I wasn't on a low when you came back. I don't really have lows like that, not any more.
It was ten in the morning, the beginning of April. The night before, I'd lain in bed thinking maybe it was time to travel. Greece again, maybe, or Costa Rica, someplace I hardly knew enough of the language to buy cigarettes and count the change. And then I'd gone to sleep missing Jane in that vague low-key way I do when winter is just breaking down, not a knife in the heart but an old, fond loneliness, almost a pleasure.
And of course missing Jane meant I'd gone to sleep thinking about you.
Were you under the impression that I liked you, back in the old days? I didn't. I envied you. I wanted to be you --
Well, no, to tell you the truth, I didn't. Anybody could see that the life you were destined for was uncomfortable, dirty, and short. You were going to be jumping out the window of rich women's condos, sleeping on the pews of churches in eastern Europe with that coat balled up under your head, freezing on bare mattresses in shacks on the outskirts of Santa Fe where the coyotes wake you up because there's no glass in the windows. Me, I like my thread count, my South American coffee, my New York Times on a Sunday morning.
But I wanted that magic you had. Strung out all the time, never sleeping, wrecking everything you touched, sponging off your friends and then vanishing for years at a time -- and on you it wasn't pathetic. On you it was fascinating.
God, we were young then. So young, to be so weary of life, so ready to let it fall away like old clothes.
And to tell you the truth --
I always tell you the truth. I can't seem to help it.
I never expected you to live this long. Maybe you really would conquer the reactive mind and transcend this plane of being the way L. Ron promised. If anybody could do it, it would be you, leaving us all in the dust scratching our heads just like always. Or else you'd OD or starve or die a vagrant's death someplace they didn't even know who you were.
Either that, or Jane would leave me and go right to you. That's my own reactive mind, I guess: I was obsessed with that, after she left me. I could have forgiven you for fucking her, or even for leaving her, but what I could never forget was the way you'd made her happy. I figured she'd go right back for more. It was what we all did, one way or the other.
But Jane lives alone, now. I call her up sometimes. Mostly we talk about you.
So if you're wondering why I didn't seem more surprised when I woke up and found you sitting on the foot of my bed, it's because it was quite some time before I was completely convinced I wasn't dreaming.
You were balancing a cup of coffee on each knee. Big cups with a gas station logo on them, like you hadn't walked past three excellent coffee shops between the Marathon station and my building.
Like it hadn't been fifteen years since the last time I saw your face.
Back then I'd have choked it down anyway. If you picked Marathon coffee, there must be something special about Marathon coffee, right? Like retsina, like Mexican hash, like that arrabbiata from that joint off of Delancey that was so hot it hurt coming in and going out. For the first time it occurred to me that maybe you didn't have foolproof avant-garde taste. Maybe you just ate whatever, drank whatever, smoked whatever. Maybe you just didn't care.
I took a sip. It tasted like the dishwater at a seafood place.
You used to bring Jane one red rose when you came, do you remember? And me nothing but a smile. We could be bought so cheaply. So cheaply that it cost you almost nothing to leave us behind.
This was the thing that I'd spent years trying not to be pissed off about. Jane threw me away; you threw Jane away. Before she went to you, we were us. After she came back, we were what you'd left behind. You defined us. I hated you for that.
And now you'd somehow defeated twenty-first century security to get in and bring me bad coffee.
"She's not here." I bit my tongue, because I'd meant to make you ask. "She lives in Queens now." And those were the first words I said to you in fifteen years.
"I know. She told me where to find you. She sends her regards," you added, with surprisingly little mockery in your voice, considering.
You looked good. Older, yes, who wasn't? Little bit jowly, the way a person gets when he finally lays off the speed. But your eyes weren't jumping around, you weren't pulling your coat around you with trembling fingers, your skin was a good warm color. You smelled, under the stink of that god-awful coffee, like shampoo.
You were keeping your hair shorter these days than when Jane had brought me that long black coil of it. Couldn't carry off that Mediterranean Byron look any more.
Eyes still the same.
You were looking at me like a person reading a book, and I couldn't help it: I wondered what you saw. You'd woken me up out of a sound sleep, so I was half dressed and not at all at my best. And it pissed me off that I cared what you thought of that.
"Why are you here?" That was something else I hadn't meant to say, but with you I always give away too much. And now you'd have some breezy answer that would show me how big your world was and how small my part in it had to be.
You're going to wonder: If I expect you to respond to everything with some proof of superiority, why do I even want to be your friend?
To tell you the truth, sometimes I'm not sure.
But you just shrugged. You palmed the top of the coffee cup, rocking it back and forth on your knee, looking down at your hand -- you always knew you had great hands; half the time you were posing them for effect -- and you shook your head and said, "You don't know."
"If it isn't Jane --"
"Jane," you said, "is a very fine human being." The way you said it, it was like dusting your hands off. There. Done with Jane. You put the coffee cup on the floor and reached into the breast pocket of your coat and came out with an envelope.
It was one of the sorriest-looking envelopes I have ever seen. It looked like it had been lying on the floor of Penn Station for the last fifteen years. The address had been scribbled through and rewritten, scribbled through and rewritten, until there was hardly any space on the front. There were at least four postmarks on it, unless one of them was a coffee stain. The only part that was still legible was your name.
In my handwriting.
"It came on Tuesday." You shrugged again. "I was moving around a lot."
For a giddy second I imagined that Fate was handing me a chance to undo one of the stupidest things I ever did. That letter had haunted me for years, imagining the smirk on your face when you read it. You fucked my girl, and I thanked you. Pathetic.
But of course I could see that you'd already opened it.
I looked up numbly from the paper to you. You were leaning forward, tense, avid. I remembered, now, what a bolt of lightning your full attention was.
"That letter," you said, "is a dirty knife. That letter is clean water. Listen: I'm a liar, and I've surrounded myself with liars. But that letter," and now you were leaning over me with your weight on your hands, "is the only honest word anyone has said to me in fifteen years."
You have beautiful eyes.
You kissed me.
It wasn't a hard kiss. It was slow and lush and hot like melted butter. But my head slammed back against the headboard and the coffee cup went tumbling off onto the carpet as every cell in my skin prickled like a hand waking up.
You sat back again and looked at me while you touched my skin. You knew my skin. You didn't need a map.
Your coat buttons were cold against my bare chest. I might have ripped it a little, getting it off of you. I might have hastened its demise.
I don't do this. Or at least it isn't something I'd done before. But when you laid me down, you were hard against me, you were hard because of me, and, christ, yes, I wanted it. I twisted to get the feel of your cock against mine -- just the thought of it took my breath away -- and you put your hand down my pants and touched me.
And, "Tell me," you said.
"Tell you what?" It took two breaths to get that out.
"Does it feel like you imagined it?"
"Fuck you," I said. "I never imagined it."
You closed your eyes at that. Your face came closer and closer, as you jerked me off, slowly, expertly, filthily, until you were leaning your cheek against mine. You were newly shaven. It's these weird things a person notices.
"Tell me," you said into my ear.
"Feels -- like -- dying," and I was gone.
You didn't give me any time to pull myself together. You undid your pants and pulled yourself off with the same hand, fast and brutal. By the time I got my eyes open, you were shooting. Eyes gone to slits, but still watching me.
You held yourself up on your elbow, panting, and I lay there for a minute wishing you would kiss me again, if only because I suspected this day was about to go downhill fast. But you looked down my body, and then, carefully, you fitted your thumb over the birthmark under my navel.
For a second I felt like I was going to swing open like a safe door.
"Cyprus," you said.
"This time tomorrow we could be eating octopus in Nicosia. Throw some shirts in a sack, come on." You were up, fastening your pants, looking at me over your shoulder like I was already making you late.
But I wondered. I went to where you were checking your coat for missing buttons, and I put my hand on your back, low down, one of those places where it's not private but just the same nobody can touch you there but a lover.
You went still for a second, and then you turned around and let me take you in my arms.
"Cyprus," I said, and already I knew there wasn't anybody that mattered that I couldn't call from the taxi.
And how much of this really happened? How much have you forgotten? How much can you attribute to differences in perspective? How much do we just make up, after the fact, to make sense of something? You may be wondering. Or maybe not. You were always less preoccupied with reality than other people.
Wherever this finds you, you'll know that it is everything I believe to be true.