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And Not the Thing Itself

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Sitting on his battered suitcase in the quad, a hefty textbook clutched one-armed to his chest like armor, Mike texts Trevor,


I think my life is over.




just come get me pls, Mike types and then he waits, trying not to look at the buildings around him. He wants to remember the grass. He might appreciate having the full picture when he’s sixty years old. He never really appreciated the trampled lawn before.


It takes Trevor a while to get to campus. He looks hung over and well-fucked. On closer inspection, he smells like girls’ perfume and laundry day clothes. Mike is sort of glad that Trevor is wearing his Ray-Bans, that his eyes are hidden as he takes in the sorry sight of Mike and his stuff and the useless book he didn’t have time to sell.


“You got busted?” Trevor asks, shouldering a duffel bag.


“They told me to leave. Can I crash with you for a few days?”


“You didn’t tell Granny Ross yet? I’m flattered, Mikey. You can crash if you don’t mind Lisette walking around naked. Her parents are nudists.”


“Naturists,” Mike corrects him automatically. “And no, I don’t mind. I just need a couple of days.”


Trevor stares until Mike shrugs. A couple of days, weeks, months. As long as it takes for Trevor to get into trouble or for Mike to come clean. It doesn’t count as a lie if neither of them believes it.




Lisette is gorgeous in that surprisingly fragile way Trevor prefers, blonde and soft-spoken. Trevor is going to break her heart someday if she lets him, Mike thinks.


Maybe she’ll break plates, the cheap thick porcelain ones Mike gave to Trevor as a housewarming gift last year. He’s so caught up in picturing the scene that he barely catches any of the conversation. Sitting across from the others in a backless Ikea chair, Mike pours wine for Lisette and plays with his food. His back starts to ache. It reminds him of the library at college.


Later, after he drices Lisette home, Trevor says, “I think she’s seeing someone else.”


Mike rubs his eyes, decides to just ask, to hell with it. “Is she? Or are you?”


It makes Trevor twitch, which is what Mike wanted. Perhaps he can delay the inevitable if he calls Trevor on his bullshit.


“Same difference. One of us is looking.”


Mike really doesn’t think it’s the same thing, but he lets it drop.


Trevor takes the beer bottle from Mike’s hand and goes to bring him a pillow and a blanket. He’s pissed off, but he’ll be fine in the morning. He won’t kick Mike off his couch for anything short of a fistfight. It’s sort of a miracle that their friendship has survived their personalities, but after more than a decade and all the shit they went through together, no one else would get them.


Mike toes his shoes off and closes his eyes.


He bites his fist in the dark, and stays put.




“We’re going out today,” Trevor announces, opening the windows to air out the living room. They’ve been working their way through the pre-rolled joints that Mike accidentally stole from his former roommate when he grabbed some of his socks. Finding them was like a punch to the stomach. Trevor found him standing outside the bathroom with a handful of drugs, staring off into space, and had smacked him on the head and produced a lighter.


And the weed made him stupid, clearly. “We’re not going out. I mean, you can go if you want. You can pick up some Chinese while I sit here and commune with your shag rug. Why the fuck did you get a shag rug?”


“To have sex on. The floor was killing my back.” Trevor smirks, then gets back to the point. “You’ve been in here for a week. We’re going on an adventure, Sleeping Beauty. You don’t even have to shower.”


“Fuck you, I shower.”


“Then you’re ready to go.”


Mike really, really isn’t. He goes anyway, because this is what Trevor does, like after Mike’s parents died. He dares and pokes and prods Mike until he stops pretending that he can hide from the world, and he makes the world interesting enough that Mike doesn’t kill him for it.




“I’m going to kill you,” Mike whispers urgently. “Can you see them?”


‘Them’ being the drug dealers chasing Mike and Trevor through the parking lot. Trevor crouches close to the ground and peeks around the front tire of the SUV, then turns around and smiles.


Mike bites his tongue.


Perfect recall, he thinks, how does this catch him by surprise every time? How does he keep forgetting that this is Trevor’s movie and Mike is the supporting character, the sidekick, the guy no one would notice if Trevor wasn’t there to draw their attention?


“They’re gone,” Trevor says.


Mike doesn’t want to be charmed, and he doesn’t want to be so damn aware of it. He spends another week in Trevor’s living room, going through their combined music collection and waiting for the other shoe to drop. If ever there were a perfect storm, it’s Trevor on a quest to save Mike from being useless. He knows how much Mike hates being useless.


Mike has known Trevor long enough to figure out that Trevor took one look at Mike in class, rattling off formulas he didn’t understand to the stunned teacher, and thought, “I want one.”




They run away.


Trevor is drinking in the passenger seat, texting someone with his left hand and throwing measuring looks at Mike once in a while. He broke up with Lisette a few hours ago, so he’s probably talking to the girl who replaced her.


Mike’s calves hurt from braking and accelerating for hours, going west. That’s what’s simple right now, so that’s what Mike focuses on, not the way he has no fucking idea what he’ll do when the trip is over. Chicago and then Route 66 seemed like a good idea at 4 in the morning, but now they sound like a countdown. When they come back he’ll have to figure his shit out.


“A sip won’t kill you, man,” Trevor says, holding out his bottle of Miller between the seats.


“I might kill us both if I’m distracted,” Mike points out. Still, they’re twenty and the dreams they briefly entertained as teens have already fallen through. Mike might as well drink and drive. Makes no difference. They sing along to the radio for a while, then lapse into silence, the Midwest wrapping around the car as meaningless as the trip itself.


Mike runs through legal precedents for driving under the influence as he drinks.




They share a cigarette in the truck stop parking lot instead of going inside to eat. Trevor keeps asking Mike if he remembers that time Mike fell out of a tree and Trevor jumped down after him and fractured his leg in three places.


“We were twelve,” Mike mutters. “Long time ago.”


“But you remember, right?”


Mike shrugs. It’s weird to see Trevor so pensive. He’s not looking at Mike at all, not even when he takes the cigarette back.


“You came to see me after school. Your grandma baked me cookies and they were all crumbly from sitting in your backpack all day, but they were awesome. She makes fucking awesome food.”


Mike thinks that the sound of Trevor’s bones breaking replaced the last thing he told his dad - “I hate you” – as the soundtrack for his guilty nightmares. The same year, Trevor’s therapist told his parents that he was developing a personality disorder. Schizoid, she called it. Mike managed not to look it up until recently, but when he did, he wondered how someone who has trouble connecting with people can also be the sort of person who jumps from a fucking tree without a second thought because their friend might be hurt.


“I want apple pie,” Trevor says, apparently over it. His eyes linger on Mike for a second as he turns towards the glass door, and then he’s gone, already chatting to a waitress. Mike replays the look in his head over and over, flashing through his references, but whatever it was – it was new.




Their room at the Econo Lodge is exactly what it says on the tin: economical. The light in the bathroom flickers; Mike’s been huddled in the corner for a while, staring up to stop himself from crying.


The door creaks open and he turns toward the sound, blinking at Trevor.


“Come on, man, none of this shit.” He sucks his lower lip into his mouth – embarrassment? Indecision? Chapped skin? – and takes a step into the room, still holding the door open. Mike goes back to his study of the ceiling.


“Gimme a minute. I’m fine.”


Trevor snorts and comes in, arms crossed. His white shirt looks cheap here. It takes a special sort of dive to make Trevor’s clothes look cheap.


“If you’re gonna have a breakdown, you should pick a better place. This makes a shitty story.”


Mike chokes on a laugh and rubs his face with both hands, then decides to just leave them there. The dark is better.


“What makes you think I give a shit about the story? I’m busy shaking on the floor, I have priorities.”


Trevor huffs and, by the sound of it, sits down on the toilet. Mike peers at him sideways from behind his hands. Somewhere in the building a baby is crying. Everything reeks of disinfectant and impermanence. Trevor doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. Mike’s grandma always says that Trevor’s rich-boy arrogance is the only armor he has, and Mike tends to agree. Mike has ambition, resilience, an awareness of his own value. Trevor has an eye for value and a taste for expensive things, the certainty that nothing but the best is worth having. They bring out the extremes in each other. When Trevor picked Mike for a best friend, Mike didn’t feel privileged, he felt like a privilege.


“You should think about stories,” Trevor says after a pause. He glances quickly at Mike to see if he’s listening. “You remember stuff, right? So you’ll remember this. Every time there’s a broken light bulb somewhere you’ll think about it. We should’ve gone camping, dude. I should’ve taken you camping.”


“You think about this a lot?”


“If you don’t forget, it’s like a movie in your head. It should be a good one, you know?”


Mike just wanted to feel disconnected for a minute so it would hurt less that he let everyone down. Or maybe that’s not what he wanted at all.


“Fine, I’ll get up. Happy?”


Trevor raises his eyebrows at him like he’s being ridiculous.




Now that he’s aware of it, Mike can see how Trevor takes charge, yeah, but he always goes for the interesting option. If they stop for diner coffee and pancakes, Trevor sits so that he’s seen, and Mike always has the seat with the better view. He points out all the interesting sights, waves at the people on bikes who pass them, changes the song if Mike frowns absently at the dials.


It’s confusing. As far back as he can remember, Mike assumed that Trevor just floated through life, doing what he wanted, going for the bright parts and disregarding everything else. He was comfortable in the knowledge that Trevor didn’t notice all the small things about him, the ways in which they’re different.


He must’ve known about Mike’s crushes on Trevor’s girlfriends. He must’ve noticed that the more Trevor pushes them away, the nicer Mike acts, trying to soften the blow.


And he must know that Mike sometimes looks at him and can’t look away, no matter how hard he tries. That Mike likes the way Trevor dragged him out of the house and messed up a drug transaction just to give Mike a shot of adrenaline, to break the rut. He stopped talking about Lisette just when Mike was working himself up to indentured servitude to distract her from Trevor’s flagging interest.


He looks back at Mike sometimes, that’s the shocking part. He’s been watching Mike since they were fourteen and Mike hooked up with Trevor’s cousin from college, the guy who broke Mike’s heart, but who also told him that he could be in pre-law already, he’s smart enough, it’s not a stupid dream. Trevor was right there and he punched his cousin in the face afterwards. He never brought him up again, but he never stopped looking after Mike, either.




Mike wakes up on the third night of the road trip and finds Trevor sitting on the edge of the bed, close enough to touch. He checks the time – four a.m. – and sits up a little, pushes the sheets down to cool off.


“I wanted to wake you up, you had a nightmare,” Trevor says. He’s looking at Mike’s chest, avoids his eyes, and Mike guesses that he’s uncomfortable. He hums and twists to reach the bottle of water on the table, but Trevor presses him back down and hands him the bottle.


Mike drains it and closes his eyes, giving himself a second to enjoy the contact. “Thanks.”


Trevor doesn’t say anything for a long moment. He drags his hand up until it’s resting on Mike’s collarbone. Then, “I don’t know how to make it better.”


“I’m the one who fucked up, Trev, this is on me.”


“The fuck it is,” Trevor says. “Whose idea was it that got you kicked out? You deserved to be there and I fucked it up for you. I just thought, Mike’s bored.”


“I was,” Mike admits. It hurts to say that he was bored when being there was all he’d wanted. “I was bored out of my head, you have no idea.”


Trevor’s mouth twists in an awful smile. “You would’ve been such a good boy if I hadn’t run my mouth, don’t even try.”


If this was still Mike’s dream, he’d sit up and kiss the smile off Trevor’s face. He’d know what to say to that, too, but it doesn’t matter. Trevor keeps him down with a hand balled in Mike’s dirty shirt, and then he gets up and goes to his own bed.


“You’re already doing enough,” Mike tells him helplessly. The truth is too complicated. There are things neither of them will ever, ever say, and cues they missed years ago.


“That’s bullshit. I’m taking you to California.”


When they were sixteen and Trevor still had a slight limp from jumping down from the tree, Mike spent a whole night watching Trevor sleep, talking himself out of climbing into bed with him. It wasn’t until morning that he realized that Trevor hadn’t been asleep: his back had been turned, but he could see Mike in the mirror on the dresser. It was the last sleepover they had before Trevor moved out and Mike started sleeping on his couch instead.


“It’s not bullshit.”


Mike already knows what he’ll tell his grandmother. He’ll tell her it was his idea, because Trevor didn’t do anything wrong. He was trying to help and Mike was careless as usual. Mike doesn’t do well on his own.


“Go to sleep,” Trevor says. “Long day tomorrow.” Mike takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. If he’ll have to think about this night every time a connection sparks in his brain, he wants to make sure he narrows down the smell.


His mind’s like fly paper. It buzzes with all the nasty things he catches. He never forgets about Trevor’s bones breaking for him, so he’ll never stop paying him back.


“Just go to sleep, Mike. I can feel you staring.”