“You don’t think much of my question,” the therapist said.
Mark dug his heels into the carpet and glanced sideways through the window into the gleaming car-filled parking lot. “I just don’t get why it’s important. It’s stupid.”
“‘Do you have a girlfriend’ is stupid?”
“Yes,” Mark said, gripping the edge of the chair in his thin fingers. “Of course I don’t.”
“Why ‘of course’?”
“Because…” Mark’s silence swelled and engulfed his two dark eyes. “Because I’m gay.”
The therapist watched Mark gaze in silence at his shoes. His mouth was a trembling fault line threatening to seize his face in an earthquake and break his defiant expression. His cheeks were stained pink, and the therapist noticed how Mark gnawed at his lower lip. “I appreciate it took courage to tell me that,” he said. “Have you told anyone else?”
“My brother,” Mark mumbled, avoiding the therapist’s smile by pulling his hair over his face. “Can we not talk about it?”
“You are the one who brought it up, Mark,” the therapist said.
“That was to get you to stop asking that stupid question.”
“Can you tell me how your brother took what you told him?”
“He…” Mark sighed, tapping his fingers against the chair. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did he react badly?”
“No.” A spasm shook Mark’s face, making his cheek twitch.
“Mark, how did your brother react?”
Mark exhaled loudly, burying his face further in his hair with a shake of his head.“He…he’s gay too.”
“He told you that?”
“How did you respond to that?”
Mark’s silence reared its head as it filled the room, competing with the sun to blind the therapist to his pinched expression of pain.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Mark said.
“Were you angry with him?”
“I don’t understand why you’re so reluctant to tell me,” the therapist said.
The therapist set aside his notebook, drew up his chair, and gave Mark a clear, penetrating stare. “What are you not telling me?” he said, watching Mark’s face split and dissolve. The tears shook his voice.
“I…I…you-you wouldn’t understand!”
The therapist leaned forward. “Mark, did your brother…touch you?”
Mark ground his teeth, staring furiously out the window. The light played with the luster of his eyes, making the tears glint on his cheeks. “He…he didn’t do anything to me I didn’t want him to do,” Mark whispered.
There’s a split inside me—the me that watches and the me that watches me watching. When I walk down the hall of the house I can see the shadows lengthen behind me. There is a murmur to my steps that makes me want to hush but I don’t. My brother. He’s in his room with the door closed. I can hear music seeping through the wood. It’s loud and metallic and I wonder what he’s wearing.
The music stops and the door opens. My brother stands in the doorway. The light from the sunset is making him look dark against the light. His blond hair is a mess atop his head, his eyes wide open electrical sockets waiting to be plugged in. “Hey, Julian,” he says, scratching at the scraggly down that’s sprouting from his cheeks. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I say, stopping in my walking to stand before Mark and watch myself sigh. “What are you doing?”
“Homework. I need to show you something.”
I walk into Mark’s rumpled bedroom. Clothes stain the carpet. He’s got his laptop going, and he walks up to it and starts fiddling with the mouse. He’s all jerky, like he’s losing control of his limbs, and I can see the damp fingers of perspiration darkening his chest through his gray shirt.
“Look at this,” he says, backing away from the screen. Peering over his shoulder, I see two men, they are naked and one has tied the other up and he’s—
I shudder. My body plummets forty stories into ice-cold water. I lose the bottom, and my limbs float about me as I struggle for equilibrium.
“No,” I whisper.
“No, I’m not doing that to you.”
I am at the bottom of a pool and every way I turn is down. Turning away from the computer, I cross my arms and mutter, “Because I just don’t want to, Mark.” The man on the screen moans: a deep tear that rips through me. I shove open the door, but Mark closes it with his fist.
“No,” he says. His eyes are sending off sparks that bounce into the dim corners of the room. He presses me against the door, raises my shirt with his thin fingers, drinking in my pale chest as if he’d been kept away in a monastery for thirty years. My skin prickles, jolts of electricity from Mark’s eyes setting all my hairs on end. He draws up close to me. I feel his breath pulse and waver. The pounding of my heart couples with the beat of the moans from the computer, hysterical, naked. Dread swells in my chest, constricting round my heart like a steel trap. “Mark, this is driving me crazy, don’t—it’s wrong—”
“I know,” he murmurs. His pale face reflects the opposite of my terrified face as his mouth widens into a hungry grin. “Come on, Julian. Again.”
I am suspended, weightless. My insides have filled with helium and I am floating up toward the ceiling as Mark brushes his lips against my neck. The light from the sunset smolders and collects into the smudged edge of the dark sky outside, tangling my floating head up in shadows as Mark lifts my shirt over my head—my veins turn to ice—but his lips are warm as they find my hardening nipple—
“Wait,” I breathe. “Don’t, Mark, don’t—”
He snaps his head up, glaring at me with cheeks that steam they’re so red. “You didn’t say that last night,” he says, clenching his teeth.
“What’s so different now?”
“I don’t know,” I say, grabbing my shirt from the floor and shoving my way into it with jerking arms. “You seem…different. I mean…” I shoved open the door. “I mean, yesterday you were scared, and now you’re not. I can’t explain it, but I feel like you hate me right now, and I don’t like it…”
Standing in the doorway, Mark shakes his head. His fists are clenched. “You’re high, Julian,” he whispers. “You’re not making sense. Go away.”
The door closes. Standing in the darkness of the hall, I hear the moans abruptly cease and become the loud music. And shuddering beneath I hear Mark’s muffled sobs start. And stop. And start.
Mark waits in a small white room. There is a dark stain across his cheek and tears studded within the redness like broken glass. His face shatters as he clutches himself in the cold of the hospital. Around his bare skin is a paisley hospital gown open at the back. His feet are bare. A fluorescent light hums and pulses above his head, bleaching all the shadows white. Jesus was naked too when he was crucified. The chair he sits on is hard and plastic. There are no windows.
The door opens. There is no waft of air, for the air is dead. A nurse wearing blue scrubs walks in, stepping very lightly. She is young, nails pink, fresh-faced. Mark stares at her with wild eyes. They crease the lines between his brow into a gnarled canyon of shadow.
“The doctor will be seeing you shortly,” the nurse says, “I just need your help in filling out a few forms.”
She carries a clipboard and a pen and Mark notices this with a rush of bile in his throat. “Kill me,” he whispers, his voice hoarse.
“What is your full name?” the nurse says, clicking the ballpoint pen in her hand. The sound makes Mark’s face spasm.
“Fuck you,” he breathes. His breath comes out hot in the cold room, making him think he is setting himself on fire. “Go away.”
A strap, binding him to a bed, a needle, a flood of warm fog billowing from behind his eyes, arms straining, screams torn from some primal place inside him where he is still afraid of the dark. Thoughts gliding down dark tunnels into some secret ocean he’d never known was in him, tumbling down down down into the depths of the silence. Limp body, sweat inching down his bare back. A doctor, white coat, glasses. No sex, just skin.
“What brings you here tonight?”
“Why did she bring you here?”
“She called the cops.”
“Why did she do that?”
“Is it because you threatened her with a knife, which is what she told the police?”
“I only did that because—” lockdown on your tongue slam down the portcullis draw up the bridge the memories are slipping between your fingers, they’re spilling into the sweat on your back into the twitching of your fingers, spinning their webs to catch flies and your mother is slapping you across the face and you’re in nothing but your underwear and your brother is sitting naked in the corner with his mouth gaping like a wound and the electricity is going haywire behind your eyes and you’re shoving your mother into the wall and you run past her into the kitchen and grab a knife from the countertop the electricity is not whispering anymore but screaming and you’re crying and when your mother rushes into the kitchen you hold the knife in front of you and you scream at her-
“You don’t understand!”
“Try to tell me.”
“What about your father?”
The whispers of the sheets. A bitter taste in your mouth. The chill of the air conditioning and the iciness of your feet as he slips into the bed beside you and you pretend to be asleep because you are frozen in ice and each touch threatens to shatter you and when he’s done you lie in the dark and you scrape your skin raw and nothing will make you talk again and nothing will make you wake up and he will come again and you will wonder why when he stops—
“Please! I just want to be dead!”
“Do you have a plan for how you want to die?”
“I’ll swallow all my pills, I’ll slit my wrists, I’ll jump off a bridge, just don’t make me go home don’t make me go back there!”
“Are you not safe at home?”
“Is somebody hurting you?”
“Leave me alone!”
The faint kiss of steam as the shower engulfs your body. Scrub your skin raw with the heat pressing down like a coma. Oblivion. The stir of your dick clutched in your fist. The down on the back of Julian’s neck as he crouches over his guitar. Fingers plucking at strings, plucking your skin. Shimmer of warmth engulfing your chest. The stir of your nostrils as you breathe in his hair. Your dick stiffens in your hand as the cum drips onto your fingers and you shudder and spasm. And the ocean inside you turns cold—
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore…”
“All right. I’ll get you a bed.”
Goodnight skin. Goodnight lights. Goodnight bed. Goodnight Daddy you are sleeping and the blankets are warm. Mommy sleeps too, her hair tangled in pillows soft and white I am lying between them safe and small in the bed where Mommy and Daddy sleep together and the cricket noises have swollen and broken through the open window and the moon shines. I am not sleeping—Daddy protect me—Mommy don’t let me float away into the moon—don’t let me go—keep me safe—keep me small—I want to lie still and listen to you breathe in the night with your hair tangled round my fingers and Daddy snoring warm safe strong…
You long to be with him beneath the cherry tree in the dusk of dawn in the cradle of your arm oh how you long to be free of him, Jules. Get your possessions into a suitcase and board the Bolt bus to God knows where they’ll never find you. Lean your lean face against the window pane and dream of a life where no one knows your name. Boy, you’ve got secrets and they’re all going to disappear when you die so why not start now? Walk the streets in the dark get lost on a park bench fade out into the smear of the headlights as they swish by oh you’ve got nothing to hide now. Cradle your hands feel the callouses on your fingertips the wind as it toys with your hair the fresh scent of cherry blossom as it falls from the trees above how they glow in the lights from the city how the petals drift onto your head like a kiss before bed—Ah, how you’ll always remember! His frightened look as he twisted his hands into your hair and stroked the brown softness and your knotted stomach as you let him pet you blind to anything but his petting and the sweetness of his lips the pain of his lips on yours as you sigh into him while you pull away from him you are dizzy oh you are weak— and you’ll never leave. You’ll lock the doors. You’ll grow fat. You’ll get a life on the internet and your skin will glow white like the moon. Your heart will become rock become small become coal soot up your blood it will forever be winter inside you. And the sun will shine through your bedroom window. And the seasons will ebb and flow outside the climate controlled rooms of your family’s house. And though the lines will kiss your face with shadows dear you will never grow old.
Wake up. Again. Flat pillow smelling of baby powder. Nighttime outside. Blanket too thin. Get up. Use bathroom. Can’t shave without someone watching. Get dressed. Can’t wear shoelaces. Shove open door. Fluorescent lights burn white circles under eyes. Pink enamel nurse’s station. Cracked linoleum floor mental patients pacing before breakfast. Telephone wires. Televisions blaring the morning news shows. Nurses roaming the halls like gaggles of brightly colored geese. Walk into kitchen where breakfast is laid out on trays. Go to marked tray. Start eating Styrofoam pancakes and drink lukewarm brown water. Glare at lady who sits down, slurps her brown tea between brown teeth. Shudder. Get up. Walk to nearest TV and sit down. Brightly colored lights, loud noises. Rain outside muffled beneath shouts coming from game room. The brown smear of the city outside the window. No sound of traffic below. Television turned off. Time for goals group. Hunch into a corner like a gargoyle and glare at everyone. Listen to mental patients plead to the positive thinking gods amidst tears. Continue to glare when it’s time. Spit something hostile out. Turn face away and sulk. Feel eyes grow hot. Dig nails into arm. Grind teeth. Get up for morning stretch and leave. Crawl back into bed. Put blanket over head. Pretend to disappear. Snores of roommate mix with the blaring television sets. Cold. Sunlight slanting through shuttered window pane crawling up the green linoleum floor toward the door. Watch this. Shudder. Pretend to be empty.
A knock on the door shook the silence of the room. Mark, twisting his head, looked up from his bed to see the therapist standing in the doorway. In the fluorescent light he looked tired and old though he was young. “May I come in?” he said. Mark twisted again, gave a quick nod of his head. The therapist crossed the threshold and walked across the slanting rays of the sun toward the empty bed beside Mark’s and sat down. The sunlight youthened his face, played with the gold in his glasses’ frames, twinkled.
“How are you feeling?” he said.
“Swell,” Mark spat. “Never better.”
“What is it that you want, Mark?”
“I want everyone to go away.”
“They have. But I don’t see you feeling any better.”
Mark glared at the therapist with eyes that threatened to burn themselves out like supernova. “How do you know no one has come to visit me?” he whispered.
“Your mother called.”
Mark’s face pinched, fled from expression, trembled. “Oh God,” he said.
“Mark, what’s going on at home?” The therapist, swiping off his glasses, began to message his temples. “Has someone been hurting you?”
“Mark? Has someone been hurting you?”
“Who has been hurting you, Mark?”
“Why? Are you doing so well on your own?”
A sob escaped Mark, long, low, limp. Sobs flooded his chest, erupting between his teeth, shattering the silence of the room. His face contorted, his fingers dug into the pillow he was clutching to his chest. He cried as if he had been abandoned on an island to die, desperate, feral. He clung to the pillow, burying his face in it. The therapist watched quietly.
“I can’t,” Mark hissed between sobs, “I can’t I can’t I can’t do this anymore!”
“What can’t you do?” the therapist said.
“This—life!” Mark sobbed, dissolving into a quivering ball surrounding his pillow. “I just want to die, I don’t want to do this anymore!”
“Mark. your life is hard, this is true,” the therapist said. “And you have been given a raw deal. But you can choose how the rest of your life is going to be right now. Tell me who is hurting you, Mark.”
“He…he doesn’t do it anymore!” Mark breathed, clutching his pillow to his chest. “He doesn’t do it anymore.”
“Who doesn’t do what anymore?”
“My…” Mark shuddered, spasmed, sobbed. “My father. He doesn’t…he doesn’t touch me anymore!”
The therapist was silent as Mark rocked over his pillow, his mouth a torn gash in his face, his eyes closed. “Mark, I am so sorry,” he murmured.
“Do you understand that this was not your fault?”
“I don’t know!” Mark said, clawing at his hair as it fell over his face. “I don’t know anymore! I was bad, I know I was, I should never have…I should never have slept in his bed!”
“Mark, every child does that, there was nothing you could do to provoke your father to do this to you.”
“How do you know?” Mark hissed. “I’m just like him anyway, I…I touched Julian! I did! I—I liked it…” Mark cringed.
“If you liked it then why do you look sick?”
“Mark, you don’t want to hurt your brother, you love your brother,” the therapist said. “I can see that.”
“Then why?” he said. “Why am I like this?!”
“You want control,” the therapist said. ”You want to make sense of what happened to you.”
“No! I’m sick, I’m evil, I’m…!”
“It’s those thoughts that have led you to this point, Mark,” the therapist murmured. Mark watched him, took in the face without condemnation, that was soft like an impressionist painting. He bit his lip, shuddered.
“How can I live with myself now?”
“Once you have hope for yourself, Mark, there will be hope,” the therapist said.
The elevator was cold and the lights were too bright. They hummed like locusts in summer heat and it made my skin itch at the memory of his skin. The ding of each floor sent shivers through me. I could feel my heart grow heavy, bruised. It dragged among my feet, getting kicked around by passerby. The elevator door opened and the bright lights of the hospital ward blinded me. I walked toward a nurse and murmured, “I’m looking for Mark. I’m his brother.” She looked at me as if I’d told her my darkest secret and said, “Room 403” before drifting away. Watching her disappear round a corner, I walked down the bright linoleum hallway, noting each number with a spasm in my gut.
403 was at the end of the hall. I stopped in front of its half open door, felt the weight of my heart pulling me back to the elevator, as if I were caught in an undertow. I was spinning while standing perfectly still, watching the door stand solid and thick. The hair on my arms saluted the air. With a chill I knocked on the door. There was silence. A rustle of blankets. Stillness.
“Go away,” Mark said softly.
“It’s Julian,” I said, my voice soft too. “Can I come in?”
The chill of the hospital air made my lungs tense as I took a deep breath, noticing the dimness of the room beyond the half-open door. “No, listen,” I murmured, “I want to talk to you, Mark. Please. You can kick me out if you don’t like what I say, but just give me a chance.”
A rustle of blankets. A sigh. “Fine,” Mark said. I pushed open the door and walked into the small, bare room. Mark lay curled up in his hospital gown on a low bed, clutching a pillow to his chest, his hair a mess, his eyes blood shot from crying. I sat down on the bed next to his, watching him watch me watch him with frightened eyes. The silence between us swelled and enveloped the room in its shadow. I cleared my throat, feeling myself shake beneath my jacket.
“Listen, Mark…you should run away,” I said, running my fingers through my hair. “Go someplace where nobody knows you. I’ve got money, I’ll give it to you. Just go.”
Mark gazed at me with dazed eyes, his hands convulsively squeezing his pillow to his chest. “What?” he murmured, his voice thick and slow. “Where would I go?”
“I don’t know, New York?” I said, the ice in my blood freezing the expression of fear on my face. “I don’t care, just leave, Mark.”
“You want me to go?” he whispered, a tear in his voice ripping through the chilled air like a knife. “Is that it?” His face was twisted, torn, the lines in his brow deepening, thick.
“It’s for you, for both of us, for Christ’s sake—it’s either you or me, and you’re eighteen!”
“…You don’t want me…” Mark murmured, burying his face in the pillow. “Nobody wants me…”
“Shut up, I’m saying this because I want us to be happy!” I said, dragging my fingernails across my arm. “You know I’m right, so—stop it!”
Mark, buried in his pillow, began to sob long, thick sobs. His bony shoulders shook like startled pigeons’ wings and his body jerked with each shake. I watched him cry, and the frozen blood in me kept my heart cold.
“You know I’m right,” I muttered. “That’s why you’re so upset, because you know I’m right!”
“I KNOW!” Mark sobbed, curling into himself. “Can’t I be sad about it?!”
The rain condensed and shimmered on the window pane as Mark cried into his pillow. A nurse briefly stuck her head around the door and then pulled it back before Mark noticed her. A heaviness was spreading, flowering in my chest, engulfing the coldness inside me. My brother looked so small in that hospital bed. His hair was uncombed, unwashed. He was wearing nothing but a hospital gown open at the back. The heaviness became pain as I bit my lip and watched him wipe his face with the pillow.
“I’m sorry, Julian,” he said, the words tearing out of him as if by force from something outside him. “I’m so sorry!”
My brother didn’t look at me but continued to sob into his pillow. The light from outside began to dim and bend across the linoleum floor, casting shadows into the corners of the room. I watched him cry, and in the silence between us our bodies didn’t touch, but…