Ben used to call me only late at night, blurry drunk, too drunk to go home but not so drunk that he couldn’t operate a phone if he had one eye closed and said the number over and over. I don’t know how he managed to always remember my number. It was, after all, my number, not our number, not the number we had when we were together. It was the number I got after we both left the old one behind to curse someone else. But I joke. Now he just emails me, seems cautious around what his therapist called boundaries, like a bleated-out bovine cowering next to a familiar electric fence.
So he emails me. “Dear Nick.” Hears we’re in the same city for once. I’m back for a few months. Someone saw me. Says he has something to tell me. “To show you, actually,” he adds in case he’s not being cryptic enough. I email back, ask where and when. He responds before I can close the email program: “café at the corner of Davie and Denman. Tomorrow morning. 11:00.” It’s not really like him to be this specific. See, he is the guy who perennially sets out to go to a housewarming party without an address, without directions, without a compass or an umbrella. He calls this optimistic.
For the last few years we’ve only seen each other in other cities. A martini or two on Bloor in Toronto, pancakes at a café in Studio City, California, and one time half an ice cream each in Santa Monica (interrupted by a collision with a scantily clad rollerblader). We’re rarely in this city at the same time. That and the conversations we’ve had to have since things ended nine and a bit years ago have come sporadically, carefully, with surprising wounds and little eye contact. The last time, the ice cream massacre, had been a gush, a rupture. Ben had tripped over scar tissue and decided to be done with it. Time to talk about histories we could barely remember except as a slide show of smudged colours and hurts. But we got our fill of needless apologies and confessions. All the Velcro sprung now except for a few last lingering latches, this was the letting go. So this email, this call for a coffee, something to show me, seems a change in direction, seems unfamiliar.
And then I forget about it until the next morning, Saturday, when I wake late, around nine to my cell spasming to a text from him: “10:45?” And I remember. So text back agreement to the earlier time and rush for the shower. Coffees with ex’s require almost the same prep as first dates, all with the same demand: desire me above all others. Or at least pretend.
I shower fast, face scrub some colour into my cheeks, dry my hair thoroughly so it won’t hang limp, won’t reveal it’s fading thickness. I am out the door, down the street, I am five minutes late, and can see his knees bouncing under the café table from half a block away.
He’s chewing the inside of his cheek as I hug him hello so that his mouth seems slightly askew. The mouth chewing I don’t miss, the askew smile taunts with lovely.
He’s bought us both drinks already. Me an Americano. And him a latte.
“Thanks,” I take a sip. “Alright, so what’s the big surprise?”
“Not yet,” and by this I am surprised. He is quaking with the desire to reveal what it is and still he waits. Not at all like him. He is the kind of man who buys gifts at the last minute so he has less time to be tortured with the secret of what he bought. This is not like him. Well, this was not like him. I try to remind myself that I don’t necessarily know him anymore. I sit on this fence between not knowing him and knowing him better than anyone. It’s an important fence.
We talk about the weather a little, his job, how it’s new, how it’s half soul stealing, half free post-its. He keeps looking out the window as he answers, perpetually distracted.
Then he sits up with a lurch, points out the wall of glass towards the bay, towards the grey water pressing there, towards the freighters lurking, watching over all this. “There,” he adds, and I follow his fingers specifically. To a couple. A tall guy, blond with broad shoulders, and a shorter guy, pale skin, black hair.
“Cute,” I reply, one eyebrow tugging up, not quite following this revelation without a revelation.
“Don’t you see?”
“Yes, the couple.”
“Yeah, they’re sweet.”
“You don’t see.”
I lean back in my chair, then lean forward scrutinizing them once more. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I was about to take a drink of my Americano, and now the cup hangs halfway to my mouth, hangs in the air, my brain momentarily stalled.
“They’re us ten years ago.”
“You mean like in a Star Trek wormhole through time way or in a close resemblance way?”
“And, hold on, how did you know they were going to be here right now?”
“I didn’t really. It just seems I see them every Saturday morning. They get drinks, go for a walk and talk about how their relationship is ending.”
That sounded more than familiar. We had joked about how we might have to buy one of the benches by the lagoon because we used it too much, the one near the footbridge and the rocks where the turtles would come and sun themselves. It was our bench in the last days, the words etched into it all measurements of the time we’d been there, though none of them carved by us, but by strangers who snuck in while we slept, dreaming of other words to say tomorrow, to stave off the end.
“Wait, how do you know?”
“What they talk about? The relationship. That it’s ending.”
He looks like he’s stalling, looks out over the water.
“You followed them?”
“Only once or twice. Come on, it’s too amazing not to.”
“Alright, I see a little similarity, but I think this . . . I hate to say this, but I think this says more about what you’re going through then some miracle of time and space.”
“Fuck, alright,” he stands up then. “Come with me. I’ll prove it to you.”
“I’m not going to stalk them.”
“I’ll stalk them then. You just have to follow.”
“Have you talked to your therapist about this?”
And then we stalk them. They walk along the seawall, and we walk along the path just above. We can’t hear what they say, can only read their body language. They do not hold hands. There are no overt displays of emotion. They seem to be on a perfectly average walk except that neither of them smile and both seem inordinately interested in either the trees, the water, or the sky – clearly relationship trouble. And it’s a little clearer to me as we follow that they do look disturbingly like us, but, uncannily, slightly different, as though variations on a theme: the tall one, blond like me, has eyes that are more recessed, smaller ears; the short one has red cheeks to Ben’s pale ones and his cranium doesn’t seem so round. But to list these differences seems ludicrous, like trying to deny family resemblance.
The path we’re walking on rises up from the water and the trees between our path and the seawall thicken and multiply until it’s hard to see them. I quicken my pace, wanting to get in front of them so at least we can look a little less conspicuous.
“You see it,” Ben says.
“I don’t know what I see,” I say. ” And I think this is going to end badly.”
“Maybe they’re our doppelgangers.”
“Yeah. What does that mean?”
“Think the theory is that if you meet your doppelganger you both explode or something.”
“But I have a date tonight.”
“You do? With who?
We crest the hill, look down towards the Second Beach pool, the picnic area, but can’t see the seawall directly below us for the trees. I hope we haven’t lost them.
“No one you know.”
“What’s he like?”
“Total bastard. I can’t date another nice guy. It will kill me.”
Ben says nothing and I tilt my head pretending to look up at the road by the putting range and see his face is blank, unreadable. Unreadable feels like vertigo after you’ve stopped dating someone. But the trade off, it seems, is that there are fewer days when I am buried under the weight of knowing what every throat clearing cough and foot shuffle might mean, the weight of knowing Ben’s own personal language more than my own. The claustrophobia of care.
There’s little danger of losing them. There’s the seawall and the pedestrian path that cuts into the park – limited options. When we reach the outdoor pool railing and turn to walk where the sea wall skirts it, I throw a look over my shoulder and see they’ve turned onto the path that leads towards the lagoon.
I see it long before it happens. And I look at Ben for a moment and realize he’s known this and is waiting for me to realize: they’re headed towards our bench.
“Well, last time yeah. Don’t know if they’re headed there this time.” Ben turns back and follows them.
“Seriously? There have to be some sixty park benches in the park.”
“343. I looked it up,” he calls back over his shoulder
“And they’re breaking up on our bench?” I start after Ben, following.
Ben turns and walks backwards as I catch up to him. “Looks like it’s not ours anymore.”
They’re pretty far ahead of us so that when we get to the foot bridge we can see they are already sitting at the bench looking north over a hidden pocket of the lagoon. We stop on the crest of the footbridge looking south, each cast a couple of casual glances in their directions.
“Well, we can’t hear shit from here,” he says, perturbed with my sub par sleuthing skills.
“You want to go sit beside them on the bench?”
“Funny guy. Last Saturday I was able to stand behind those raspberry bushes behind them. I could catch some of what they said.”
“Alright. Don’t you think we’ll look weird just standing there by the road.”
“It’s Stanley Park. We’ll just be two more weirdoes.”
We quietly station ourselves on the other side of the raspberry bushes.
I can’t hear anything the Ben one says. He mumbles, face hanging lapwards. I can hear the me one though. He says he doesn’t understand either. Something about maybe not being meant to be in a relationship. Or that he doesn’t want to be in a relationship. His words are a little rushed, like he’s afraid of what he’s saying. He shakes his head and looks up across the pond. Then leans back, slides his arm lightly behind the Ben one but not touching, garlanding it along the back of the bench. Close but not quite. I remember those days. Where touching Ben seemed impossible, the air marble between us. And still so unbearably close, those last three weeks. We were broken up but still living together, trying to fit two halves of a broken planet in a small one-bedroom apartment.
How other people can become habits. He cooks the dinner, I do the dishes and complain about how many he used. I leave my underwear on the bathroom floor and leave the shower curtain unstuck from the tiles so shower water leaks out and he dries it up and throws the towel and my underwear in the dirty laundry with a huff and a furrowed forehead, insulted by cotton briefs and water. Even now, so many years later, my breath latches to my ribs thinking of all this accounting. Like telling someone a dream the next morning, how it morphs and becomes so plainly and crushingly literal. Love made us literal. Too literal.
“He wants to see other people,” says Ben.
It’s like I’m hearing him explain our breakup to a third party. My brain momentarily stopped by the sledgehammer of my pulse.
He wants to see other people.
I look towards the two men on the bench. Realize it’s the other Ben talking, not the other me. The words I once said to Ben are now said by this Ben to this other me. All the similarities that were falling into place fall all out on the gravel like jigsaw pieces.
And it’s embarrassing that in that moment I notice the nape of that other Ben’s neck, smooth and recently cleaned up by some barber. He is clean cut. The other me looks unkempt, slept in. How one of them is making himself beautiful for other people while the other chews sleep and tries to hide behind the dust motes.
I long to see this other Ben’s face, to look into his eyes, cold lake water, see how he’s already in among the limbs of headless bodies scuffing and sloughing off all that other me’s fingerprints, smells, dirtying him clean. I move a little to the left, trying to see him better. A stone gives way. I grab the raspberry bush to balance myself, catch Ben’s glare.
We both notice it at the same time. The silence. The two men are no longer talking. We turn towards the bench and see they’ve both stood and turned and are looking directly at us, the two older versions of them hiding behind the raspberry bushes eavesdropping.
“Who are you?”
Ben looks at me, then looks at them.
I step forward, round the bush with my hand extended to first past Ben and then to past me. “I’m Nick.” They shake my hand, a little bewildered. “This is Ben,” I say gesturing back at him. I glance in his direction and see how we must have looked, perverts behind the bush.
“We’re sorry to intrude.”
Ben takes a step forward. “It’s just that you guys seem so –
“We’re really sorry,” I try to get Ben to look at me, to signal him somehow. It’s bad enough that we look like perverts. I don’t want to look like insane time-travel perverts to these two. “We’ll leave you to your privacy.” I turn and walk back towards the foot bridge. Ben still stands, not wanting to relinquish whatever it is that brought him to follow them. “Ben.”
He looks at me, then lowers his head a little and catches up to me. I give a little wave to the old us still standing beside the park bench, still either baffled or astonished, and we walk to the footbridge.
There on the crest of the bridge, I stop and look out across the creek towards Second Beach. We’re far enough away from the couple that we won’t seem like a threat or like we’re perving anymore. Ben stops to my right, then leans in on the concrete railing with me. “Maybe they would have understood” he tries.
“Understood what exactly? The two older men nostalgically perving out on the destruction of their relationship?”
“That’s not . . .” Ben slumps onto the railing a little more. “It’s more complicated than that.”
We both look out over the creek, the ocean in the distance, the edge of the meadow where the waddling ducks quietly search the underbrush. Below us a raccoon washes his black plastic fork claws in the creek water.
“I don’t know what I wanted,” says Ben.
“I know. Was hard to turn away from.” I push back from the concrete railing. “I should head home. Date tonight.”
“Yeah, you said.”
“Excuse me,” says a voice from behind us.
We both turn to see the couple behind us.
“Hi,” says young Ben. “I’m Bryan.” And he holds his hand out to shake mine. “This is Neil,” he says gesturing to young me beside him. Young me blushes, says nothing. Most peculiar.
They agree this is a little weird and that they see the resemblance too. We all exchange phone numbers, and I have a small vertigo, like we are spinning a roulette wheel. With all those numbers, it feels like almost anything could happen next.
And, as with most things, vast possibility turns out to be pointless as things go just as they should. Young Ben calls me the next morning, too eager to wait even one more day. Of course he calls about half an hour after I call young me, curious about that blush, that familiar yet alien blush. How can he blush when I have probably never. Young Ben asks if I am busy on Friday night. I say sure. He says he will make all the arrangements. Most peculiar. So I say sure, curious to see what will happen next. Ben has never made all the arrangements. Ben mostly weighs options until he’s forced to choose or someone chooses for him. I submit to young Ben, curious.
And on the phone, half an hour earlier, young me sounded breathless and too amenable. I suggested we grab coffee beverages and go for a walk. He paused. I asked what was it. He asked if we could do anything in the world but get coffee beverages and walk and added that for him walking with coffee beverages meant the end of things now. That it still would for a while.
“That makes sense,” I replied.
I don’t want to tell any of this to Ben. Partly because I subtly criticized him for having too overt an interest in this couple, these two men falling out of love. But mostly because I suspect that I got phone calls and he didn’t. He’s beautiful, Ben, but his beauty is something that sneaks up on you. I mean, he’s cute to start, but not bowl you over cute. The bowl you over part comes later, the kind where you’re bowled before you know it. And I sometimes fear I am the opposite. That I bowl you over then underwelm you later. But it usually meant I got phone calls. I remember Ben told me once that he felt we had a lot in common, but that the most significant thing was that we both found me hot. Unkind, yes, but not untrue.
And these things too, are true. Late Wednesday night, leaning over a younger me, shirtless, juice-blush stain spreading down his neck, I have to admit I have often fantasized about this. Though I was never older in those fantasies. And there was no blushing to be had. But as I lean on one arm and struggle to undo his belt buckle, his bottom lip trembling a little, his eyes wide, I realize it is nothing like I imagined. What I had always longed for was to adore myself the way others adored me, to see at last what they saw. Here, hand reaching down into this younger me’s underwear, I realize this isn’t me at all. And instead of finding myself in him, everything he does makes me feel older, more frail, dry as wood rot, thin as last leaves on the tree. I play a part, leaning down on him, pressing myself against him, being the man who can make him blush, not the man I am. Maybe the man I was. And as his head tilts back, throat bulged forward, the blush surging down his chest, I play the part.
And this, too is true. Young Ben organizes an extraordinary first date. Dinner at a sushi place I have never been to down in Yaletown, tickets to a French film I’ve never seen at the Festival theatre, and he insists on picking me up. And if I was worried that I would feel too much like it used to be between Ben and I, too much of an image of what we once were, this new Ben will have nothing to do with it. Later that night, young Ben hanging over me, fumbling with my belt buckle, his broad chest looming over my face, I wonder if I could blush if I even wanted to. And then I wonder if this younger Ben knows I was with the younger me just two nights ago. And then I wonder who I am in amongst their limbs, their longing, their calico grief.
But then young Ben undoes my belt buckle, I lean in and nuzzle my head into this chest. He pushes me back, his chin driving down to his chest, gripped. I am nowhere nearby. I’ve never seen a Ben like this. This Ben is a man caught in sensation, no interest in what is going on with me or who might be looking through the bedroom window (which, incidentally, is wide open), or what I might think of this particular contortion or spasm. He is as far away as he can be while being right here. And it excites me.
The streetlight through the blinds washes around him, wrestling with himself, hung above me. Watching him is more compelling than anything I am feeling. I could watch him all night, and then a furtive thrust, he lunges down and his mouth is on my neck, his hands reach round me, and I am vice gripped, but he leans back, hips thrusting, head thrown back, gone again, and no way to follow.
He sleeps, his back to me, though he holds onto my hand, holds me to his back. I’d normally leave, think a date is over after all these naked contortions. But that move is predicated on knowing what comes next. And this Ben, this visceral tango of a Ben, has my breath baited and has me waiting to see what he will do next.
Still, somewhere around 3:00 am his hand lets mine go. He is deep into a slack-jawed sleep that has little to do with me. And the smooth skin along his cheek. The nape of his neck with its small insistent pulse. At a certain point I stopped imagining I am beautiful when I sleep. At a certain age sleep becomes corporeal and its own kind of hideousness. I can’t sleep fearing he might wake up and see me unconscious and drooly and snoring. And morning light will be unkind. It’s time to go. Leave something of me a mystery.
* * *
Next Saturday, coffee with Ben, same place, same time.
“You’re not considering following them again are you?” I ask sitting down, an Americano already in front of me.
His mouth moves a little sideways, a small shake of his head, tolerating me. “I have something to tell you.”
“First show me, now tell me. These little get togethers are starting to make me nervous.”
He looks down at his hand holding his latte, then looks out at the water. “I’ve been on dates with those guys.”
I take a sip of my Americano, a little taken aback. “Both of them?”
“Yes. I was only sort of interested in the blond one-”
“The younger you.”
“But then the other one called me too.”
“They both called you?”
“Yeah. The next day,” he looks down at his hands in front of him. “I was going to call and tell you right away, but then I couldn’t figure out why I felt I should tell you. And I wondered if they had called you too. And then I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know.”
“So you went out with them?”
“Yes, one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. Blond one on Tuesday.”
I want to say right there that I went out with them too, but I can’t find a way to say it that doesn’t sound competitive. I guess I didn’t realize I felt competitive until right then. They called him first. He’d been with them first. As Ben talks, as he explains how he felt when they called him, how he felt guilty for not calling and telling me immediately, I find myself scrutinizing his face, trying to imagine how he must look from a casual glance, from the periphery of that man with the umbrella and the briefcase passing by us with his coffee. Then trying to imagine what he looks like up close, naked. But then that’s something that involves memory. Because I have been under that clothing. I’ve been closer to him than anyone. Well, as far as I know. And yet I can’t help wondering if I somehow missed the point.
He is now just rambling, talking, waiting for me to interrupt with forgiveness. I suppose I have that to offer, but only by way of mutual guilt.
“They called me too. I went on dates with them too.”
“Wednesday and Friday. Young me, then young you.”
“I kind of wish you’d stop calling them that.”
“You were the one that named them.”
“I know. But as we go on it seems to muddle everything. Bryan says he doesn’t see it.” At this I have to think for a moment, realize that Bryan is the young him. There’s a silence where Ben seems to do the math. “So I dated them first. I thought it was the other way around. Got Bryan naked and found myself wondering how you’d guys been together.”
“No. I suspected.”
He had hoped. I could see it on his face, the smallest blush in his cheeks. He had hoped I had been with them first.
I guess this becomes the central difference between Ben and I: he was always slightly jealous, while I was always slightly envious. Seeing me flirting with someone, he would be wracked with sadness, would think he was losing me. Seeing him flirting with someone, I would be excited, would want to see more.
“So do you like one of them?” he asks me, fidgeting with his cup.
“I don’t know.” It’s an honest answer.
His cellphone rings, he glances at it, pockets again. I want to ask, want to know which one of them it was.
“And you? Do you like one of them?”
“So you’ll see them again?”
“Yes,” his head lowers slightly, like there’s some kind of guilty feeling there. Peculiar. “And you?” he asks looking up.
“I don’t know.” And I don’t. Neither experience felt very real to me. Like each of the men was expecting me to be some version of me that I am not. Like someone had told them ahead of time how things should go.
“Yeah. I don’t know which one I am interested in more. But yeah.” And I feel it in my gut then. That some part of this is a competition still for me. And some part of me is a sadist, wanting to see what kind of destruction might come out of this. Gripped as I am, only part of me can recognize this. And file it away for later. As though there will be some reassurance in the aftermath that I could have said I saw it coming. As though it will help me feel worse, supposing I might have averted the disaster.
And just then I see them, the young versions of us, across the street walking down to the bay and the sea wall. Ben sees my eyes go in that direction, turns himself, sees them.
“You can’t follow them,” I assert.
“I know. I don’t need to now. Do they look more happy or more unhappy?”
“I’m not sure. Which do you want them to be?”
“That’s a little unfair.”
“Yeah. I did,” he looks at me, then back at them. “More happy apart maybe. And yet if I’m honest I kind of like that they’re together. However tenuous it is. I like that I was with them both separately, but they are still together.”
“Do you think they know? Know that we were both with both of them?”
“That’s a lot of knowing, ” Ben says, looking back down at his latte and then taking a sip.
“Yes,” I say. “A lot.” And I mean for us more than them. It’s a muddle.
“I should go,” I say, taking one last sip of my Americano.
“Date tonight?” Ben asks, then looks down. The question more loaded than he thought it would be, than I thought it could be.
“Thanks for the Americano,” I add standing.
And as I leave the café I note that judging by his phone ringing he’s already heard from at least one of them. I’ve yet to hear from either.
My walk home, I find myself thinking of Ben, and how Ben must seem to the two of them, these younger versions of us. He has been working out. There is a clearer cut to his jaw, his cheekbones, and so his mouth seems fuller, begging for more kisses. His eyes have always been what I couldn’t resist. He has his mother’s eyes, a deep brown, both chocolate and stained cheery wood. These are the things they must see. The things that only gradually unfolded to me.
I decide to wait to see if they call. When the younger me does, he’s quiet and waiting on the other end of the phone for me to make the first move, suggest we see one another again, when and where. His waiting tires me.
The young Ben doesn’t call. So I call him the next morning, Sunday. He was just going to call me. He seems to have no idea I’ve used that line before. But he still wants to hang out. Suggests the next Thursday. Thursday the weak choice. Wednesday would say he can’t wait to see me, Friday would say that he’s trying to make it something special, while Thursday is neither, the in between place that doesn’t get in the way of two other possible options. I try not to roll my eyes on the other end of the phone.
One of them is too easy and the other is too difficult. I need a Goldie Locks options. I realize then that what I want is to see the two of them together. That I am not even sure I want to be involved, just watching. Seeing how they might look at each other, in these the last moments they’ll be together. They won’t last. They both know that now. How will they kiss differently? What new and last minute kindnesses? What last furtive attempts to search out the other with mouth and hands, to remember every moment for later, to never forget – part greediness, part abandon.
I want to see it. I want to be invisible and able to lean in close, notice the smaller details. Not who’s on top or who makes the most noise, but the details never available to us, the lovers, the ones in the throws of it. I want to see the curl of an upper lip, the sweat forming in the smooth space behind an ear, the extra bend in the small of this one’s back, as he reaches as far as muscle and bone will permit. That one’s temple, swollen and desperate with pulse, the scent that gushes from one and the hitch in the breath of the other. The curl of the toes in his left foot where it cramps but he refuses to move and risk losing grip on this slick, last hold. I will compose a thousand small maps and diagrams, capture each of these quickenings and twitches, each lust and betrayal. God is in the details. And here is the story of their every fear, their grief, the story of all the impending moments without one another. It must be a story told this way, in the minutiae. It is love.
It’s their love that I desire. It seems ludicrous. But why ludicrous. Perverse, yes. This is me at my most perverse. Because I can’t help myself. I can’t think of anything I want more then to see their last moments together. Would they let me witness this, the decline, the slow leaving? Not if they were no longer together physically at all. And, I realize, not if it was at my request. I haven’t enough allure.
Ben meets me for dinner Sunday night, the lounge just past the crest of the hill. He seems confused that for once it’s me arranging to meet, having something to say. I’ve bought our martinis already and I’m waiting when he walks in and then crosses and sits in front of me. I don’t know how to begin.
“So now you’re the mysterious one?”
I give half a nod. Try to find a way in. “So you do you think that both of them like you?”
“Yes, I guess they do.”
“I guess, I mean do they desire you?”
“Yes.” He seems discomfited, like he imagines he’s cutting into my skin.
“Do you think they would be open to things you might suggest?”
He’s searching my face now, half confused, half curious.
“I have something, something I want to try.” I don’t expect he’s going to react well to this. While we were together he tried to get us to experiment several times, role play, he’s the coach, I am the injured player, that kind of thing. Thing was, every attempt on his part seemed laced with fear, fear that I was getting bored of our sex, fear that he would lose me if I got bored of our sex.
“I want to see the two of them together.”
“But I am guessing that won’t be likely, since they are breaking up.”
“And . . . oh. Are you suggesting . . .”
“I’m guessing the only way they might be together is if they’re with you.”
“So you want to have sex, the four of us?”
“No. I want you to have sex with them, encourage them to be together.”
“And you want to watch.”
“Just watch.” I’ve stopped breathing. He seems to have stopped too. His jittery feet under the table, the table itself, the café, the street, the birds flying east for the night. I hang in the thickness of this moment, waiting.
Breath returns in sips, then gushes in.
“I didn’t think you’d agree.”
“I didn’t think I would either.”
I want to ask why he agreed. But fear if he says it out loud he will change his mind.
“How will you ask them?”
“I will ask them when we’re naked and in the middle of sex. Then later when they remember the question they’ll have a good association with the answer.”
“Shit, wow. Did you ever do that to me?
“No. Definitely not.” He takes a sip of his martini and smiles.
“Listen, I know it’s weird, just -”
“No, don’t explain it. I like not knowing. Maybe I’ll ask later, maybe I’ll want to know after. But right now I just want to see if it will really happen.” He looks a little nervous. “I want to see what will happen.”
I’m asking too much. I am asking him to take two men he has something with, two men who are falling out of love with one another or have fallen out of love already, and to convince them both to have sex with him while I watch. It’s too much. But I won’t say that. And he doesn’t claim that in return. He seems resolved to make it happen. This will be the series of events, the course of action. The way people go to the shore to watch the tidal wave, why they stand and watch the zeppelin burn, or play the video of towers falling over and over. It’s just the kind of thing that people agree to in order to see where it leads.
It occurs to me I should do my part. A little desire for me could be the difference between this going down and not. I tell Ben not to raise the suggestion just yet. Not until the weekend. I need time.
So Tuesday night, I pin myself to that younger version of myself, torque and hammer, bottom teeth to pec, tongue to bare jugular, hips nudged to spread, nudged to spread. I am not satisfying him. I am making him feel agony in several disparate places, so tomorrow he will think of me, will desire me, but won’t be able to locate the root of the agony.
And then Thursday with the other Ben. I am sprung open, abandoning ship after ship, wreckage and crumbling in one long moan, opening, closing, opening again. I am surprising resistance, the texture of cat tongue, then smooth, slip down onto your knees slippery, and young Ben, he’s taken aback, then taken front, and each time he goes to throw his head back, mine pushes him back, his limbs in the storm, the currents and gusts wreaking havoc all up the length of him. But with him I leave nothing, not even a scent on his pillow, not the slightest bruise. When I close his apartment door just past 1:00am, it’s like I was never there. Shell shock and torque of the unsatisfied, wrung dry and quenchless. He will think of me.
And then days follow where they text me, leave messages. And I return none of them. This is the longing. And so long as they still want Ben, too, or even if they just want me, this might all happen. I text Ben that he can suggest it any time now. I am ready. And in this moment my own longing and waiting begins. Yet I feel strangely at peace, afloat, buffeted from what has happened to what might happen next. I say might, but even now it feels inevitable.
He texts me Sunday. Two words: Wednesday night. Like colliding with a wall cheek first, I stop in the middle of the sidewalk reading the two words over and over. The end and the beginning of it all wrapped together.
Monday and Tuesday the texts and the calls from the two of them cease. They know they will see me now. Even Ben maintains radio silence. All the details must fall away now, any chitchat, any clutter must be burned off in this short time so that we can get down to the bare vein of what will happen. We can’t be the people we were before. We have to be just this. Four figures in a room.
And then it’s Wednesday. We’re meeting at their place. I requested this. For everything will be a fetish for me. The bed they once slept in, even though one of them now sleeps on the futon, the place where one had the right side to the other’s left, the kitchen where they might have cooked together, or one cooked and the other did dishes. And the bathroom with their various products, symptoms of all their insecurities and flaws: hair thickening shampoo, acne medicine, teeth whitening strips, hemorrhoid cream. I might spend hours in the bathroom. It feels like I could. There lie all the clues to the end and the beginning and the myriad ways they hid from one another and then saw one another far too clearly. Can they already see what it will be like, to have a bathroom with half of those symptoms. I could tell them, how at first it seems simpler, how it seems cleaner, more pure, and then soon after feels empty and sterile. The tiles on the floor seem bare without his underwear thrown there on the way into the shower. I imagine.
I arrange things with Ben. I don’t want to sit around and have chit chat with them beforehand. The ritual is important. The transitions are significant. These details must be handled carefully.
I arrive and they buzz me in. The apartment door is unlocked. They are in the bedroom already. I wear black. I’ve brought a plastic mask from a costume store, a black mask that hides the upper half of my face. I put it on as I cross their threshold. There is a chair against the wall near the door, about six feet from the bed where I will sit. They will not touch me and I will not touch them.
They are much more naked that I expected. As I slide into the chair, the mask already causing me to sweat, I am startled by Ben’s naked back, his ass. It’s been nine years since I have seen him naked. The other two I saw just last week, but all three of them together seem much more naked. I can’t breathe. I might suffocate there in the chair. Ben’s back is to me. He’s kneeling on the bed, looking over his shoulder at me. They both lie facing him, looking around him at me. He is oddly the focus, like he’s an intruder and found them there in their bed. When he turns back to them, they both go to move towards him, but the younger Ben is there first, leaving the younger me to hang back, running his hands down the length of his ex-boyfriend. They are beautiful. They are aglow in the sparse room, punctuated by moving boxes where there used to be furniture and candles where there used to be lamps. They are ugly, too, pale and vulnerable and contorting. I find them beautiful and ugly and I suffocate between the two, my mouth wet, my chest caught on the edge of a heave of weeping. They are languorous and tremble, they are limb lost, they are bare to me like bodies thrown up on a beach, drunk in each other’s arms and my mouth is thirst.
It wasn’t like this with Ben and me. Not at the end. What was the measure of my numbness? I was crushed sea shell and ragged along the tide line. The very last time we were together, I didn’t want to have sex. I hardly recognized Ben in those last days, pinballing around the apartment, leaving late at night, sometimes not coming back, shiny new and Teflon. I couldn’t be in the same room without feeling a wound coming on. I was pretending to be napping on the futon that afternoon. It was June, I think. It was hot. And he slid in behind me. I couldn’t move. Paralysis and fatigue. What could he possibly want from me in these last staggering days? And yet I couldn’t deny him. I let him move his hands over me, let him run his mouth down my shoulder blades, my spine. He ran his hands down me, rubbed me, I was everything he wanted and could not want anything in return. I was wantless. Headless. Ceasing to be with each nuzzle, each press.
Then it was over. He said nothing. I didn’t look at him. Like it hadn’t even happened. He pulled the sheet loosely back over me. He said goodbye. I didn’t. I wonder if he remembers all this. How he remembers all this. The young Ben is kissing my Ben. Pushing him back down on the bed while young me runs his hand up Ben’s chest.
In that moment I want to be far from here, from the bed, the room, the various limbs in various positions, the insistent mouth. I move from wanting to be in among them, pressed to the quick, to now wanting to flee, to forget we ever met them, forget I ever saw Ben naked again.
Maybe some part of me thought I could catch a glimpse of what we went through in those last days. Maybe. I remember mostly numbness, one long swelter of a summer’s night. A thick pointless waiting.
Instead, I get a chance to give away Ben to hungry mouths, to give him away when I didn’t even have him again.
Jealousy, envy, longing, nostalgia, anticipation, nausea, and dizziness. These are the side effects. I want them to be done. Want them to get off, fall back on one another. I want to slip from the room, to the hallway, to the elevator, to the lobby, to the street, to –
Where does one go after this?
That’s when I catch Ben looking at me. It’s the briefest moment. Like he’s making sure I am still there. That he’s hoping I am watching. And I am there again, in the vice grips, against the roof of his clenched mouth, in the breathless still water waiting to rise or float down in among the seaweed tentacles and the dense forgetting lightlessness.
I seek to taste their last days, then get tangled in the sheets. I still don’t see how this ends, but I can feel them now, these small pulses of other possible beginnings. Some taste like the one who looks like me, his caramel tanned neck, and others thrum like him, that other Ben with the rush to forget hands.
There’s a place where all the complications, the complexities, become simple. A single note after the symphony falls away. I give a small smile. One Ben can see. So he turns back to the two of them. And because that smile makes him not worry, they don’t hear the door close.
It’s late. The street still thrums with people going for gelato, walking down to the water, a few waiters shifting on their feet, chewing the insides of their mouths waiting for the last diners to leave. I feel a breeze pressing up from the bay, a moment of breath. A smile slips out, while upstairs they go on without me.