him in weeks. Frank felt something in his chest loosening. “I don’t care about that,” he said. He slipped his arms around Gerard’s waist.
“If you want, you can come,” Gerard said. Frank felt like he saw a glimmer of the courage that sometimes belonged to Gerard—his willingness to let Frank see him.
Gerard shut his eyes, letting his head tip back against the door jamb. Then he opened them again with a long breath. “I don’t know, Frank. I hope you like it,” he said flatly.
“I will,” Frank said, catching and holding his gaze stubbornly. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll like it fine.”
Mikey was out, and the room was quiet in the golden afternoon light, sun and shadows resting on the clothes and papers on the floor. They left it in silence.
They walked forever in the afternoon sun. Gerard moved decisively, with none of the hesitation Frank remembered from when they used to go out with Ferdia and his friends. Frank followed, feeling like a straggler, with a fleeting thought about whether Gerard felt burdened by having him along—if Frank’s disapproval was as heavy for Gerard as Gerard’s anxiety had been for Frank.
Then—soon—Frank could feel the quaaludes hitting. It started like he was growing sleepy. The heat embraced him and the afternoon became rosy and bright. Frank smiled at passersby. As they walked, he searched vaguely for what had made him upset earlier ... something with Gerard. But here was Gerard, walking right beside him. They were together. Frank staggered against him. For a moment, Gerard put his arm around him, helping him steady himself on the pavement and setting him in a straight path. Frank leaned into his touch and had to redouble his efforts to keep up and walk straight when Gerard took his arm away. The walking passed by dreamily, crisscrossing King’s Cross, up as far as the canal and then back around. But he did wonder why Gerard was delaying so in taking them where they were going—like he was stalling, stealing time to get his courage up.
Then they were inside a house. Frank hadn’t noticed exactly how they had gotten there. It was a divided house, like theirs. There were shut, bolted doors in a hallway that had stains on the walls and was littered with trash. They were just inside the front door, and then Frank was following Gerard up a flight of stairs. At the top of the staircase, Gerard had paused because he was talking to someone. Frank edged around Gerard to see who it was.
Gerard was facing a young man with a pretty, open face, younger than either of them. Gerard exchanged a few words with him, and the man smiled. He was leaning against the banister in a casual, boyish way. Behind him on the landing, there was more trash, heaped with bundled up dirty clothes.
The boy stood a certain way as he talked to Gerard, blocking them from the space, protecting it behind him, and Frank had the sudden sad, intuition that this boy lived in the stairwell. Frank looked at the trash and marveled at the boy’s pretty face. Gerard nudged Frank, like it was his turn to say something in the conversation he hadn’t been following.
“What?” Frank asked, turning to look at Gerard. The conversation seemed to end quickly after that, and Gerard pulled him away.
“Do you know him?” Frank asked, looking back down the hallway. “Do I know him?”
“Frankie.” Gerard gave an exasperated sigh. “You’re a little out of it right now.”
“Sorry,” Frank said, and then, “I like it. I said I would. I feel good.”
Gerard stopped in front of a door that was cracked open. He tapped on it lightly and the door swung open. Then a man was there, opening it the rest of the way. He was skinny, with deepset eyes and an intense gaze. He turned to Gerard, taking him in hungrily.
Frank stood there, not even sure the man had noticed him. He let his gaze travel down, away from the man’s face. The man had marks on his arms, like Sid Vicious did. His hand rested on the doorknob, and Frank saw more marks on the back of it—tiny ones, like flea bites. Frank felt a sinking feeling, a sense that something, somewhere, was very, very bad. A canal wall had broken somewhere and the darkness was coming in. The feeling was far away now, but despite the honeyed calm of the mandies, Frank knew it would be coming closer.
Gerard and the man embraced quickly in the doorway, and they went inside. Gerard kept a hand on the back of Frank’s neck and steered him through the doorway.
“Bert, this is Frank,” Gerard said to the man. “He needs to sit down. Can he just—” Gerard did something with the hand on Frank’s neck that launched him in the direction of a couch that stood next to the wall.
“Your punk friend.” Frank heard Bert say it as he floated away from them, toward the couch. Frank didn’t hear Gerard’s answer.
The flat—Bert’s flat, his brain supplied a little belatedly, Bert was the man at the door—had blankets and pillows on the floor. It had the couch Frank had lapsed onto. There were windows on one side, looking out over the alleys of Soho. Frank smiled a little and felt something soft against the side of his face. He was lying down, he discovered, with his head pillowed on the arm of the couch. He had pulled his feet up onto the couch cushions beside him, following the trajectory of his body as it slouched over.
He could hear Gerard and Bert talking in low voices. It reminded him of hearing his parents talking when he was little, when his mother had put him down on the couch for a nap. The flat seemed beautiful, comfortable, embracing. Frank slipped into a sleep that was as bright and relaxing as the afternoon sunshine had been.
When he opened his eyes again, the windows were dark, striped with orange at the top as the sun set. When he turned his head, he could see Bert and Gerard lying together on the floor in the blankets. He heard them talking. He felt a twinge of jealousy and concern, but it was far away, as if it were happening to someone else. Frank mostly felt sympathy, sorry for someone who was jealous and disquieted, but without enough concern to rouse him from the couch where he lay. The room hazed into white as he slipped into unconsciousness again.
Throughout the night, Frank opened his eyes over and over, with no memory of closing them, no sense of how long they had been closed. In his memory, the night became a series of sounds and images whose connections were uncertain, unmatched beads in a long strand.
Gerard was laughing softly. “I don’t know,” he said. “Do you think it’d be okay?”
“How many did you take?” Bert asked.
“Only one,” Gerard said. “A couple hours ago.”
“And how do you feel now?” Bert asked.
“Good.” Gerard sighed. “Everything’s light and warm, and I’m not scared.”
“Even of the needle?” Bert asked. There was a moment’s pause.
“If you do it, I’ll be okay.” Gerard said.
Frank tried to open his eyes.
“You’ll feel so good, so good, I promise,” Bert was saying in a singsongey voice. It reminded Frank of how someone would coo to a child or a pet. “It’s so much better than chasing,” he said. “So much better.”
Frank blinked and Bert was sitting on the floor by Gerard. His hands moved among a collection of things that Frank couldn’t quite make out. They were so tiny and far away. Frank’s eyes dropped shut again. There was a metallic rattle, a peculiar sound that stuck in his memory, that he would later decode as a spoon falling against the floor. There was more shuffling, clinking. Frank heard the snap of a match strike.
Frank opened his eyes, and Bert was sitting cross-legged with his back to Frank, on the floor next to Gerard, who hadn’t moved from being stretched out full-length. Gerard had one arm over his face, covering his eyes.
“You ready?” Bert asked. Gerard nodded from under his arm.
“Gerard, wait,” Frank said, trying to summon the same tone from earlier when they talked about the pills. Whatever he had done to make Gerard listen to him. No one reacted to his voice, and it became clear to Frank after a moment that he hadn’t actually spoken, he only thought he had, or dreamed it.
“Okay,” Bert said gently, rubbing Gerard’s shoulder and moving his hands further down to where Frank couldn’t see. “Relax. I need to find the right spot, but you won’t feel anything. Just breathe, and hold still.”
Gerard made a muffled noise of assent from under his arm. Bert kept moving his hands, touching and pressing, looking intently down at Gerard.
“Your skin is so smooth,” Bert said. “It’s beautiful.” His hands were busy with something Frank couldn’t see.
Frank saw Gerard stiffen and heard him draw in his breath. Bert reached and pulled something that came away with a soft snapping sound, and then he drew the syringe smoothly away and set it on the floor. He stretched himself out against Gerard.
“It’ll hit soon.” Bert’s voice was muffled. He seemed to have his face nuzzled against Gerard’s neck. Frank saw Gerard’s hand come around Bert’s back and fist in Bert’s shirt. Then he let go. His hand floated in the air. He seemed to be reaching, but the movement was slow and incomplete. His hand sank slowly to the ground.
“It’s so good.” Frank heard Bert say softly. “Isn’t it?” He moved against Gerard, lifting his arm to stroke Gerard’s chest. “It feels so good.”
Frank opened his eyes. He was looking at the ceiling. It was night, but a light was on. The bare bulb cast a yellowed light over the ceiling, which seemed to stretch away forever. Vaguely next to him, Frank could hear soft movements, elbows and knees against the floor as people near him moved in the room’s half-light.
Frank heard Gerard make a soft moaning sound. Then he laughed. It was a strange sound, not his normal laugh at all, slow, slurred and breathy.
It scared Frank a little, the sound, but he couldn’t look away from at the ceiling.
Frank woke up later and sat up carefully. He took off his shoes and crept through the nighttime hallways to find the toilet. When he came back into Bert’s room, he stood and looked down at Gerard and Bert on the floor. The way they were laying, there was only a suggestion of them being curled together. Gerard’s arms were pulled against his chest. Frank didn’t need to see the pinprick of blood on the inside of his elbow to know it was there. There were so many things, now, that he didn’t need to see to know they were there. The room was quiet, save for the sound of their soft breathing.
The quaalude high had receded, and Frank’s head felt clearer. He felt for the sense of doom he had felt standing in the doorway, but he couldn’t find it. He looked around, searching for a sense of connection or worry. The room looked unfamiliar, like he had never been here before and it had nothing to do with him.
Gerard woke Frank from where he was sleeping on the couch, and they walked home in the gray early morning. Back inside the room, Gerard lay on the mattress and turned his face to the wall. Frank lay down and curled himself against Gerard’s back, pressing his face against his neck, bending his knees to match Gerard’s. He put his arm around Gerard and let him pull it tightly across his chest. Frank lay there for a long time holding him, letting it sink into his mind and body so he would remember.
After Gerard was asleep again, Frank extracted himself carefully and went out. He walked, aimlessly at first, and then with more direction, and it took him back toward his old neighborhood, toward the university.
There were the record stores, the ones where he bought his first zines in London, and now all the punk bands had posters that covered the walls and ceilings. There was the same litany of shows and fliers on the store counters—Subway Sect on Tuesday, The Vibrators on Thursday, and the Sex Pistols again on Saturday—but it had somehow marched on without him. He didn’t know if any of them were going to shows anymore. Ferdia couldn’t afford it, Frank knew that much, and Jax had gotten a job, if the rumors were to be believed. And Frank had been at the mercy of the secret life inside the room, captive to it. Walking that day, it felt good to be out, like he could finally breathe again. The air moved and there was a hint of coolness to it.
At a bus stop nearer the university, there was a group of tourists—mostly Americans, he could tell. They moved in a gaggle—noisily, awkwardly bunched together—the way the international students had, back when he was a student and ostensibly one of them. Frank saw them, tidy and young and bright eyed, and felt ashamed of his ripped clothes and unkempt hair.
He was crossing behind them on the pavement, giving the group a wide berth, when he imagined that someone said his name.
A girl was at his side, looking at him with wide bright eyes. Looking, as though she meant to see him, and not pass him over like so many other faces in a crowd. She was wearing tall boots and a short patterned dress, smartly dressed, like a proper London girl. He couldn’t imagine what that sort of person could want with him. Had he imagined hearing his name?
“Frank,” she said again, with more certainty, as if she knew he had heard her. She had an American accent. “I can’t believe you’re here.” And then, as Frank slowed, looking at her in confusion, she said, “Jamia, from Rutgers. Don’t you remember?”
He remembered something, a flicker in his past, enough to make him stop and really look at her. Her smile was so bright that he felt himself start to smile back.
“Jamia,” he said, “Hey!”
He put his hand out to touch her arm and she pulled him into a quick hug.
Pieces of memory were falling into place. The class together. They had gone out, an eon ago, on the world’s other side. In his memory, the girl and the dates had been unremarkable. So what was this now? Her huge smile seemed to pull everything toward her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, hand still grasping her arm, suddenly intent on keeping her from drifting away from him.
“Oh, traveling, you know,” she said, and smiled like that could mean any one of a thousand enticing things. She was with a friend from school, she explained, waving a hand back towards a group of women who were part of, or near, the group of American students, Frank couldn’t tell, didn’t care. He didn’t look away from her.
“I’m staying with friends of my parents, out in Bromley. They have a big house, you could come and stay with us any time. They’re so nice—they’d love to have you.”
She chattered on, describing what they’d been doing, where they’d been. It was everything an American tourist should be doing, everything he had avoided when he was a student, and everything he had been miles away from since he left university. She was having the experience of London he’d been trying for at first, he thought, where you saw things that were beautiful, interesting, inspiring—not suffocating, not devastating, not things that made you feel like you were hardly human anymore. Normally, he would have felt defensive, but something about the ease she had in describing everything—it just sounded like a good time. A good time he wished he’d had. He still had his hand on her arm.
“And what about you? Where are you staying?” she asked.
Frank made a noncommittal noise. “In King’s Cross,” he said. “Sort of near … the canal,” he finished lamely. He couldn’t think of anything memorable to say about King’s Cross.
She lifted his hand from her arm and held it between hers. She was still smiling that radiant smile. He could see it now—how beautiful she was.
“Frank, it’s so great to see you, honestly it is,” she told him, and squeezed his fingers. “ We should get together, soon. I’m not here for very much longer.”
Frank felt a sudden grasping urgency. She scribbled the phone number of the house out in Bromley on a slip of paper and held it out to him. He took it and she hugged him again quickly, cheerfully, easily—as if being like she was was effortless. Frank marveled. As she walked back to her friends, she turned again to grin at him and wave, a silly, exaggerated wave that had no purpose but to show she was happy to have seen him.
He waved back, and then he was laughing, softly, nothing she could have heard, but it still surprised him. Her group of friends pulled her away, but Jamia managed to look back again and raise her hand once more. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and stood dumbly on the pavement, watching her go.
He tried to remember her from earlier—to remember her as anything apart from the explosion of brilliance he had just witnessed. It didn’t make sense. He knew himself—what he had been like then, especially—and nothing in him could have possibly inspired that radiance he saw in her. He was certain of that. And it had still, somehow, focused on him—that she knew him, that she was glad to see him. He shook his head, still following her with his eyes. People walked between them on the street and he fought to keep her in sight as she and her friends walked away.
Finally, he realized he was still standing on the pavement looking in the direction she had gone. He felt everything in him reaching out to follow her. The day was so bright, she had been so bright. The chaos of Gerard and Mikey, the room, the pills, the needle marks, that man, Bert—it hovered on the horizon, and it felt very far away. Now, suddenly, Jamia was there, a light in counterpoint to the darkness. He kept thinking of her.
It had been several days, a week. Gerard only came home sometimes. There was no talk of Frank coming along to anything anymore. Mikey seemed to be working more than usual. When he was home, he was chilly and withdrawn, hardly speaking to Frank. The room was filthy, and it seemed even smaller than usual. It dared him to leave.
Cornered among the shadows and dust and cigarette ash, Frank thought about Jamia. He tried to decode what there was in her, why she pulled his eyes like a meteor in a dark sky. He tried to remember, to see if there was some clue from the past that would put it together, something from his time at Rutgers, the brief moments in which he’d known her before. Nothing came. He didn’t know what he remembered from before, he thought miserably. There was almost nothing from that part of his life; it was hard to remember anything before Gerard, before this room. He hadn’t talked to his parents in months. And now, he started to wonder: did he want everything to be gone? It seemed like he was trying to trade it all for this shitty room, this grimy neighborhood, a town that wasn’t his. How could he have so easily ignored the fact that nothing here had a future for him? Did he think he was going to live in London, get a job, have a life here? He had never believed that, never even consciously considered it.
He wondered if Gerard was wrestling the same thing. Did he really believe he was going to have a gallery show here, sell pictures here, find buyers for his photographs? Or did it seem impossible too, and him just another puzzle piece that didn’t fit?
For all that they were an ocean apart from everything in the past, those things weren’t gone. Ghostly hands reached across the water to grasp at them, through the phone lines and the wires that carried the money. Gerard and Mikey knew their mother was at home, that life there was going on without them. She said she was fine, but that wouldn’t last forever. None of it would permanently relieve Gerard or Frank of the responsibility of becoming more than to become more than just a boy who slept with other boys, hiding in a squalid flat in a foreign city. Frank wondered about the girl, the photographs. Frank had tried to go to school to make everything right, to please his parents, to keep it all from going to hell. Gerard had tried to to marry that girl. And in the end, they had both found a way to escape their own carefully laid plans. Waiting by himself in the flat, Frank thought about Gerard, about the dark worlds moving in him that Frank knew nothing about.
And if he had been completely free, without any strings that tied him to his family? Would it have changed things? Could he have stayed with Gerard then? He couldn’t imagine himself with Gerard but free from the weight of transgression. At first, the flavor of illicitness that infected everything had been exciting; now it just hurt. They had become an art project of their own, a work that was tragic in a way neither of them had anticipated. They hadn’t planned it that way, but now they were at the mercy of it, of how far it would tear them apart.
Frank still had the slip of paper with Jamia’s number on it, the phone of the house out in Bromley, the friends of Jamia’s parents. He went downstairs and banged on the door of Ferdia’s mother’s place.
Ferdia let him in. His feet were bare and his hair wasn’t spiked up. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt. They sat on the couch for a while in front of the television.
“Any plans?” Frank asked.
Ferdia made a disgusted noise. “Hardly. Plans take money. Doing anything takes money.” He rubbed his face with both hands. “I’m sick of being skint. My brother may be the most boring bloke in the entire city, but at least he has a job. As my mother reminds me.”
“Is it true Jax is working?” Frank asked.
“Yeah,” Ferdia said sourly. “He got in at one of the packing plants. He sweeps the god damned floors at night, and I still don’t know how he got it.”
Frank didn’t answer. There was no good answer. The television babbled on so they didn’t have to speak. Eventually, Frank asked about the phone.
Hearing Jamia’s voice again ignited every piece of mindless hope he’d been feeling all week. He smiled into the phone and tried to keep his back to the living room so Ferdia wouldn’t see him.
“I’m so glad you called, Frank,” she said. “I’m leaving the day after tomorrow.”
He caught his breath, feeling an alarm as inexplicably large as his joy at seeing her in the city days before. Ferdia was almost certainly eavesdropping on everything, and Frank tried to keep his voice steady as he and Jamia made plans to meet.
“Who you talking to, Frankie?” Ferdia inquired sweetly as soon as Frank hung up. “New friend?”
“How do you get out to Bromley?” Frank asked, ignoring his question.
Ferdia explained the tube stations quickly, and then frowned at Frank with what seemed to be a hint of genuine concern. “And what about your lot upstairs?”
“What about them?” Frank asked. Then he left to go upstairs.
“I’m gonna be out,” he said to Mikey, passing him in the doorway of the room as he got home from work. Mikey looked him over, and didn’t say anything. His face was impassive. Frank had washed his hair for once, and not put it up, done his best to pick out clothes that weren’t completely filthy. He couldn’t really judge what he looked like—if he could pass as respectable or if he still looked like a hooligan. He brushed past Mikey and stomped down the stairs. At the top of the stairs, he heard Mikey pull the door shut.
At the station, he saw her right away. She smiled and waved—that huge smile again—and Frank hurried toward her.
He wasn’t surprised this time when she hugged him. He hugged back, hard, and when they pulled apart, he let himself stay for a moment with his arms around her waist. He could feel how he smiled at her, and wondered if his smile had anything close to the brilliance that hers did.
“Frank, I’m so glad you called,” she said, a little breathlessly.
“I’m glad we didn’t miss each other,” he said, feeling a flutter of alarm that he might have allowed that to happen, if he’d waited to call just a few more days.
Jamia nodded and took hold of his hands, looking down at their hands together, quiet for a moment. He let her hold his hands.
“Well,” she said. “Let’s get a drink. Or something.” She laughed. “It doesn’t even matter.”
They stopped in a cafe and sat outside. There were other couples at the tables around them. The men wore collared shirts and the women were in skirts. There were no punks, no Teds, no factions or the threat of a fight. Frank felt ... normal. He felt like an adult. His clothes weren’t perfect, but they were close enough that they didn’t give him away, that he could pretend he belonged here. He wasn’t scared to think anyone might be looking at them.
Jamia talked easily, telling stories about everything she’d done and seen. She had been in London for several months. About as long as he had been staying in the room, Frank thought, performing the calculation unconsciously. She asked him a few questions at the beginning, where had he been, what had he seen, but seemed to sense in his stumbling responses that he didn’t have the same kind of stories to share. And so—graciously, Frank thought, another unearned act of kindness she was giving to him—she took on the whole conversation herself. Seeing London’s sights, day trips to the country, sightseeing in Ireland and Scotland, taking the train on the continent—she let him luxuriate in her stories, the funny, simple mishaps, letting him laugh with her at the right moments, as though her story was his story, as if he were part of a simple story instead, as if, when he got home, it would be as easy as making his mother laugh with a story about missing the train in Brussels.
“Well,” she said, looking at him after they’d several drinks apiece. “Would you like to come back to the house? They’re out—the couple I’m staying with—but it wouldn’t matter, even if they weren’t,” she said. “They’d love to meet you.” Frank doubted that was the case, but she looked at him expectantly.
“Yeah,” he said. “I would.”
They left the cafe and walked in the quiet evening streets. Their shoulders kept touching and finally Frank took her hand. It was warm, and she held tight to his. They turned off the main street and walked down a side road. Jamia led him to the doorstep of a house. Frank waited while she fumbled with a key from her purse. The house had two stories, and he knew that when she opened the door, it wouldn’t be onto a shared hallway. Inside the door, he followed her down a short stairway, but not before he glanced up the stairway on the other side that led to what looked like a sitting room. My god, a sitting room, he thought. At the bottom of the stairway down, there was a long, comfortable basement room with a low ceiling and a set of double doors that led out to a patio and a garden.
“My room’s down there.” Jamia gestured to a hallway at the end of the room. “It’s the guest room, but there’s a bathroom on the other side if you need it.” Frank knew disbelief was showing on his face, and he hoped Jamia didn’t see it, or didn’t take it be anything to do with her. He looked around the room again. There was a record player and a long couch. And end tables. End tables, Frank thought uncomfortably. He hesitated in the doorway, suddenly certain that if the man and the woman came home, they would throw him out of their house.
“Is there anything you want to listen to?” Jamia asked as she knelt by the shelf of records. Frank steeled himself and followed her into the room, to the shelf, and looked over her shoulder at the albums. The Beatles, but only the early albums. Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, lots and lots of Donovan. Frank swallowed carefully.
“Anything you’d like,” he said.
They listened to one side of a Beatles album and then some ABBA. There was a song on the ABBA album, something bright and glib about a couple breaking up. Knowing me, knowing you, it’s the best I can do. The phrases stood out in an ugly way in Frank’s ears, worse every time it came around on the chorus. They kept singing it, in their cheery pop voices, and Frank started to feel a little ill. He shifted positions uncomfortably on the couch, his attention falling away from what Jamia was saying. It felt like he hadn’t had a cigarette in years. The record ended and Jamia got up to change it, but he stopped her.
“Could we go outside?” He gestured toward the door and the porch. It was twilight, with light in the sky, but a comfortable darkness filled the patio. They went out to the porch.
“Is it okay if I—” He made a little gesture with the cigarette pack and shook one out as she nodded. “Do you—?” He held it out to her. She shook her head.
After two cigarettes, Frank felt better. The night air smelled clean, and it was quiet. The garden had a large tree in it, and the branches spread over the patio. More branches from another tree pushed over the fence. There was a low railing around the patio and Frank leaned against it. Jamia stood beside him and they looked at the soft sky and rooftops through the tree branches.
“Where are you staying, did you say?” she asked as he finished his cigarette.
“I have a room in King’s Cross,” he said carefully. “It’s, uh, shared with two other people. And it’s ... small,” he finished. He knocked the ash from the end of his cigarette and tucked the butt carefully into his pocket.
“Weren’t you in school though?” she asked.
“For a while I was,” he said. He looked at the trees. “It’s nice out here,” he said.
“It is,” she agreed. He could hear in her voice that she was smiling.
Frank leaned toward her and let their shoulders touch. She was so close he could smell her hair, a light flowery scent, pretty and clean. He shifted a little and put his arm around her. She leaned easily into his arms and they seemed to fit together. Then they kissed.
Her lips were so soft, and it felt gentle and sweet. She pulled away, and Frank put his hand up to touch her face, to put his hand in her dark hair. She turned into his touch, and then looked at him, her eyes slow and searching. Frank looked back and tried not to drop her gaze, wondering what she was looking for, hoping she saw it in him.
By instinct, he wanted to grasp her and pull her tightly to him, expected her to push against him, battle him. He was restless as she looked at him, and he could feel a dark violence move in his limbs.
But then he realized, she could be coy, they both could. They could wait, or move slowly, and it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t stop anything. It was nothing like how hard Gerard had had to grab him and hold him. There was—and this made Frank’s eyes sting for just a moment—there was no trace of desperation anywhere. He felt light in his chest and fingers, on his lips, wherever his skin had touched hers. It was like the honeyed calm of the mandies, but without the fuzziness, nothing that needed to be exorcised or wiped away.
She turned away from him and looked out over the garden in the growing darkness. He put his arm around her and she leaned into him. They stood together easily.
After a while, Frank struggled to say something that had been unsettling him from the beginning. “Why are you like this?” he asked finally. “I don’t understand what made you ... happy to see me.” He put his face against her shoulder, breathing in her clear scent, letting it hide him because he felt ashamed.
“Frank,” she said, with a low laugh in the darkness. “What a thing to say. Why wouldn’t I be happy to see you?” She was silent a moment, then said, “But, I do understand what you mean, a little. I didn’t expect to feel ... this.”
“And ... what’s this?” Frank asked softly, “What you feel?”
“Like you’re wonderful,” she said. There was a trace of sadness there, of concern. “Like I can’t believe how lucky I was to see you that day. Like I want to keep being around you.”
He was quiet, letting her words burn in him . Then he said, “I want to keep being around you too.”
She laughed again, a little more lightly this time. “It makes me not want to go,” she said, leaning more closely into him, even as her light tone steered them both away from what had just been said.
“You could stay. You don’t have to go,” Frank said bluntly. He saw a glimpse of that future in London, lies piling on lies—Frank imprisoned in the room, tied to Gerard, and Jamia now the life raft he hoped would save him, even as he wouldn’t—couldn’t—let Gerard go. Even as he saw it, saw what he could become, he didn’t care.
“No.” Jamia shook her head. She said it in a gentle, amused way that belied the firmness Frank was suddenly aware of in her body. “No, I’m ready to go home and get on with my life. I’ve been waiting, and now I’m ready for what’s next.” She looked out over the garden, eyes on a far horizon. Frank felt himself grasping at her.
Standing there, they had suddenly become imperceptibly more separate. As easily as their bodies had touched and blended before, she now looked at him from what felt like a great distance—like she was already across the ocean, and he was still here. “What about you?” she asked. “Now that you’re done with your program? Will you come back?”
Frank thought of Gerard in that attic room, how angry Gerard was—how Frank had hurt him and would continue to hurt him, Frank realized. It would be simple, as simple as calling his father and having him wire the money. Far more simple than figuring out how to stay.
He said, “Maybe I will. I think I’ve been over here too long.”
They stood on the patio, and Frank felt something in Jamia relax. It eased them back together. When he touched her back, her waist, he could tell that she had held herself carefully distant from him because she cared about him—because somehow she was becoming vulnerable enough to him that he could hurt her. She had turned herself toward him so easily, so boldly, like a flower toward the sun—and the understanding that a person could do that, that someone would do that to him, was so bright and tender and unfathomable he thought he might cry in front of her. He was glad for the dark, so she wouldn’t see his face. He had turned too, he realized. Something in him had reoriented.
They kissed more, lightly and easily at first. In time, she held on to him more tightly, and he did the same.
“We should go inside,” she said. And then, “You can stay here, if you want. We won’t be bothered, even when they do get home.”
Frank let her pull him toward the door. They didn’t speak again about him leaving.
Inside, her room smelled clean, and the mattress was on a bed frame, with bed clothes that were straightened and fresh until they pushed them back. The floor was clear until they dropped their clothes onto it, piece by piece.
Her body was soft against his, pliable, and they tumbled easily onto the mattress. He kissed her breasts and made her laugh and squirm under him. She was bright and playful, and Frank was surprised by this, confused because it seemed like, to her, what they were doing was wholly uncomplicated. He hadn’t been with any other girls like this, and he didn’t know—maybe it was as easy as it seemed.
He let his hands roam down her body, over her soft belly and the crease of her thighs. She took his hand and guided it to help him touch her, to explore between her legs, giving him the boldness he would have lacked on his own. The warmth and wetness on his fingers made his eyes roll back—he held himself still for a long moment, scared he might come right then, lying next to her on the sheets of her clean bed. She glanced at him and knew to give him a moment. Then she laughed and kissed him. She closed her legs over his hand and rolled her hips, and Frank made an involuntary sound that made them both pause for a moment to catch their breaths.
When they finally, finally came together in the way Frank had been expecting, their bodies seemed to combine so easily—the way she bent her legs, opening to him, the way that him inside her made them both gasp. There was no confusing weight or balancing, no danger of falling. They moved together and he felt how boneless and slack—how trusting—her body had become. She moaned, and the sound was more exposing, more vulnerable, than all of her laughter had been. He clung to her for his life.
They finished and lay together, talking softly together. Next to her, his own body felt clean, redeemed, alive. They fell asleep, and Frank breathed easily the whole night.
In the morning, they went back into the center of the city. They rode the tube together, Jamia with her head leaning against Frank’s shoulder, both of them sleepy, rocking with the motion of the train car. They got off at Islington and sat in a cafe that had outdoor tables. Frank drank coffee and wondered what would happen next. He had the intuition that, no matter what, he would be talking to his father soon, making the call he had been putting off for months. Everything was about to change. Or maybe it already had.
Jamia had a stillness about her. She looked around the streets, and they sat together quietly for a long time.
Frank knew the area a little. Mikey’s bookshop was near here. He fought off the urge to begin talking about this to Jamia, to try and sound knowledgeable. There was no use in explaining things anymore, trying to orient himself to a strange place, trying to prove to other people he belonged, trying to arrange things in his own head so they made sense.
“It’s sad to be leaving,” Jamia said, after a while, “even though I know it’s time.” She played with her napkin. They could have as easily been waiting in the airport, suspended in that dead, restless time until something happened, waiting for the inevitable.
“When we’re back home, will I see you?” Frank asked. It was the thing that had been waiting to be said all morning. No matter what she said next, Frank sensed that some part of him would be waiting to find her, holding his breath until he did.
“I would like that,” she said in a small voice. “To see you. If we could. I don’t know how all this will look to you, when you’re back. I mean, I wouldn’t have done—that, if I didn’t think we would see each other again.”
Frank knew she was talking about the night before. In the same moment, he understood that her hesitation was a way to protect herself—from him and from what might happen between them. Again, he was stunned to understand that what he thought—about her—had somehow come to matter to her. He couldn’t imagine it.
He reached across the cafe table and took her hand, drew it up, pressed it against against his face. He tried to put everything he didn’t know how to say into that gesture—his uncertainty in the future, his confidence in what they had done, his speechless wonder at what had come about between them, and his abject hope, nothing more than a hope, that there was a future for them somewhere—if not here, then back in Jersey, and somewhere, they would find it.
“We can,” he said. “We can see each other.”
“Okay,” she said. She gave him one quick, brilliant smile. She glanced away from him and her face fell back to restless waiting in the next moment, but she kept hold of his hand.
Soon they had waited long enough, and they had to go, to move forward into the uncertain future. They stood up, and Jamia hugged him. They held on to each other for a long time. Frank breathed her in, not wanting to let go, knowing he would have to. They came apart and Jamia looked at him with that same uncertain, unresolved waiting. Frank kissed her quickly, and they walked away from each other.
Frank walked home. The streets were quiet, even though it was midmorning, as though the city hadn’t fully awakened. Frank could tell he now carried some of the stillness he had seen in Jamia, that he had become, in some part of himself, quiet, patient, and willing to wait. He walked home slowly but unwaveringly, moving into whatever he would find there.
He knocked first at the door to Ferdia’s mother’s flat. Ferdia let him in and let him use the phone.
Frank dialed collect, with only a vague awareness of what time it would be in New York. His father accepted the charges, and his voice was strained and far away on the overseas connection.
“Frank?” his father said. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Uh. Yes, sir,” he corrected himself. “I need to ... I ... can you help me get a plane ticket? To come back?” he asked. His throat was tight and the words were jagged.
There was a pause. “When?” his father asked.
“Any time,” Frank said. “I’m ready now.”
Frank called Ferdia to the phone and together they painfully relayed his phone number across the water to Frank’s father. Then they sat and watched football on the television until the phone rang again.
Ferdia handed the phone to Frank and Frank wrote down the flight information on a scrap of paper.
“Dad, thank you,” he said.
“Frank,” his father said, and Frank couldn’t tell the tone of his voice. “We’ll talk when you get home.”
The flight was tomorrow, early in the morning. It was so soon. It was done.
Ferdia punched Frank’s shoulder when they sat back on the couch and watched the rest of the football match. When Frank got up to leave, Ferdia slapped him roughly on the back and told him to come back down and they would get a drink that evening.
Upstairs in the room, Gerard was there. Frank could sense it as soon as he shut the door. He went behind the bedsheet and into the makeshift bedroom. Gerard lay on the mattress on the floor. He sat up when Frank entered and scooted back to lean tiredly against the wall. His eyes were clear but dark; they seemed to go a million miles down.
“Frank,” he said. “You were gone. Where were you?”
“Where were you?” Frank asked, with some bite to it, and then curbed himself. Instead, by rote, he asked questions that were from another type of day. “Did you go out?” he asked. “Did you take any pictures?” It was ridiculous.
Gerard didn’t bother answering him. He just kept his eyes on Frank, watching him sit down wearily on the edge of the mattress. Frank felt how there was something that still pulled him to Gerard.
He tried again, wanting to offer Gerard something, not wanting to lie. “I was with someone,” he said slowly. “I met a friend, from my school, someone I used to know from—” He struggled with what to say. “From before.”
The silence was heavy between them.
“Who was it?” Gerard asked. “What’s his name?”
“Her name.” Frank said. “Her name is Jamia.” If he kept talking, it would get worse, Frank knew. The fight, he feared, would draw them as close together as they’d ever been, if it made them admit so nakedly to being hurt by the other.
Gerard let his head fall back roughly. Frank heard it knock against the wall. “Jamia? Oh, Christ.” He laughed a weak, unhappy laugh. “What kind of name is that? Is she rich? Let me guess, you know her from home. She’s from Jersey Heights, isn’t she? Does she know your parents?”
Frank looked away, trying to stop it, but Gerard kept going, his voice getting ragged and cruel.
“You met her at your fucking prep school, is that it?” he asked. “Were you high school sweethearts? Is she pretty, or is she a slut? Is that your type, Frankie?”
Frank looked at him then, fixing him with a glare, wanting to impale him on it.
“You,” he said, leaning closer to Gerard. “What did you do? With him? With—” He searched for the name of the man in the flat with the blankets on the floor. “With Bert,” he spat.
“What did I do?” Gerard repeated scathingly. “You don’t know anything, Frank. You can’t—” A slight blush rose in his cheeks, but he forged on. “You can’t come, when you’re high. It doesn’t work that way. Did you know that? You didn’t. But,” he continued slowly, “The thing is, you can fuck for hours. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but that’s how it is.”
Until that moment, Frank had hoped he’d been dreaming it, the sounds he’d heard and what they meant. He felt his mouth curl with disgust. “Him, though?” he said. That junkie, he thought, but didn’t say. “Why him?”
“Not him,” Gerard retorted sharply. “It could be anyone. It could be you.” He seemed to deflate, and his voice was softer. “It would be, if you were there with me. It would be you.” His voice had become fragile and ugly.
Frank didn’t answer. He was losing hold of the conversation now, he knew. The things Gerard was saying, where were they coming from? Why didn’t he stop? Frank’s head was starting to hurt, and his hands were shaking. He kept them fisted in the sheets on either side of him.
“You’re like bad music, Frank. You look real. You always said the right things, but there’s nothing there. It should be good, but there’s nothing there.”
Frank was quiet.
Gerard continued, “You’re a fucking poser. You lie. All of this is—that’s what it is. Lies.” He flung his arm out at the room and sniffed pathetically. He was crying. Partly Frank felt sad, and partly disgusted.
“Fucking say something, Frank.” Gerard slammed his fist down on the mattress next to him to punctuate his words, and Frank jerked back, away from him. “Say something,” Gerard repeated. He rubbed the heels of his hands hard up his face and tangled his fingers in his hair, stretching his eyes and giving his face a crazy look. “I can’t believe this, I can’t,” he said, looking up at the ceiling, like he was talking to himself, his voice rising. “I can’t believe you.”
Gerard’s head was tipped back against the wall again. Frank saw that tears were slipping down the sides of his face, running down his neck, into his shirt collar. Frank felt the impulse to go to him, to kiss the tears away, but he knew that would be a lie, or at least Gerard would think it was. In Gerard’s mind, it would make him what Gerard had said—a liar. So instead, Frank sat in silence, leaning cravenly toward Gerard, wanting to reach out to him but not doing it.
“I didn’t mean it, Frankie,” Gerard said, and his voice was quieter, less combative and more desolate. “I didn’t mean any of it. God, what was I saying?” He put his hands up to wipe his eyes.
“And this—” He picked up a photo from the floor, an outdoor picture, by the canal. He shook his head. “I can’t do this either.” He sent the photo in his hand spinning across the room. It clicked against the wall and fell onto another pile on the floor. Frank winced at the sound.
“Frank, I don’t understand,” Gerard said, and his voice was very quiet, but full of pain. “Why did you come here?” He looked at Frank, shaking his head, his eyes pleading. “Why? I wouldn’t be like this if it wasn’t for you. I was okay before you came.”
Frank felt like he had been slapped. He pulled away from Gerard and got slowly to his feet. Around him, the room throbbed with danger, like a snake coiled to strike. Frank recognized it now, the feeling around him in the room—it was the connection, terribly and fearfully strong, that tied him to Gerard. It was everything he had felt on the first night that had crushed him, suffocated him, taking his breath away. It tore at him, and he felt crushing guilt for what Gerard had said, that he hadn’t been there, that it could have been him. That despite it, Frank would leave him anyway—despite all of it.
He stumbled away, through the doorway and down the stairs to the bathroom, where he locked himself inside. He felt sick, and stood by the toilet for a long moment, thinking he would vomit. He closed his eyes, taking great, deep, unsteady breaths. Then he was crying, his breaths breaking into sobs. His head was killing him and he put his hand out for the edge of the tub, so he could ease himself down slowly to sit on the floor.
The longer he let himself cry, the more the pain in his head started to slowly recede, to become tolerable. He heard the sobbing sounds he made with surprise, echoing in the tiled room. He hadn’t cried like this in ... he didn’t know how long. Maybe he heard Gerard knocking on the door while he cried. Maybe he didn’t.
The sobbing slowed and stopped after a while, and Frank sat, his back against the edge of the tub, tears still slipping quietly down his face. There were so many things that were gone, that would keep disappearing. This year, his time in London. Ferdia. His parents, their marriage, how his family didn’t exist anymore. Ray, who used to be his best friend. Gerard. He couldn’t hold all of the loss. He couldn’t imagine how many years it would be until he could think or feel his way to the other side of it. Maybe he never would.
He would go—in the morning, he would go to the airport and leave on a plane—but the connection would stay. And because of that, the losses would belong to him forever. Like Ray would always belong to Frank in some way, like Frank would always belong to Ray. These things wouldn’t be wiped away; they could only be carried. He couldn’t imagine how he could be this way and be with Jamia, full of these ugly, broken things. She didn’t deserve this, didn’t deserve someone like him.
Frank’s head still hurt, but with the memory of pain more than pain itself. He rummaged under the sink and found Gerard’s scissors, left there from the night of that first show. No one had come back for them; they were just another piece of Gerard’s art that had been abandoned along the way. Frank looked in the mirror and cut his hair roughly, making what remained of the mohawk Gerard had given him disappear.
When he came back upstairs, after a long, long time, he found Gerard asleep on the bed. Frank lay down carefully next to him, as close as he dared. He didn’t touch or hold him; he felt like he no longer had the right to. Gerard’s road would be hard enough on its own, and there was nothing Frank could do to make it easier.
Frank woke when he felt Gerard stirring beside him. The light was changing in the sky outside the room, moving towards dark.
He followed Gerard into the main room and sat on the edge of the single mattress, watching Gerard while he made coffee and fussed with his things, getting ready to go out. They moved companionably together. The tension from their fight had gone, but there was nothing to say.
Soon, Gerard was ready to leave. He looked at Frank as he approached the door.
“Wait,” Frank said. “Just for a minute.”
Gerard waited, and Frank went to him, opening his arms hesitantly. Gerard took a small step closer to him, and Frank held him, wishing for a moment that they would never pull apart. He could feel Gerard’s closeness, the body Frank had come to know so well—his frailty, his strength, his lostness. Frank wanted to rock him, keep him close. He let their faces touch and pressed his lips briefly to Gerard’s temple. Frank could feel the sweat in his clothes and hair.
Gerard pulled back. His face was pale and cavernous.
“I’m sorry, Frank, I don’t feel good,” Gerard said. “I need to go.”
“I know,” Frank said, and let his arms drop away.
Gerard went out of the room and down the stairs.
Frank's Last Night
Ferdia and Frank went for drinks a final time at the Thornhill Arms. Ferdia bought him pints with money Frank knew he didn’t have, and Frank drank them gratefully. After a couple hours, they started back home. In the garden, Frank offered him a cigarette.
“I hope you get home alright, then,” Ferdia said matter-of-factly, as if Frank was taking the bus back to the university.
“I will,” Frank said, smiling. “I wish I had more time. I wish it wasn’t so soon.” He was repeating what Jamia had said that morning, he realized.
Ferdia looked at him and shook his head. “Frankie, no. You can’t wish that. What are we? A bunch of fuckups, going nowhere. You can’t get stuck here like this. Not with us—and not with him either.” Ferdia cocked his head toward the upper floor of the house, toward the room. “You gotta leave if you have the chance.”
Ferdia looked away from Frank and took an emphatic drag on his cigarette. In the shadows of Ferdia’s face, Frank saw something he had never seen before: a man—not a punk, not an icon—a young man, who would one day be an older man. He was masculine, and not asexual, the way he had always appeared. He would have a wife and children, and everything would catch up to him. He would have a job, no matter how impossible it seemed now. Even for Ferdia, nothing in this moment would last.
Ferdia flicked his cigarette away and caught Frank around the back of the neck, pulling him into a rough hug. They parted ways at garden gate, as they’d done so often. Frank felt sick with the loneliness that had never truly abated.
Upstairs, Mikey was in the room. He was sitting on the edge of the single mattress in the main room, facing the door, like he had been waiting for Frank. Frank backed away, back into the open doorway, as soon as he saw him.
Mikey stood up, and they were facing each other like they were going to fight.
“Where is he?” Mikey asked.
“I don’t know,” Frank said wearily. “How could I know?”
When Mikey didn’t answer, and only stared at him, Frank tried to defend himself. “Look, the pills and the skag, that’s not my fault. That’s his problem, not mine.”
“No, you’re only responsible for lying to him,” Mikey said bitterly. “For pretending you would be there, when actually you were getting ready to bolt. I saw you with that girl,” he added.
Frank had no answer to that. His stomach sank, and he felt the pain in his head coming back. He held himself stiff and silent before Mikey.
When Frank had first moved in, he had seen Mikey as a child, shy and brutally awkward. Somehow, in the months Frank had been there, Mikey had grown up into this adult who was thin and much taller than Frank. His face had hollowed out, and he had serious deep-set eyes.
Frank looked at Mikey, at his eyes and at his lips, and felt a stab of longing and desire, even as Mikey glared at him. He wondered what it would feel like to lose himself in this brother. Frank blinked hard and turned away quickly, shaking the image away as he had done so often. But he understood then that seeing men wouldn’t go away. He was leaving the room, leaving Gerard, but this was another thing wouldn’t leave him.
“I didn’t used to worry because I knew he was with you,” Mikey said coldly. “I should have worried more.”
He picked up a photograph from the counter, one of the few that Gerard had taken of Frank, that had somehow materialized after a long absence. Mikey looked at it for a second and then flicked it so it spun to the floor.
“I’m going to find my brother,” he said and left the room.
“Mikey,” Frank called, as he listened to Mikey stomping down the stairs. Frank heard him pause.
“Don’t come with me,” Mikey said loudly, without turning around. Frank heard him start walking again.
When Mikey was gone, Frank set about cleaning up. All night, he cleaned, collecting the cigarette butts and ashes into a bag that he took to the bin in the alley, wiping floors and counters with a rag he found in the bathroom, folding blankets and piling clothes into neater heaps. The dull yellow light from the bulb in the ceiling shadowed everything dramatically. He organized the few records that were left, leaning them near the empty space that used to belong to the record player. He didn’t go into the bedroom, didn’t disturb the photos and all the papers, the architecture of Gerard’s ruined kingdom.
The night had grown very dark, and while Frank worked, his mind turned to Gerard. It would be now, Frank thought, that Gerard and Bert would be embracing at the door, and Gerard would cross the threshold into Bert’s flat. Or perhaps they were inside together already, lying tangled together on the floor. Or Gerard was somewhere else, with someone else.
But the drugs would be the same, no matter where he was. Gerard would wait for Bert, or someone else who could wield the needle, to gather the intricate tools of pleasure and escape, to tie the band around his arm and to press against his inner elbow, or the back of his hand. Bert’s fingers would be gentle. He would guide the needle, and Gerard would feel him pull the strap loose. Gerard would feel the tingles run up his arm. Then a pause as brief as the intake of a breath. And now would be the time when the heroin hit, and he would fly.
At least someone was with him, Frank thought, to hold him and make him happy. Frank was grateful for this, even if it wasn’t him. It would be you, Gerard had said. If you were there, it would be you. If Frank had been with him, they could have fucked all night, forever.
When light started to show at the edge of the sky, Frank pulled together his few things and readied himself to go. He had a small bag that held some few pieces of his clothing. There was very little worth saving.
He went into the back room, the heart of the small flat where he and Gerard had lived, and surveyed the papers and photos. In the light from the main room, Frank could examine the piles of photos. He picked out what he wanted, one from this pile, one from that. One of the canal, one of the abandoned buildings, one of the Thames with shadows on the water. He found the series of photos they had shot in the room, and he took the one of Mikey’s hands. Because he couldn’t help it, he took the one where he smiled at Gerard while Gerard made a face. He pressed the photos into a neat stack and tucked them into the bag with his clothes.
Back out in the main room, he picked up the photo of himself that Mikey had thrown to the ground. He looked again at how Gerard had managed to see him, once upon a time. Frank set the photo up on the counter, wondering if Gerard would see it when he came back. If he came back. No matter how many times he went out, or what he did when he was gone, Frank said a silent, desperate prayer that he would always come back, always. He turned to go.
Before his hand touched the doorknob, Frank stopped and returned quickly to the photograph. He picked it up and carried it with him downstairs and outside. At the edge of the garden, he stood and carefully tore the photo in half, then in half again, and again. Frank let the pieces fall away from him to the ground, in the garden and onto the pavement. He started to walk away, and a small breeze stirred them, scraping the pieces across the pavement, gusting them along at his heels as though they followed him.
When Nancy Spungen died, it was in the papers.
The Sex Pistols were gone at that point. Frank had cautiously followed their U.S. tour in the rock weeklies he still sometimes picked up. They didn’t play anywhere in New York, and they didn’t come near Jersey. He was quietly grateful. He imagined himself in the West, a place more distant and foreign than London. He imagined going to San Francisco, seeing them in the Winterland Ballroom, in the final moments before they disintegrated into nothing. The pictures in his head had the flavor of a bizarre sexual fantasy, desiring something he could no longer understand.
Frank read about Nancy Spungen’s murder quickly and threw the newspaper away. Sid Vicious was in jail. It had happened in New York, at the Chelsea Hotel. It made Frank a little sick—the crazy things junkies could do—but he tried not to think about it. After all, it wasn’t only junkies who hurt the people they loved the most. Anyone could do that, Frank knew.
When Sid Vicious died, it was harder.
They were in a magazine shop—Frank still hadn’t been able to cure himself of the habit, not completely—a magazine every couple of weeks, a record once a month or so. He still hadn’t bought Lust for Life or The Idiot, which were supposed to be David Bowie and Iggy Pop together. It sounded so delicious he could hardly imagine it.
He stopped by the magazine racks for a moment, and Sid Vicious was on the cover of Rolling Stone. With dates. A beginning date, and an ending one. Frank glanced across the record bins, making sure he was alone in the magazine aisle, and then turned to face it on the rack. When he reached out to pick it up, his hand was shaking.
Frank glanced over the article quickly. It mentioned drug use, heroin, an overdose—the things that still, after two, almost three years now, scared him the most.
“Honey?” Jamia was standing in the aisle.
“Huh?” Startled, Frank clutched the magazine to his chest.
“What? What are you reading?”
“Oh, uh.” His throat was thick and he couldn’t say more. He tried to flap the magazine away from his chest to show her the headline. For a moment his arms didn’t want to move and his eyes clouded over, making the store around him swim. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Sid Vicious,” he said, showing her the magazine, the headline. “He—” Died. Frank didn’t want to say it. “He was in that band—the Sex Pistols.” He looked at the ground, gathered himself.
“Um, we watched them,” he continued. “We followed them, when I was in London. Did I ever tell you that?” He glanced at her for a split second. “That’s where they were from, London. And we. We followed them.”
She waited a second, watching him. Then she cocked her head and smiled. “And here I thought you were writing your economics thesis. What else are you forgetting to mention?”
The space in the store felt desolate and open. Frank wished, as he sometimes still did, for the sanctuary of that wretched room. Outside the record store was the street, with cold, open air and the dirty snow of February, the big space of freedom, space enough to breathe and live.
She took the magazine from him and held it. “All that potential.” She shook her head. “He was just a kid.”
Frank bought the two records, and the magazine too, because Jamia held on to it and brought it to the counter. Frank watched her hand it to the clerk and didn’t say anything.
Frank was able to say it to her eventually. He found he was able to tell her many things in time; not everything, but a lot of things.
They had put Lust for Life on the record player, and Jamia had sat with him for a while. As Tonight got over, she stood up and put her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s a sad song, Frankie,” she said.
He took her hand, and pressed it against his face for a moment.
“I know,” he said. And then, even though she was going into the kitchen and was probably going to turn on the radio to a pop station and listen to My Sharona while she made dinner, he added, “There’s a lot of darkness, you know? Not everyone can deal with it.”
He read the magazine story over and over. He imagined Ferdia hearing the news, seeing it in a tabloid in a stand on the street. Then he imagined Gerard—somewhere far away, reading a story in NME, maybe telling Mikey about it. He wondered if somewhere—today, the same day—Gerard was getting this same news, remembering the same music, the same things. Frank hoped he was, hoped to God he was.