Adam stumbled into the lobby of his apartment building, lungs struggling for air. He tried to find his rhythm, like his father had taught him, tapping frantically at his thighs , trying to encourage his body to stop choking him with fear. He hit the floor and noticed a tile was chipped before the panic took over again. If he found air again, he’d have to bring up reflooring for the lobby at the next Building Association Meeting.
Building Association…would he still be a member of the Building Association next month?
His financial advisor told him he should leave as soon as possible. The hospital bills had decimated his father’s savings, and without another steady income, there wasn’t a way for him to cover rent and taxes for more than eight months. Somehow, this news wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world.
Downsize, Harlan called it. Serious financial risk, the advisor had said. He knew they weren’t trying to be mean. He knew his dad had trusted them both to give good advice. But in that cramped office, with the stuffy air and the chemical scent of Lysol prickling at his nose, all Adam knew was these two men wanted to take away his home.
It was too much.
Adam had watched his father wither in a bed, even though dying upset his daily routine. He’d put up with the smells of the hospital and the cold mac n cheese that he wasn’t allowed to heat in the staff kitchen. He had braved his father’s funeral, breathing through all the people touching and hugging him as his fingernails dug divots into his palms. And with Harlan’s help, he’d even found a new routine without his father – it took longer, but he found he didn’t want free time now that his father wasn’t there to share it.
All this Adam had endured, but losing his home – setting fire to his routine yet again – it was too much. He had screamed that at Harlan, at the financial advisor that threatened him with security if he didn’t calm down. Adam knew his father would be disappointed, angry that Adam abandoned all their painstaking lessons about control and proper interactions. So, he had run. Tearing through the streets and blindly heading home until his lungs burned and his hair matted to his forehead. He lay on the floor, choking on nothing and refusing to see the loss of his home as anything other than the catastrophe it was.
“Mr. Raki? ADAM! ADAM ARE YOU ALRIGHT?”
Adam tried to look up, but his vision blurred as his lungs choked him. He was vaguely aware that he was being lifted, but all he could do was gasp.
“Well, sounds like you’re fucking fucked, kid.” Mr. Dalca, the building’s super, handed Adam a mug with a teabag in it. It smelled like flowers, but Adam clutched it, letting the warmth seep into his fingers. Once Dalca had gotten Adam’s breathing to regulate, he’d brought him into his office and told him to rest. Adam apologized for his outburst, just like his father had taught him to, but Dalca had waved him off. The older man had simply plugged in an electric kettle and asked Adam why he’d melted down on a newly mopped lobby floor.
Dalca had listened sympathetically as Adam had recounted the story in his monotone. Adam found it comforting to have someone simply nod along without interrupting to offer sympathy. When he finished, Dalca nodded, and made tea.
Adam looked around Dalca’s office. There was a picture of a pretty lady on his desk and a stack of repair orders strew around his computer. Adam fidgeted; he wanted to straighten the papers, maybe dust the shelves behind the desk.
Dalca took the seat next to Adam, “I have a way you could make a lot of money quickly, if you’re interested.”
Adam looked up. “Do you need an assistant?”
Dalca laughed. “Kid, I don’t know what you think they pay me, but no.”
“Oh,” Adam tapped against his mug. The tea was growing cold and it smelled.
“Have you ever thought about getting married?” Dalca raised an eyebrow. Adam frowned.
“I’m not dating anyone at the moment, but you’re right that two incomes would be beneficial. Can you suggest a dating service?” Adam sat his untouched tea on Dalca’s desk, pushing it away so he wouldn’t have to smell it. “I don’t trust the algorithms on dating sites; they haven’t been peer reviewed. Still, do you think I should sign up for one? A large pool of candidates would likely-”
“Adam,” Dalca interrupted gently. “I have a person in mind already.”
Adam squinted. “Are you suggesting I marry you?”
“Jesus!” Dalca laughed. “No. But, uh, would you mind marrying a man?”
“Not in theory.”
“I have this friend, Nigel.” Dalca’s lips twisted, Adam didn’t understand what the expression meant. “Great guy, needs a fucking green card before they kick him out of the country.”
“Why didn’t he just apply for one?”
Dalca looked down, studying the grime under his fingernails. “Uh, little trouble with the law back in Bucharest.”
His head shot up, offering Adam a big smile. “Nothing too bad, just a silly thing with his ex…and a couple of drug charges. He’s a great guy, though.”
“He sounds like a criminal.”
Dalca shrugged. “But a nice one. Really, I know he sounds…he’s not that bad, I swear.”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t think this is a good idea, Mr. Dalca.”
He stood, taking a moment to brush off his sweater and khakis before heading to the door.
“Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!”
Adam stopped. Dalca stood, rubbing the back of his neck.
“He can pay you 250K, lump sum.”
Adam bit his lip. “He’s not a good man.”
“You just have to marry him, he’ll stay at his place and you’ll never have to see him. He’ll give you 100K now and 150K when you divorce.”
Adam frowned. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars would pay off his father’s debts and leave him at least one hundred thousand to invest and use toward rent. If done properly, that would give him nearly ten years to find a better paying job or a spouse to share financial burdens with. “He wouldn’t live with me?”
“No. Wouldn’t bother you a bit.” Dalca smiled. “Just live your fucking life and when he gets his card, he’ll file for divorce, send you the rest of the cash, and you’ll never fucking hear from him again.”
Adam could see the problems with the proposal, but he thought about the nick in the kitchen floor, where his father had dropped the mixer; the three stains on the living room wall from a painting mishap; the mark on his ceiling so he knew exactly where to put the celestial projector to perfectly display on the walls of his room. He wasn’t ready to leave those things behind – to let a stranger see them, touch them, change them.
“I think that type of cash influx would be noticeable to the Internal Revenue Service; can I think about the best way to accept the funds?”
“However you want to do it, as long as you’re willing to say I Do.”
Adam nodded. This was making a tough decision. His father had told him he’d have to do that after he was gone. “OK. I can take an extra half hour next Tuesday at lunch. We can get married then.”
Dalca beamed. “Fantastic! I’ll tell Nigel.”
He held his hand out to Adam.
“Your hands are dirty, I don’t want to touch them.” Adam opened the office door. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”
Adam adjusted his tie. He had asked his boss for an hour and a half lunch, explaining he had an important appointment. Dan hadn’t even looked up when he said ok and shooed Adam out of his office. He wished he had asked Harlan to come, but he worked Tuesdays.
Looking at the clock again, Adam frowned. His future husband was 10 minutes late and he wasn’t sure what to tell the lady at the clerk’s office. He took out his phone to call Mr. Dalca when he heard shouting in the hallway.
“WHO THE FUCK CARES, DARKO? HE’S JUST SOME FUCKING VIRGIN, RIGHT? IT’S NOT LIKE I’M NOT FUCKING PAYING HIM.”
The doors flew open and Adam saw Mr. Dalca dragging a man slumped over his shoulder. The man in question, the man Adam was supposed to marry, was wearing a stained shirt with dogs on it and had a rip on the knee of his jeans. Salt and pepper hair hung in greasy hanks around his forehead, and there seemed to be some sort of smudge on his neck. As they stumbled closer, Adam could smell the acrid scent of cheap alcohol and tobacco seeping off the man and recoiled.
“I I-uh…No. I don’t want to marry him, thank you.” Adam moved to leave. Dalca dropped his friend on the floor in a heap and chased after Adam.
“Wait! Wait!” Dalca rounded on Adam, people were beginning to stare. Adam tapped on his thighs, determined to stay calm. Dalca held up his hands. “I know, he’s a goddamn mess. Threw himself a bachelor party last night. But here.”
Dalca pulled a satchel off his shoulder and held it out.
“The first half,” He explained. “Nigel gave it to you in cash, said you could do what you want with it then.”
Adam felt his anxiety ratchet higher. He needed the money. He needed his apartment.
“Don’t fucking think about him, Adam,” Dalca coaxed. “Fifteen minutes, you get this cash and you won’t see him again for three years, man.”
Adam bit his lip, took a deep breath, and nodded.
“Hey Darko,” Nigel called from the linoleum. “Did the little princess decide my money was good enough or-”
Nigel flicked his hair out of his face and caught sight of Adam. The younger man tried not to duck behind Mr. Dalca.
“Well, hello, gorgeous.” Nigel tried to lean backwards seductively but ended up sprawled on his back. He scrambled to his feet and lurched toward Adam. “Have time for a little honeymoon after the service, darling?”
Adam frowned when Nigel dragged dirty fingers across his cheek. “Please don’t touch me again.”
“Fucking kicked out of bed already?” Nigel laughed. “Guess I’m not losing my touch.”
Dalca stepped into Nigel’s space. “Keep your shit together for 20 minutes or you’re on the next plane back to fucking Bucharest.”
Nigel rolled his eyes, but dropped his hand and moved back. “Had no idea I had such a delicate little husband.”
“I would appreciate it if you didn’t speak too much; you smell terrible,” Adam said with a glare.
“I Nigel, take you, Allen”
“Adam,” Darko hissed.
“Adam, fine, to be my lawfully wedded husband.” Nigel shoved a ring on Adam’s finger and winked. The band was plain, probably not real gold, Adam didn’t like the weight of it on his hand.
He nodded through the rest of the ceremony, feeling his chest tighten with every word the officiant spoke. This was wrong, but maybe Mr. Dalca was right – maybe it would all work out once the papers were filed.
The clerk gave him an odd look when she handed Adam the certificate. Adam squinted, trying to decipher the meaning, but people were so confusing sometimes.
After they left the clerk’s office, Nigel threw his arm around Adam, pulling him back into the scent of stale spirits and nicotine. “Want to get a bite, talk about married life?”
“No thank you.” Adam shrugged him off. He scratched at the ring on his finger. “I don’t think we should see each other again until the divorce.”
Nigel laughed. “Just like fucking Gabi!”
Adam didn’t know who Gabi was, but he didn’t want to ask if it kept his husband near him. “Goodbye Mr. Dalca, I’ll see you at the building.”
“What? No goodbye for your husband?”
Adam sighed and held out his hand. “Goodbye Nigel, I hope I don’t see you again.”
Nigel smiled, taking Adam’s hand and yanking. Adam slammed into Nigel’s chest with a little gasp, eyes wide when Nigel bent and stole a kiss. “I fucking do.”
Adam shoved at Nigel, wiping his mouth as the older man winked. He stomped back to his office, shoving the cheap wedding ring in his pocket and clutching the bag full of cash. It was just a small deviation to his routine, nothing more. He’d be back on schedule soon, like nothing ever happened.
“Married?” Harlan spit out chunks of half chewed ham and cheese. Adam pulled his mouth into a moue as he watched the spittle land around them.
“Just for the money,” Adam confirmed, taking a bite of his sandwich.
“Just for the…Son, this sounds illegal.”
“Not really. We’ll stay married until the government issues a green card, so that’s around three years. It’s not lying if we stay married.”
Harlan sighed. “Adam, I don’t want you to go to jail over some foreign woman you don’t even know.”
“Man,” Adam corrected.
“Yes, his name is Nigel Belea.”
“You married a man?”
“Son, you’re straight.”
“I’ve dated a man before,” Adam explained in a flat voice.
“What? When? Who?”
“Harlan, you seem upset.” Adam tilted his head. “I dated Austin during space camp in 10th grade. We helped each other masturbate a few times, but Austin said-”
“Adam! What did we say?”
“No sexual specifics. I’m sorry, I was trying to explain.” Adam offered Harlan the untouched half of his sandwich. “Here, you dropped yours.”
“That’s…that’s ok, you eat.” Harlan ran a hand over his face. “So, you go both ways, huh?”
“You can’t go both ways, Harlan, it’s physically impossible.” Adam furrowed his brow. “Oh! You’re saying I’m bisexual. Yes, I am.”
“I don’t like this, Adam, man or woman, you could go to jail.”
“I needed the money, Harlan.” Adam bit his lip. “I know it’s not totally right, but it helps me. Dad said I would have to make tough decisions and I did. I won’t even have to see him. He lives somewhere else and I can stay in my apartment.”
“Adam? Just promise me you won’t go to jail.”
As Adam walked home, he ran the calculations in his head. He’d be able to stay in his apartment for 11 years and 4 months now, plenty of time for him to invest his meager savings and find a higher paying income. Maybe he’d even find someone to live with him, like his new neighbor, Beth.
Adam smiled. Beth.
She was very pretty. Maybe he should ask her out. Mr. Dalca said he should live his life like normal. He nodded to himself. Maybe it was a good thing he got married. Marriage had made him more decisive.
“Next time we should go to a different restaurant, maybe French?” Beth leaned against her door. She was very beautiful, but Adam frowned at the suggestion.
“I don’t know. I’d have to look at the menu.” He fidgeted with his hands, tapping them on his thighs when she frowned. “New places are very stressful. I like Tony’s.”
“Variety is the spice of life!” Beth offered an exasperated grin.
“I don’t like variety, or too much spice. I like routine.”
“You’re a weird guy, Adam,” Beth smiled.
Adam frowned. Weird wasn’t a compliment. Before he could tell her she was being rude, Beth leaned forward and kissed him. Adam liked the sensation, though he wasn’t fond of the taste or smell of Beth’s lip gloss. He’d have to tell her about that so she’d know not to wear it on future dates.
“I know you’re not good at cues, but that was a cue,” Beth laughed. Grabbing Adam’s hand, she tugged him into her apartment.
“Are you feeling sexually excited, Beth?”
She shed her coat, offering him a smile. “Are you?”
Adam nodded as he watched Beth unbutton her blouse. This had been a good date.
Adam left Beth’s apartment at 7. He was already off schedule and Beth seemed annoyed that he was leaving, but Adam had to get his breakfast and shower.
He felt little ripples of anxiety in his chest. Should he apologize for leaving? He had explained he wanted to have more sex, later that night after dinner and during his free time. She had rolled her eyes at him, but Adam wasn’t sure if it was fond, like when Harlan did it, or angry, like the counter person at the deli.
He stopped short when he noticed a man standing in front of his door.
“Are you Adam Raki or Nigel Belea?” The man asked, looking at something on his phone.
“I’m Adam Raki.”
The man glanced at Adam, raising an eyebrow. “Didn’t sleep at home last night, Mr. Raki?”
Adam ran a hand over his rumpled hair, his heartbeat rabbiting in his chest. “I- who are you? Why are you asking me questions?”
“My name is Mr. Price, I’m from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” The man held up a badge, before pocketing it and looking at his phone again. Adam couldn’t breathe; he tried to tap out a rhythm on his legs but his fingers just spasmed mid-air. “I’m here to talk to you and Mr….Belly?”
“Belea.” Adam jumped at Mr. Dalca’s voice. “Mr. Raki, you forgot your coffee when you left my office.”
Dalca shoved a cup of take away coffee into Adam’s hand. He blinked at it. It smelled awful. “I don’t drink coffee-”
“Cold. I know. Maybe you can warm it inside?” Adam watched with confusion as the larger man ushered him toward his door. “Who are you again? Prince?”
“Price.” The man raised a brow at both of them. “Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
“Oh, here to check up on the newlyweds?” Dalca shoved Adam into the door. It was hard for the smaller man to open his lock with shaking fingers. “Well, you should come back when Nigel’s here.”
“Mr. Belea isn’t living here?”
“Not right now, saw him off myself!” Darko smiled, big and toothy, extending his hand. “I’m Mr. Dalca, the super.”
Price sneered at the hand. “Saw him off, where?”
Adam made a whining noise, he was so late and now the air was getting thin.
“I know, you sure do miss him, huh, Mr. Raki?” Dalca said, grabbing the keys from Adam’s hand and opening the door. “Mr. Belea is in Jersey, got a gig playing a club in Trenton for a month.”
“He’ll be back in a month?”
“No! He’ll be back in two,” Dalca said, with slightly manic eyes. “He’s got a gig in Baltimore right after.”
“Ah, well, two months.” Price typed something into his phone. “I’ll expect to see you both on the 13th of December. Let’s say 9am? Mr. Raki?”
Adam managed to bob his head a few times, still searching for breath. Darko smiled, pushing Adam through the doorway as Price turned on his heel and walked toward the elevator.
Adam heard a ding and the sound of the heavy doors opening, he started to draw air into his lungs.
“Oh, and Mr. Raki?” Adam popped his head out the door to see Price standing in the open elevator.
“Y-yes?” Adam’s eyes felt as though they would fall out of his head.
“Mr. Dalca’s not invited to our interview.” Price smiled thinly. “You’ll have to learn to speak for yourself by then.”
The doors closed and Dalca flipped the elevator the bird. He turned to find Adam, on the floor, coffee spilled beside him. The kid looked like he was hyperventilating.
“Adam? Adam! Kid, you gotta breathe!”
Adam stared ahead sightlessly. “I-I promised Harlan I wouldn’t go to jail.”