“In all these years, you never believed I loved you. And I did. I did so much. I did love you. I even loved your hate and your hardness.”
― Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night, head writhing to get out of its own cage. This comes in the form of dilated pupils, irregular heartbeat, a shortness of breath. He doesn’t like nights like these, yet they happen, so he’s forced to push forward.
Sebastian Moran knows this better than he knows himself, this infinitesimal will to keep pushing forward. Small but oddly powerful—funny how the brain works like that, no matter how many times he’s near hallucinatory with how badly he needs to get out of his own head, it keeps pushing that whole “you better stay alive, you cunt” thing. Helpful when he had to force his fist through the central incisors of every kid that sneered and called him “Africa” with their lily-white skin and crisp blazers. Helpful when every teacher with a Dead Poet’s Society complex turned their nose at his mentions of enlisting. Helped him through IEDs and wounded officers and a mean spat of consecutive overdoses.
Here, though, in this shit motel in the middle of Vermont--he’s pretty sure--it’s damn inconvenient. Staring down the lines he’d crafted from the spine of a maxed out credit card, four fat stripes against the manufactured marble of the bathroom sink. Lily-white. Thick and leering up at him. He gets a feeling in the pit of his stomach like he’s about to fight a dog, or maybe it’s something else—it’s harder to tell when he’s pretty sure he’s on the verge of another panic attack and he’s alone and he thinks it might stay that way for a long time.
He can’t bring himself to do it, because that voice (not his own, never his own) is in the back of his head, prodding on about life expectancy, nagging him on to quit being such a bore and do it already. Do it already, darling. Maybe that’s what propels him to the shower, to the phone that doesn’t work, to the towels that he rips to bind the swollen mass of tissue that used to be his knuckles.
Caring for yourself, that’s a new one.
He doesn’t know whose voice it is anymore, whichever it is—it wants him alive, so he’s going to listen to it. He is going to wash the coke down the drain. He is going to make a call that won’t go through. He is going to close his eyes and dream about a roof and a fall and otter-black eyes.
The receptionist is pleasant in a strictly American sense. Her teeth are a little too straight, hair beaten into submission with an overly zealous curler, bangs plastered to her forehead. The moon tattooed to her inner wrist is tacky, but it adds a bit of character. He almost catches himself describing her as “dull”, only to realize he doesn’t think that’s the Moran in him talking.
It doesn’t freak him out as much as it used to. He doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean.
She sees him trying to stuff a rock-hard orange and an apple into the pockets of the robe and reminds him of the room service options available by-call. When he asks her what compelled her to tell him this, she laughs into her hand. It’s a moon and a star, on the inside of her left wrist; she has four piercings on one ear, two on the other, and is a full two heads shorter than him. Moran asks her for her name, he doesn’t know why he does that, but he does. She laughs, points to the name badge at her lapel, he makes a weak breast joke that has her giggling into her hand again and it’s almost normal. Almost.
“Is that, uh,” she starts, eyes widening as if suddenly realizing that this was the incorrect line of questioning. “Is that your car, parked in the front?” She has you seated at a table, a cup of coffee you never asked for stationed between the two of you. Her name is Laurie, or Laura, something that’s comically Wonder Bread and unmemorable. This place needs “more people like him”, apparently, and that’s why she’s seated across from him as opposed to doing her job. Moran doesn’t really know what she means with the whole more people like him comment; either Weybridge doesn’t see its fair share of totaled Aston Martins, or black people.
Most likely both.
She tells him he should go to the ER and he sheepishly makes up an excuse about not having any ID on him and her eyes widen and nod like she’s putting the puzzle pieces together then politely excuses herself. Maybe it was the scowl, or that the gun holstered to his side became more visible. Moran doesn’t care enough to figure out which.
He wakes up expecting for there to be a body to hold.
When he reaches across the bed to find a cold pillow, he weeps until his entire chest aches with the force of it. Then it’s back to sleep, back to dreaming or a lack thereof. He thinks that maybe it will be okay.
Maybe not now, but it will be okay.
There’s a condition called rapture of the deep. It’s defined as a reversible alteration of consciousness as a diver swims too deep—he is unable to tell up from down, or something like that; sometimes it’s described as a state of drunkenness, or lethargy. There’s something very Shakespearian about it, Moran thinks. A cruel sort of romance.
He doesn’t want to describe James as the ocean, something too cliché about it—but it’s the only description he thinks fits . A being, vast and unknown. A cruel romance. A garish sun looking over a brilliant kingdom.
Yes. He thinks. I can see it now. I can see you now.
When it’s clear his broken body won’t be able to live off of Holiday Inn breakfast buffet scraps and concession stand granola bars, he uses the last of the money on his last credit card to pay for the repairs on the car—would have cost him less to just buy something new, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The mechanic asks him if he hit a deer as she cleans the oil off her hands with a pink rag; he nods, and asks her where he can get something to eat.
The diner sits at the outskirts of town, its parking lot littered with SUVs and sixteen wheelers—the overcast sky is dark enough for them to have left the neon sign out front on, the windows that wrap around the front of the building turning the restaurant into a box of light. He feels he’s inside one of the Hopper paintings that used to hang in the living room—either Gas or Tables for Ladies . A detached sort of warmth, a voyeuristic intimacy that James couldn’t help but love.
How many mornings did you wake to look into my eyes, cast through an open window at a rain-torn street. How many nights did you spend looking at those canvases, my collection of cherished images. How much wood did we burn for the sake of our own warmth, that fireplace we’d twine around each other in front of. The carpet you got for me on our anniversary. The couch you had bled out upon more than once. The bedroom that was home to you and your tired shoulders and your shuttered breath. How did it feel to burn all of that, after the fall? After I was gone?
My love, sometimes I held you with hands that were not my own.
The woman that seats him has bags under her eyes and freckled brown skin and small ears adorned with smaller gold hoops. Her head is shaved, nails blunt, and she serves him coffee with a tight smile. He thanks her, asks her if she’s from around here, hoping this line of conversation will follow through more successfully than it had with the hotel receptionist. (After so long in his own head, he finds it hard to communicate with people the way he used to. He doesn’t know what this says about the nature of mourning, how it truly is singular in experience.)
“Yes,” she says, and moves on to take the order of the next table.
He looks down at his clasped hands and tries to piece together what he could say next. A quip or a smooth line that would erase the awkwardness of the original exchange. He finishes the coffee, it’s heat masking how weak it tastes. Moran gives up on entertaining the thought of interaction, goes to fixing his eyes out the window.
The waitress passes his table, fills up his cup. Her name tag reads Aida, and he orders half a grapefruit. The rain outside scatters the headlights of passing cars into beaded shards of light against the windowpanes. Aida brings back his order and the fruit spoils in his mouth.
When he was young his mother would stand him on the tops of her shoes and dance him around the room--she smelled like a hospital. He remembers that. And cigarettes. And the dust from the renovations his father was always trying to complete. They lived in Harlem, and he seemed to only remember the winter months, when she would complain about what the cold did to her joints.
One two three, two two three—yes, like that Sebastian. Just like that.
He comes back to the diner when he cannot fall asleep that night.
That’s how he felt, after the war—before any of this. Completing a balancing act upon waltzing sneakers. The hospital’s smell. Salem Spirits. Dust. Desperately holding on as he is danced around the room. One two three, two two three. Just like that, look at you. My little gentleman.
It’s the deer’s eyes in his mind, as its broken body lay across the side of the highway. Something about how even as it drew its dying breaths, it tried to drag itself towards the familiarity of the forest. The deer died on the asphalt. The ground cushioned by fallen pine needles and grass within sight.
He doesn’t know what comes first: the messenger or the feeling of dread. He knows what they’re here for as soon as he opens the door, one glance through the peephole told him that. The neatly pressed suits. The apathetic trim of their fingernails. He begins to plan out his journey to the diner as soon as they step foot into the room. One sits on the couch, hands folded in his lap. The other stands by the window, hair folded back into a neat ponytail. She wears a black turtleneck under her blazer, stands tall.
It’s silent. The man on the couch takes out an envelope.
The man on the couch takes out an envelope from his briefcase and it’s so much smaller than Moran expected it would be.
Oh my God, please not here. Please not now.
The man sitting on the couch is someone Moran had spent the better part of twelve years with. He was at the birth of the woman’s first child. They’d bled together. Crawled through enough shit to put a tremor back into their hands. He can’t even bear to dignify them with names, now. The man places the envelope on the table.
He takes out the envelope. Puts it on the table.
“We’re pretty sure these are his,” he says. “We know he would have wanted you to have them.”
This is what it must feel like, dying on the blacktop. Cold, breathless. Looking at the tabletop with that stupid orange envelope and it’s so small how could a man that luminous be so small . A man that large and bright and full of life.
But that’s him. That’s most of him. Whatever they were able to salvage from wherever he ended up.
He doesn’t remember asking them to leave. But he knows they’re gone when he collapses to the floor. He does not cry. He takes the envelope from the table and presses it to his stomach. Curls himself around it. Presses it to his chest until he feels he can breathe again.
“Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
was a wild, gentle thing.”
-James Wright, “Milkweed”