It’s an experiment based on a hypothesis based on a coincidence. They’re sharing a room on a roadie, and Nursey has been stuck in a dry spell for a week and a half now. The words just haven’t been coming the way he wants them to, and he’s starting to feel dried out, like all the creative juices have been wrung out of him by school stress and lack of sleep. Maybe it’ll never come back. Maybe he’s just done. All washed up by the tender age of twenty.
He’s not even trying to write as he watches Dex from across the room, tracking his fidgets and expressions as he sits hunched over his laptop frowning at the screen. It’s been a while since he and Dex have been in the same room for an extended period of time – a fortnight, about. Dex has been on a project, and Nursey started isolating himself about when the drought hit. But it was nice to sit with him on the bus today, and it’s nice to dump his bag near the bed and just relax, hands behind his head, and drink in his presence. It feels like something he’s been missing for far too long.
Nursey’s not sure what it is that makes the words start coming back, but it’s like a cloudburst on a hot day – a few lines, scattered drops against a parched sidewalk, then all at once he’s drowning.
He writes for four hours that night. His poems are full of microchips and anger, all about the gray morality of man against the rigidity of binary code, and by one a.m., when he should really be getting his beauty rest for tomorrow’s game, he’s starting to formulate a theory.
The theory is that maybe being in Dex’s proximity jumpstarts his creativity. In a phrase, Dex inspires him.
So Nursey resolves to test it.
He brings his notebook to the rink. After practice, he forgoes the showers to write poems about red on white. The metaphors jump onto the page. He looks at what he’s done and thinks it needs editing, but it’ll work. Then he looks up and realizes everyone’s gone. Also, he stinks. He goes in the shower and thinks about Dex racing alongside him, and the words keep on coming.
Near midterms, he follows Dex down an autumn-leaf-lined path to the library. He should ostensibly be studying for his U.S. history exam. Instead, when he gets to Founder’s he cracks open the notebook and writes about what it must feel like to be brittle and breakable, like a dried leaf on the sidewalk. It’s an interesting exploration.
He and Dex are absolutely crushed at flip cup by Lardo and one of the volleyball girls. It’s funny as hell. Dex puts a hand on his shoulder and nearly doubles over with laughter. Nursey then creeps off to a corner, finds a napkin, and jots down a few brief sentences on the nature of failure. For the subject matter, it’s a remarkably optimistic poem. He stuffs it in his pocket and finds it two weeks later. It gives him a grin as he copies it carefully into his notebook.
Now it’s near finals time, and Nursey’s tasked to write a series of poems on a theme. He’s having trouble finding one that works. He’s jotted a few lines about calm, tried a verse or two on the changing of seasons, but nothing’s feeling right. So he finally gives up the ghost and texts Dex.
me: Yo Dex.
William J. Poindexter: what’s up
me: Can I ask you a weird favor?
William J. Poindexter: …
William J. Poindexter: does this have anything to do with that drama girl
me: I just need your help with my final.
William J. Poindexter: which final
me: Poetry and the Creative Process.
William J. Poindexter: …how the hell am i supposed to help YOU with poetry
me: This is gonna sound weird…
William J. Poindexter: it already sounds weird.
me: Well this is gonna be weirder.
me: I need to follow you around for a few days.
William J. Poindexter: you… what?
William J. Poindexter: you need to follow me where?
me: Everywhere. I mean, not to class or the bathroom or anything.
me: Just… let me be in the same room as you when you’re doin shit.
William J. Poindexter: why in the hell would i let you stalk me nurse
me: how bout just 1 day
me: just hang out with me for 1 day
me: you won’t even know I’m there
me: it’ll be chill man you’ll see
William J. Poindexter: you’re fuckin weird
me: I know, I know.
William J. Poindexter: ok ONE DAY
me: chill. see you at team breakfast tomorrow?
William J. Poindexter: ok fine
William J. Poindexter: have i mentioned you’re fuckin weird
Nursey makes sure he’s as subtle as he can be about it. The next day, he doesn’t even sit down next to Dex at team breakfast. He’s down the table and across the way, trying not to steal little glances at Dex between downing bites of cereal and scrawling heavily inked lines on the nature of breakfast as a symbolic beginning. He feels Dex’s gaze on him occasionally, but doesn’t return it. There’s no reason to. Dex’s presence is enough.
After breakfast, Dex heads to class. Nursey walks a few feet behind him for the first quarter of the journey, trying to stay inconspicuous. Already thoughts are percolating in his head about walking behind versus walking next to, how sometimes it’s okay to follow. At the corner near the bridge, though, Dex stops and turns back to him, frowning.
“Just fucking walk with me, Nurse,” he says. “Stop being a creeper.”
Nursey jogs up to his side. They keep walking. A whole new stanza erupts in his mind.
He lets Dex go to class, and then he has a class himself. They meet up at lunchtime. The dining hall is crowded, and Nursey can only find a seat clear across the way from where Dex sits down. He sits down, chomping on chicken tenders and mentally composing words on the nature of distance and separation. A minute later, his phone buzzes angrily on the table.
William J. Poindexter: just fucking come sit with me dude
Nursey scoops up tray and notebook and phone into his arms and does his level best not to lose any of the three as he makes his way across the cafeteria.
“So,” Dex says as he sits down. “Is it helping?”
“The following me around thing. Is it helping with your project?”
Nursey shrugs. “Yeah, kind of.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out what this is all about,” Dex says. “I don’t really get creative types.”
“I don’t get them either, and I am one,” Nursey says with a laugh.
“No kidding. I feel like I’ve seen nothing but you scribbling all semester long. You must be damn good at writing.”
“I’m not bad,” Nursey says. And then, without meaning to, he adds, “I’m better when I’m with you.”
The apples of Dex’s cheeks pink; he frowns hard, looking down at his plate. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Dude, I don’t even know,” Nursey says with a shrug. “Words are coming easier when you’re around. Something I noticed a couple of months ago, and I’ve been coasting on it since.”
“So I’m, like, your muse or something?”
Dex has a crooked smirk on his face, and Nursey isn’t sure if he’s getting chirped. But truth is truth. “If the shoe fits, man,” he says, suddenly nervous about Dex’s response.
But Dex just shrugs. “Oh, okay.” He pauses. “Guess you should probably come over then.”
Footsteps, thinks Nursey, are the basic beat of human activity. Every human, save those unable, learns to walk. Walking is the most basic form of human movement. Before cars, before bicycles and ice skates, humans moved, and thus lived, through walking.
So he listens to Dex’s footfalls now, a few steps ahead of his own, and thinks there might be a poem in that.
(A few moments ago, he had looked at Dex, incredulous. “What?”
“You might as well come over,” Dex repeated. “I’m not going anywhere after lunch. Just going home to study.”
“Oh.” Nursey said. “So wait, you’re cool with that?”
“If it’s gonna help you with your project. Besides, I already said it was okay. Remember?”
“Oh.” Nursey’s a little dazed by the easiness, the openness of Dex’s invitation. “Right. Of course you did.”)
“Hey, Nurse.” The footfalls stop.
Dex glances over his shoulder. “So. Are the words coming now?”
“Um…” Nursey tries to step forward as though untroubled. He nearly trips over his own feet. His hands go out as he tries to regain his balance. Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees Dex smirking. “Yeah. Um. Yeah, they’re coming.”
“Good,” Dex says, and now he’s definitely smiling – his lips curved upward in a thin arc. He waits a second, then keeps walking.
Nursey continues to follow, and it occurs to him that maybe it’s no mistake that the basic unit of meter used in poetry is called the foot.
Dex’s roommate is there when they arrive. He’s a round tub of a guy, and he nods a hello as they enter, then returns to surfing the web. Dex nods back. Nursey gives a cursory “Sup.” They stake out spots on opposite ends of Dex’s bed. Nursey takes out his notebook, Dex his laptop, and the room falls into silence. Three sets of breath, just out of sync, no other noise.
Nursey listens to it. Wonders about human breath. Togetherness and aloneness. The three of them, separate islands in a small space. Each self-contained. An archipelago of human life. He loves that word – archipelago. He should really put it in a poem one of these days.
He scrawls the word, in big slanting letters, on a blank page of his notebook.
“What does that mean?”
Nursey jumps. Dex is leaning over, peering at the page.
Shutting the notebook quickly, Nursey frowns. “What are you doing?”
“Just curious,” Dex says. “You’re not writing much.”
Nursey straightens his shoulders, takes in a breath. Tries to make himself big and self-contained, a mountain. “It’s a group of islands,” he says. “An archipelago.”
“That is one long word,” Dex says flatly. “I suppose you like that kind of word.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Nursey says. “I suppose you don’t.”
“I don’t know why you need that many sounds in a word.”
“Syllables,” Nursey corrects.
“See, that’s another one. ‘Sounds’ works just fine. Why do you need a longer word for it?”
Nursey frowns. “Words should have weight,” he says. “Meaning. Resonance, man. Like… they should sound like what they are. This word, archipelago. Ar. Chi. Pe. La. Go. It sounds like a bunch of islands. Islands of sound, you know? Come on, that’s pretty dope.”
“Too long,” Dex says immediately, but then he’s silent, and if Nursey looks hard, he thinks he can see the wheels turning.
Dex’s roommate leaves for class about 45 minutes later. It’s been quiet the whole time, save the chatter of Dex’s fingers on the keyboard and the scratches of Nursey’s pen. To the tune of Dex’s typing, Nursey’s been writing – about feet and footsteps, about islands, about that moment when you’re abruptly in someone’s space and you never expected to be there. Stanzas curl down the page like creeping ivy.
When Dex leaned over, he’d scooted a few inches toward Nursey to see, and he hasn’t returned to his original spot. They’re still pretty much at opposite ends of the bed, Dex at the foot and Nursey curled up near the pillows, but they’re that much closer. And Dex could banish Nursey to the desk chair, or the floor – or go there himself – but he doesn’t. Strange, the distances people choose to put between themselves and others. And the people they choose to bridge those distances. Nursey writes two quick lines about it, then turns the page.
“Ugh,” Dex says out of nowhere. “This problem set.”
Nursey glances at him, but doesn’t answer. There’s nothing to say.
“Can I see what you’re writing?” Dex asks after another minute.
This knocks Nursey for a loop. “What?”
“I just gotta look at something besides this screen.” Dex waves a hand at the laptop. “And, you know. It’s your poetry. I’m interested.”
Nursey has to laugh a little. “Dude, we just had a conversation about how multisyllabic words are too much for you, and now you’re interested?”
“Why not?” Dex doesn’t take the “multisyllabic” bait. “I’ve never read your poems.”
“Because they’re not your thing!” Nursey doesn’t mean to discourage him, but he doesn’t know what to do with this sudden turnaround. “You’ve even told me you don’t do poetry.”
“Yeah, but…” Dex coughs. “I didn’t know I inspired them.”
Oh. Yeah, of course Dex would be interested in that. “Dude, I don’t write odes to your red hair or sonnets about your freckles or anything. The words come when you’re around, but that doesn’t mean they’re about you.”
“No?” Is that disappointment in Dex’s face? Nah, probably just his usual sour look. “What are they about, then?”
Feet and islands. “I dunno.” Nursey flips through his book. “Um, just broad concepts, mostly. Morality, the fragility of life, the nature of failure. Stuff like that?”
Dex wrinkles his nose. “Failure? I make you write about failure?”
Nursey laughs, and he flips to that page. “It’s not that kind of poem, dude.” Scooting a bit closer, he passes over the notebook. “Here. Look.”
Their fingers brush as Dex takes the notebook. Frowning, Dex mumbles the words. Nursey knows them well by now.
Failure is a book
I have written many times.
I set the type with hands ink-soaked and dark
and watch the letters sink, butter-like,
into burning parchment.
Every year, the pages yellow
and their edges curl,
but I run my fingers over the words
and murmur, smiling,
'I know this now.’
“It needs some editing,” Nursey says.
Dex’s face is a little pink. “It’s good.”
“It’s… it is?”
“I mean, you said it,” Dex says. “Poetry’s not my thing. But I like the, I don’t know, image? Or metaphor?” Lines crease his brow over the bridge of his nose. “It’s just good.”
Nursey wants to tell Dex, you’re being really nice. He wants to say, thanks for that. He wants to say, if it’s good, it’s because of you.
He doesn’t. He says, “Chill, man.”
He takes back the notebook, but he doesn’t scoot back against the corner of the bed. They’re a few inches closer than they were. Nursey turns again to the blank page and starts to write about shoulders that almost touch and space that almost isn’t. It’s not a poem about them. There’s still a good foot and a half between them. But it could be them, maybe. Someday.
Somewhere around the vicinity of four p.m. the words dry up. Nursey comes to the end of a stanza and abruptly discovers that’s the end of the poem; he scowls at the page as though trying to scare the words into appearing. Sighing, he puts down his pen, flexes his writing hand, and glances over at Dex.
Dex is in that glazed-eyes place where it’s clear he’s only conscious of what’s happening on his screen. His fingers move, quick skitters across the keyboard, and he stares, and Nursey marvels at what must be happening in that mind to direct those fingers so quickly and allow no other movement. The brain-to-fingers-to-keyboard-to-computer connection, happening in microseconds, an organic mind and an artificial one in a nearly instantaneous give-and take. What would happen, Nursey thinks, if human beings could access each other’s minds through something as simple as the right sequence of touches?
As he watches, the clack of computer keys slows, and Dex slowly blinks his way out of singlemindedness. He turns, and there’s something in the tilt of his jaw, the way the light hits the hollow of his cheek, that strikes Nursey. A kind of perfection, revealed for an instant in angle and line. When Dex’s lips part, Nursey finds himself frustrated by the lack of clarity of his own vision. He inches closer, trying to get a better look.
“What?” Dex says. Nursey’s gaze is on the curl of those lips into the W, their relaxation after the initial sound.
I want to kiss you, Nursey thinks. His heart thumps, and he shakes the thought away.
“Nothing,” he says instead. “Looking for words.”
Dex frowns. “I thought you said the words weren’t about me.”
“They’re not.” Nursey corrects himself. “Some of them are.”
But maybe a lot of them are, if he looks at them closely. Dex’s footfalls. Dex’s shoulders. Dex’s lonely perch on the bed, an island unto himself. There’s a universe in Dex, somehow, and when he’s around, Nursey can glimpse it.
“Well, stop staring,” Dex says, but something changes around his eyes and mouth, then. “I mean. If you have to look, I guess it’s okay. For your project.”
“Yeah, okay.” Nursey’s still caught on Dex’s features, the subtle relaxation when his expression changed. There’s a whole poem there, if Nursey wanted to reach out and grab it. But his palm itches. “Can I actually see your hand for a minute?”
“My hand?” Dex lifts his right hand, the closest to Nursey, off the keyboard and draws it back protectively.
“Yeah.” Nursey raises his own left arm, palm up. “Type on me.”
“What?” Dex wrinkles his nose again.
“Like I’m a keyboard. Just - type on me for a bit. I wanna see if you can program me like a computer.” Nursey offers the most winning grin he’s got.
Dex says flatly, “You’re crazy.”
“So what if I am? Just for a second. Pretend I’m a computer. Try and code me.”
“You’re not a computer.” But Dex sets his laptop down beside him and angles his body toward Nursey.
“Humor me, Poindexter. Just for a second. Just until the words come.”
“You’re crazy,” Dex repeats, but he lifts his hands like a maestro sitting at a grand piano and rests his fingertips on Nursey’s arm. He thinks for a moment, then begins typing.
His fingers come down on Nursey’s arm, here and there, like scattered raindrops. Nursey marvels at the specificity of the sensation. Dex hits one spot and Nursey gets goosebumps. He hits another and a shiver wracks Nursey’s spine. His fingers are quick and agile, and his face is stern – that same singlemindedness, applied now to Nursey’s body, fingers finding every button on Nursey’s skin and expertly pushing.
“What are you typing?” Nursey asks through a strangely dry mouth.
“I’m writing a program to figure out the reasons you’re so weird,” Dex says. His mouth quirks. “Is this helping? Are the words coming?”
“Almost,” Nursey says. “There’s inspiration in this. Not sure how to describe it. It’s in the way you’re… making contact. The way your fingers feel.”
Dex catches his gaze. “Are you sure you don’t want a girl doing this to you?”
The answer comes simple as an exhalation. “No. It has to be you.”
Dex blinks, gold-flecked eyes momentarily obscured, hidden suns. “Okay.” He keeps typing.
Two sets of breath now, instead of three, Nursey thinks. And they’re coming in near-unison now, just as Dex’s knees are now tucked up close to Nursey’s legs, just as they’re face to face over the weak barrier of Nursey’s outstretched arm. The archipelago, disrupted. Two islands merging into one.
“Continental drift,” Nursey murmurs.
“Hm?” Dex doesn’t stop typing, but he does look Nursey in the eyes again.
Were their faces this close before? Or is this how it always happens, so slow as to not be noticed, as though in geological time? Nursey could write endless verses on it, on humanity as geography, closeness and contact as features on a map. All he has to do is withdraw his arm and pick up his pen again.
Instead, he lifts his palm and curls his fingers around Dex’s left hand.
The typing stops, and Dex’s other hand falls, as though in defeat, to Nursey’s elbow. “Nurse?”
“Poindexter,” Nursey says, and then, “Will,” because there’s no room for surnames in this small a space.
They draw breaths in unison, exhale in unison. The curl of Nursey’s hair brushes Dex’s forehead.
Dex licks his lips quickly. “Nurse.” His voice quavers. “Your words…?”
“My words can wait,” Nursey says, and kisses him.
Dex’s hand tightens on his arm. Nursey doesn’t know if that’s what he expected, or if he expected something different – for Dex to pull away, maybe, or yell or storm out – but that’s what’s happening, and Dex’s other hand still curls warm and long-fingered in Nursey’s palm. He’s not pulling away – no, he’s kissing back – and his lips are warm, his tongue a flicker of sweet heat as it finds Nursey’s lower lip. Nursey thrills. Maybe it’s possible, after all, to connect two minds through something as simple as the right touch.
Their lips part. They stare a moment, then find each other again. The second kiss is shorter than the first, but more tender, more searching. Dex’s free hand wanders up to his shoulder and holds him there. Nursey’s sure he feels Dex shudder. He reaches up with his own free hand, finds that perfect angle of jaw and cheek, and touches it with reverent fingers.
The kiss ends. They blink, stare, squint at each other like they’ve just been bathed in sudden sunlight.
“Nurse,” Dex starts, rough gravel in his voice.
“Shh,” Nurse says with a smile. “The words are coming.”
Dex’s grin is quickly hidden as he turns away. Nursey takes a minute to enjoy the blush that paints a background of pink against Dex’s freckles. Then, he reaches for his notebook and starts to write.