Joe Vallese

Blood,  Brothers

From The Southeast Review Volume 29.2

I.

Big Brother has just told me that I will be—but did not ask me to be—one half of his act for the Senior Talent Show. “You’ll be Jon Belushi, of course,” he says, twisting a finger into my soft stomach, “and
I’ll be Dan Aykroyd.”  I have never seen The Blues Brothers, so this elaboration carries no clarity, no comfort. I am eight years old. Big Brother is seventeen. Later, he sits me on the couch and puts on a scratchy VHS copy of the movie. He fast forwards to the scene we’re
to emulate on stage in less than a week. These two men, Jake and Elwood, have on sunglasses and suits and silly hats, and they are belting “I need you, you, you” over and over. Big Brother bobs his head, fingers drumming on his thighs to the beat of the music. My stomach tingles inside, does a funny little dance: this is excitement, because Big Brother, who retreats to his room and locks the
door every day after school, emerging only for dinner or to use the toilet, who barks viciously if you dare knock on that bedroom door, then opens it only to punch you so hard in your arm it leaves a pattern of red waves in your flesh, now wants to literally share a spotlight with me, wants to spend hours rehearsing and choreographing, wants to dress exactly alike, wants to do something that will tell hundreds of people that I am, unequivocally, without a
doubt, his Little Brother. And yet, that initial tingle, that dance, quickly becomes a shaky rumba. I have terrible stage fright, a sometimes-stutter that I am certain will translate into lip-synch, and an unathletic, uncoordinated gait that surely cannot learn dance moves. Big Brother starts to shuffle his feet and shoulders, mechanically mimicking what he sees on screen. His lips, rarely
parted aside from swearing or eating, are curled into something like a smile.

So, we practice. We practice before and after school, after dinner, and again before bed. Big Brother uses money from his job bagging groceries at the Grand Union to buy us matching black jeans, t-shirts, and sunglasses. He’s dubbed a cassette with just our song so it plays on a loop through his huge boombox speakers. We rehearse in his room where no one can bother us, but we know that Middle Brother and Sister are on the other side of the door because we can hear their whispers like mice scuttling in the walls. But Big Brother’s room is too small for this, his clothes and video games and dishes and cups stacked everywhere, and as our dance gets more complicated, picks up more turns and jumps, we can’t get through the song once without my face slamming into his back. The day before the show, we try the dance single file instead of side by side but this only confuses me. When I bump into the television stand for a third time, Big Brother’s patience goes from thin to gone, and before the song is through, he kicks me out of the room. I want to cry, a little out of anger, a little out of shame, but I don’t. Instead, I slip past everyone else in house like a ghost and go out to our sideyard to keep practicing by myself.

          I have most of the routine down pat so, after a few minutes of self-conscious outdoor dancing, I become bored. But I don’t want to go inside yet. I want Big Brother to feel guilty, to come find me and apologize. Tell me he needs me, tell me he can’t do this without me, and later when he goes to Carvel for his nightly mint-chocolate-chip malted, he’ll bring me back one too, because that’s how much this means to him. This never happens, though, so I eventually perch myself on the railing of our front steps, thinking when it is time for dinner and our mother sends Big Brother out to look for me, he’ll panic a little until he discovers me just around the corner. I think I hear the screen door creak open so I lean back on the railing to see if he’s coming down the walkway. Failing to consider the physics of my baby fat, I lose balance on the railing and land hard on my knees. Instantly, I feel the burning rush of blood beneath my jeans. I pick myself up and start back for the house, but have to walk half-hunched because it hurts to stand up straight. I creep back into the house and scamper to the bathroom for some peroxide and band-aids. The peroxide stings even though it’s not supposed to, and flecks of wet toilet paper stick to where the skin’s been grated off. I cover my cuts with as many band-aids as possible, crisscrossing them until it looks like I have two baseball mitts for knees.

The next day is the one before the show and my knees feel prickly and tight. I remove the band-aids because our mother says cuts need to breathe so scabs can grow, but all day in school my jeans rub up against them and create terrible sparks. The nurse slaps on more  band-aids and tells me not to jump around or do anything that will
irritate them. This is not a possibility, but I don’t tell her that. When I get home from school, Big Brother says we have to go practice at the actual high school this time, so we know what to do. The high school auditorium is dusty and dark, the stage and the seats painted black. The lights are so bright that I can’t make out anything beyond the front of the stage unless I squint and box my eyes with my hands.

The night of the show is a blur. My knees have gotten crusty and pinch when I walk, my eyes tearing behind our Ray Ban knockoffs. Big Brother doesn’t say much, just huffs and puffs clouds of annoyance. We stand behind the curtain waiting for a tall, tanned girl in a  cheerleading outfit to give us the signal to step out onto the stage. Our song starts playing so loudly that I almost can’t hear it, and my
stomach pops again. Big Brother puts his hands on my shoulders and guides me out with a push. When the vocals start, I saunter over to the center of the stage like we practiced but Big Brother doesn’t move from his corner spot. He is mouthing the words all right, but instead of joining me for the front-step-back-step-high-five-then-point-to-the-sky we’ve spent so many days on he just sort of jogs in place. I keep looking toward Big Brother, but since we can’t make eye contact through our shades I have no idea if he will respond to my silent plea for him to move to his spot.

The climax of the dance is seconds away—Big Brother is to drop on his stomach, I am to lay myself over him, then he’ll stand up and spin in a circle while I ride piggyback—but I can see he has no plans of coming my way. I feel the band-aids loosen and roll down my legs; the scabs begin to crack, the blood flows, and all I can think about is the How Do Earthquakes Happen? slideshow we watched in science  class. My body’s betrayal hurts almost as bad as Big Brother’s, and I have no choice but to squat and rest my hands on my thighs. Someone mistakes the gesture as a call for audience participation and soon a harmonious clap-along begins. I continue patting my thighs gently, and allow the firecracker thwack of their palms help us make our exit. As I straighten myself out and turn to leave the stage, Big
Brother steps out of his trance and rushes toward me. He locks his fingers into mine and raises our arms up together victoriously, more Rocky and Mickey than Jake and Elwood. We stand behind the curtain, the last audible chant of “I need you, you, you” cut off by the emcee’s voice announcing the next act.

We do not win any prizes that night, not even an honorable mention. Strangers approach me in the lobby to tell me how cute I am, that they can see how hard we practiced. Big Brother never  acknowledges his freeze-up and I never tell him about my knees.  When the show is over, we go to Carvel and he buys us malteds so thick we spend the entire walk home trying to suck up chocolate chips through flimsy straws. Once we’re inside the house, Big Brother goes straight to his room and closes the door. I go to the bathroom and carefully peel my jeans away from where the blood has glued to them to the skin.

 II.

Middle Brother tells me he wishes I could be more like the Gillpatrick Brothers. The Gillpatricks are a loud, raunchy brood who, despite an age range of seven to nineteen, seem to do everything and go everywhere together. They all have the same silver-blond hair and ruddy skin the color of a pencil eraser and their voices, even the youngest’s, boom like a fallen microphone. Their parents work night shifts, so their house is always overflowing with videogames, ditzy girls, beer. Middle Brother is over there most days after school and on weekends. When he comes home at night to our shared bedroom, he regales me (half-listening, half-reading, half-sleeping, (always half) with stories of their brotherly brutality: and then when So-and-So did such-and-such, This One chased That One down the steps and then
The Other One stepped in and tripped That One so This One could catch up with That One but What’s-His-Name was waiting all along at the foot of the steps with a water gun filled with piss! At school, I get reenactments in the form of imaginary pistols and crude hand gestures from This One and The Other One themselves: two of the Gillpatrick brothers are in my math class, even though they’re both older than me.

“How come you never come over with your brother?” That One asks.

“Yeah, he’s one crazy son-of-a-bitch, your brother,” The Other One says.

“Funny too,” That One adds.

“Hysssssterical,” says The Other One.

“You should see some of the shit he pulls,” That One says.

The Other One agrees so much he can’t find the words, can only squeal.

          The more the Gillpatricks describe a Middle Brother I’m only vicariously familiar with, the more I resent them. When they call me over to eat with them in the cafeteria, seemingly more out of loyalty to Middle Brother than for my company, I give a dismissive nod and sit with other friends. When they approach me after school to tell me that everyone is going to their house to watching a porno What’s-His-Name stole from Goodtime Video, I tell them I think watching porn  with your brothers is gross, which makes them chuckle uncomfortably for a minute before they shrug it off, tell me it’s my loss, and go about their plans.

This hostility is not reserved solely for the Gillpatricks. I find myself snubbing Middle Brother’s other friends too, quietly enraged as my sixth-grade Honors English reading is interrupted by five high school boys jonesing for a Mortal Kombat tournament. Middle Brother and his gang acknowledge the inconvenience by offering me a spot on one of their teams, but the way I slam shut my Perma-Bound copy of The Power of One and exit the room speaks
for itself. They stay over so late I have to begin sleeping on the couch and wait for Middle Brother to wake me up and tell me to come back to our room. As I sleepily slip out of my clothes and crawl into my bed, disheveled and too-warm from so many bodies sprawled on top of it for hours, Middle Brother demands an explanation for my frostiness. “It’s embarrassing,” he tells me. “They all think you hate them and then I have to make excuses for you.” Too tired to defend myself, I promise to be more welcoming next time, but when next time comes little has changed: even though I make sure to greet the interlopers with a smile before excusing myself, Middle Brother tells me later that I just don’t get it, that leaving the room at all is the problem.

But when Ben comes over, I stay put; his presence comforts me, doesn’t send me marching out of my own bedroom. Ben’s family owns the local pizzeria and he helps out his father a lot, so when he comes by it is never with Middle Brother’s other friends. Ben is soft-spoken and polite, and he always thanks me for letting him spend time in my room (Middle Brother always tells him to quit thanking me because it’s not like I have any say). During the summers, Ben works as a lifeguard at the town pool and whenever he spots me in the water, he shouts silly things into his megaphone, like “Joey V, watch out for the sharks” or “Joseph, your mother’s calling you.” Sometimes, he’ll sneak up behind me—his body barely under the surface of the water and his feet splashing conspicuously behind—and body-slam me. Familiar with Middle Brother’s constant jabbing at my chubby
belly in public, Ben never has me out of the water for too long, never makes me feel self-conscious or exposed. If he comes by the house and sees me writing in my notebook or typing with two fingers on my father’s old typewriter, he’ll always ask what I am working on—usually a rewrite of a scary movie I thought could have ended smarter—and listens attentively while I explain each plot point. When Middle Brother impatiently threatens to un-pause their game or leave for the Gillpatricks’ without him, Ben says, “Hold your horses, your brother’s telling me a great story.” I have trouble looking Ben in his eyes, gray and reflective like a soup spoon, so I always keep focused on the pages in my hands. Sometimes, I feel a strange sensation rise in me, a cross between panic and exhilaration, and I have to rush through the story.

But one day, something changes. Ben has come over before work to watch the first few innings of a Saturday afternoon Yankees game with Middle Brother. When he arrives, I am putting the finishing touches on something new. I’m eager to show Ben what I’ve done, but when I get up from my desk chair, notebook in hand, Ben looks different to me. There is no hello, no high-five; instead he just asks if I’m going to watch the game with them. This question takes me so off guard it’s as though he’s asked it in another language. I feel something break down inside me: my mouth goes dry, my knees buckle. Ben’s lips, usually peeled back so wide in smile I can count each tooth, are sealed thin and tight like an envelope. In a shaky stammer, I tell him I have too much writing to do, that this story is
too important to watch the game.

“Do you ever watch the game?” he demands.

 I say sure, sometimes, of course I do.

“Who’s your favorite player?”

          I’ve taught myself to instinctively respond to this question with Don Mattingly, because Middle Brother’s side of the room is strewn with number 23 jerseys and posters tacked to the wall and bookshelf bobble-heads that shake when you walk past. But my accuser knows this is too easy. He insists I name another.

Suddenly, I am afraid of him. Ben is looking at me with clear disgust, disappointment, as though it has just dawned on him that I am too old to be belly-flopped in a pool, too big to be embraced, that my hanging around him is no longer acceptable, even weird. It is as if he has been given access to every thought I’ve ever had about him, innocent or otherwise, and he is revolted by what he’s found. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Middle Brother watching this odd interaction. I pray he will interrupt before I am consumed by this humiliation, before the electric impulses of my heart short out and I collapse right there. Middle Brother finally swivels his desk chair toward us, kicks Ben in the shin and says, “Leave him alone. You know he doesn’t like sports.” But this rescue feels like even more of a condemnation.

I’m barely a foot out of the room when my entire body begins to react: every fold of my body perspires and there’s a throbbing heat behind my eyes. A line has now been drawn, a confirmation of my worst fears, that the outside world can tell just how different I am from my brothers, that whatever veneer of belonging I possessed
has just been shattered to dust and blown away. If Ben, always so different from the Gillpatricks and the rest of Middle Brother’s crew, can find me out and turn so quickly, then what other disgraces have I to look forward to?  I start to wonder if the recent deepening of my voice will suddenly reverse, if my tongue will become too fat and long to pronounce s’s without spraying everywhere, if my wrists will somehow hollow out and dangle effeminately.

In an irrational attempt at damage control, I sneak outside through the garage door. I spot the stack of newspapers my father has tightly bundled together for recycling and snap the rope open. My eyes maniacally scan the sports section of the top paper in the pile for the names of other Yankees, and when I find some I repeat them under my breath so I won’t forget before I go back inside. Strawberry, Jeter, Pettite, Boggs. Strawberry, Jeter, Pettite, Boggs. I pull the garage door down slowly. Strawberry, Jeter, Pettite, Boggs. By the time I’m back outside my bedroom door, whatever confidence I felt while hatching this plan quickly drains out of me. Strawberry, Jeter. I worry if I open my mouth in front of Ben nothing will come out. So, I go to the kitchen, grab a Post-It pad and carefully write the names as messily as I can, hoping they will appear nonchalantly  scribbled off the top of my head. Pettite, Boggs. I take a deep breath
and reenter the bedroom. Middle Brother and Ben are not even watching the game; they are playing Nintendo. I let the Post-It drop onto Ben’s lap. He hits pause on the controller, picks up the pink square and reads it with a scrunched brow. I can see that he wants to say something, that he looks sorry, but I am not sure if he’s sorry for what he’s done or sorry for me. Too embarrassed by the boldness of this gesture to stick around and find out, I leave the room again.

I tell my parents that I am not feeling well and am going to nap in their room until the game is over. I close the blinds and drop myself onto their bed. Eventually my thoughts slow and I really do fall asleep. I’m woken a few hours later by my father who tells that he picked up a pizza when he gave Ben a lift to work and I should grab a
slice before it gets cold. I stop first at the bathroom, lock the door, and
turn on the whirring overhead fan. I stand in front of the mirror, open my mouth and, with great trepidation, say, “Strawberry.  Ssssstrawberry. Jeter Pettite. Boggssssss.” I don’t see or hear anything different and I’m so relieved I almost cry again. Then I ball my hands into two fists and let my arms drop to my side. If anything, my wrists are stiffer than ever, fingers almost unwilling to straighten back out, unwilling to leave vulnerable the palms to which they are attached.

III.

The Godfather, Part 2. Goodfellas. Full Metal Jacket. These are my brothers’ favorite movies, or at least the ones they most often re-watch. If you ask them what they like so much about these films, Big Brother will say he doesn’t think about what likes, he just likes it; Middle Brother will say it’s because they’re about “badass guys doing badass things.” These are not my favorite movies but I watch too, usually because my brothers have commandeered the living room big-screen while our parents are out shopping or visiting friends. I don’t love these movies the way they do, but I do get lost in them,
curious about what my brothers see that I don’t, hoping one day  something will spark and I’ll be able to fluently speak their language. What I glean from these repeat viewings is that these movies are all ostensibly about brothers, blood-linked or not, a pattern my brothers don’t seem to see—and if they do, choose not to acknowledge. What they proudly relish in these films is when that established sense of brotherhood is threatened, when there is a traitor among the lot, when someone has done something so reprehensible, has stepped so
unforgivably out of bounds his only penance is extreme punishment or self-sacrifice. In other words, the turncoat must die. My brothers rub their hands with anticipatory glee as Michael Corleone pretends to forgive Fredo, then sends him off to sleep with the fishes. They howl as Tommy DeVito,  thinking he’s earned his brothers-in-crime’s respect enough to become a “made” man, is beaten to death with a baseball bat and tossed into a ditch. They misunderstand the huge sadness of Private Pyle turning his rifle on himself after a murderous breakdown, wasting clever reflection on cheap suicide jokes, or locking arms as they mockingly recite Billy Joel lyrics. (Whenever I
disappoint or upset them in some way, they dub me one of these three weaklings and address me as such for an unspecified number of days.)

I secretly favor movies about relationships between women, but hunkering down to watch these films poses too high a risk, so I have to get my fill on the couch beside our mother, where a feasible alibi is made available to me (“I’m not really watching this, I’m just keeping Mommy company”), or when Middle Brother isn’t home and I can keep the volume low and hold my finger just above the remote’s channel + button in case he barges in unexpectedly.

Where my brothers and I find common ground, though, is in the grimy world of slasher flicks. For ninety formulaic minutes, amid wounds oozing red Karo syrup and shrill synthesizers punctuating fake-out scares, my brothers and I sit together, equally mesmerized
and stupidly entertained. I don’t particularly enjoy being scared in “real life” and never put myself in vulnerable situations: I do not go on
rollercoasters or any ride that lifts me into the sky; I avoid at all costs any activity that requires me to climb, dive, or jump; I sleep on my stomach out of a menacing paranoia that my exposed neck will be slit in the middle of the night. Scary movies pose a different type of danger, though, one that is controllable in the mind and can be rendered completely powerless just by having someone else in the room with you. Even though I know we are transfixed for very different reasons, I am most at ease, most myself, when watching these films with my brothers, because in this realm we’re all equals, all potential victims. And in horror movies being macho gets you nowhere but killed.

My brothers possess an inexplicable hero worship for supernaturally tall, knife-wielding, masked men in ragged clothes. They sit through the movies eager to know what each villain brings to the table in terms of vicious, gory assaults on obnoxious but otherwise harmless teenagers. They like to guess how the characters will be disposed of, and when the deed turns out to be gorier and more bone-crunching than they imagined, they cheer, high-five, then discuss its gruesome merits all through the next scene.

I, on the other hand, am faithfully fixated on the requisite Last Girl. Every scary movie has one, this Last Girl who manages to outsmart the bestial maniac. I have become an expert in identifying The Last Girl within her first few minutes of screen time: The Last
Girl tends to speak a little softer, a little more cautiously than the rest; she will notice small details that others will not, and she will recall them when the time is urgent and right—that sharp picket fence perfect for impaling the madman once she finds a way to force him out of the window directly above it, the raftered ceiling she’ll hoist herself up onto while the dumb killer lurks below, the paring knife she ate an apple with earlier then slipped into her boot just in case. The Last Girl’s feelers are always out, she is always on guard. But despite all the times she’s told she’s crazy and there’s nothing out there, all the times some brawny black-belt thinks a high kick will be enough
to overpower a demented man with an axe, all the times her friends discard her advice and run straight into their executioner’s arms, she still cares very deeply, still cannot help but do what’s right. She has every reason to bolt to her car and hightail out of town. And yet she stays, and maybe it’s foolish, but it is the only way she knows how to live and because of this she will live.

On the rare occasion when I’m alone in the house, or at least part of the house, I play out different scenes from different movies. I inhabit various Last Girls, recreating their cunning moves up and down the basement stairs, running around the echoey garage, jumping from cushion to cushion of the sectional sofa in the living room. But I don’t make it easy for myself. I honor the struggles of The
Last Girl with great attention to detail: I allow myself to be  overpowered by my invisible stalker here and there, allow the imaginary blade to pierce my shoulder, slice at my legs. I’ll even take that leap from the high window with my attacker, certain I can maneuver myself in mid-air so this brawl will end up me on top. The monster will break my fall.

When The Last Girl succeeds—even if it’s unsurprising—there’s a flutter of happiness in my gut; my brothers, however, cry foul. For all but the last ten minutes of the movie, they can suspend their disbelief, can accept that it takes twelve bullets and three stabs to the heart to kill one man (it’s rare that he even stays dead), but once The
Last Girl’s wiles kick in, they have no use for make-believe, decide the
scenario is unforgivably unrealistic. Middle Brother bemoans “this superwoman bullshit—we’re supposed to believe she could do that to him?” Big Brother is a bit more socially conscious: “Yeah, good idea: convince ninety-five pound women they can take down a two-hundred pound man. They’ll get their necks snapped like twigs.”

I feel a responsibility to stand up for The Last Girl, to challenge my brothers’ hypocrisies. Words of defense begin to rise in my throat but I swallow them down, down, down, because allowing them to take shape and sound outside of my mind could prove disastrous. Going any further might rock the fragile boat I’ve so smoothly been
paddling along in, might invite something from my brothers that I am not yet strong enough to fight off. So, I let the moment pass, because I know that someday they’ll understand. Someday, I’ll be the one to save us all.

 IV.

Lover and I are long asleep when he suddenly springs up with such force it bounces me off the lumpy, low mattress and onto the scratchy carpet. I reach for the desk lamp. Lover is hugging his midsection, eyes closed, a visible shiver outlining his body like an aura. I ask what’s wrong, tell him to open his eyes and tell me what’s wrong. “I want go to the hospital,” is all he says, and he says it loud and certain, almost robotically. I get up and sit next to him on the bed. I ask him what he feels and where he feels it. He says something’s cracked inside him, and now everything is rattling. I want to take some time to sort out that image in my mind but he’s moaning now, so I dial campus security.

A few minutes later, two student medics, a lesbian couple with matching buzzed-in-the back, feathered-in-the-front hairdos, show up with first-aid kits. Though we all recognize each other—dining hall, campus center, parties in the decrepit old gym—there is no acknowledgement of this, no friendly exchange. They tend to
Lover as he shudders and sweats, half-naked beneath a wrinkled bedsheet, while I stand in the corner before the desk lamp, my silhouette stretched across the wall. It is only when Cliff, the bearded, black security guard known for his surly disposition and straight-faced wisecracks, lets himself in that I become aware of my own semi-nudity. I grab my jeans and t-shirt off the floor and step into the hallway to dress.

When I’m back in the room, Cliff puts a hand on my shoulder and asks, “He your roommate?” I want to laugh because I can’t imagine that he’s serious, the room barely wide enough to fit the twin bed frame lined snugly against the wall. But, despite his tenure at such a notoriously liberal and sexually wayward institution, I see that he
wants to hear it—needs to hear it—from my lips, because there is as much at stake in a wrong assumption as there is in the truth. So, I say it. I say, for the first time to a stranger, maybe to anyone for that matter, no, we are not roommates. Cliff gives a vague nod, then asks the medic couple what the plan is. They say they aren’t sure what’s wrong with Lover and he should get to the local hospital immediately for x-rays.

Cliff uses his walkie-talkie to arrange for an ambulance. “All right,” he says, “you gotta go with him in the car.” I’ve not given thought to this one way or the other, but I’m taken aback by the way Cliff commands me, by his you said it, now it’s your problem tone. I’m a little overwhelmed by how quickly my private relationship has
become a community affair. My eyes are fixed on Lover, but I’m not really seeing him; he has become an abstraction, a representation of some new reality in which I have been assigned a new role. Cliff snaps me out of it: “You wanna put some pants on him or something?”

After I get Lover into pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, more medics arrive to strap him in a wheel chair and carry him down the steps. Outside, they lift him out of the chair and onto a gurney. Despite the mid-August humidity, they’ve laid a thick blanket over him. Lover’s eyes are still closed and I wonder if he knows I’m there beside him in this sterile chariot. I can tell by his sharp, short breaths he’s still in pain, maybe even more than before, so I don’t touch him.
But I want to, because this lack of touch and sight, this absence of the
senses, makes me feel lost, terribly out of place. Up front the ambulance driver and his partner, burly men with upstate accents, are yammering about their long shifts and their angry wives, and I self-consciously wonder if this likely conversation might really be code for well, well, would you look at those two back there?

I try to tune out their voices and refocus my attention on Lover, but now all I can think about is how scared he seems. I have only seen him scared for others before: scared for me when my mother found out about our relationship and threatened suicide, scared for me as I worried sick over what my brothers might say, when I braced myself
to hear they did not want me in their lives anymore, how they would no longer claim me as Little Brother, or worse, how I might never again hear anything from their mouths at all. And I’ve seen fear leave Lover too, when Big Brother wrote to tell me that he loved me, that who I loved didn’t matter to him, when Middle Brother called and was kind enough to lie and say only that the news came as a shock. But right now Lover is afraid for himself, afraid of what is happening inside of him, and I’m on the outside, helplessly on the periphery.

I feel even more on display once we get to the hospital, a small facility that rarely sees college kids apart from alcohol poisoning, mysterious rashes, mistaken miscarriages. Inside, no one asks me anything; they just point me toward an open waiting area while they gather information from the ambulance guys. I reluctantly settle into a crunchy, faux leather seat across from the television mounted on the wall. I fiddle with my cell phone, wanting to call someone, anyone, but I decide against it. I mindlessly pump dollar bills into the vending machine but don’t want to eat anything I’ve dispensed, so I stack the bags of chips, granola bites, and peanuts on the table for whoever finds himself in this seat next.

Then, a familiar face walks through the sliding doors. Her name is Geneva, and she’s a residence director finishing a doctoral dissertation in African feminist theory. She looks sleepy, and mildly
concerned. I hear her introduce herself to the nurse at the front desk. I  recognize some things she is saying, like Lover’s name, his academic standing, and there are things I don’t recognize, like his home address, his parents’ insurance information. When she’s given the nurse all she needs, Geneva joins me in the waiting room. She sits across from me and smiles. She lives in a graduate apartment in the dorm next to mine; we cross paths often but have never spoken. I wonder if she has seen us around before, Lover and me, holding hands, stealing a kiss in the parking lot between our dorms, if she’s seen us through the window of the ground floor laundry room folding together, or having
dinner in town. I wonder just how knowing that smile of hers is.

On the muted television set is the early morning news. Beneath the face of a toothy blond news anchor, the words Special Report scroll by. Cut to footage from a press conference. I can’t quite place the man at the podium until another box holding white letters tells
me it is Jim McGreevy, governor of New Jersey, my home state. He is handsome, and he is wearing an equally handsome suit. His lovely wife is at his side. It’s hard to know what he’s saying from his face alone because there’s this blankness to it, a pair of dark, staid eyes never veering from script. There is no closed captioning on this set and I am no good at reading lips. Thankfully, another reliable box appears, this time the letters read and thick: Says Gov: ‘My
truth is, I am a gay American.’ Cut back to the anchor. Now, the governor’s face is reduced to another box, a smaller one above the blonde’s shoulder, the word resignation jammed in there, maybe with other words too, but my eyes stay where they want to stay.

I turn to Geneva who is shaking her head in disappointment at the television, and I ask when she thinks we might hear something. It is the first thing I’ve said to her, and it seems to frazzle her a bit, probably because she knows little more than I do. “I can ask,” she says, checking her watch. “It’s been awhile, they should be able to tell me something now.” I nod and look back to the television, but it’s  switched to commercial. Geneva is about to walk over to the front desk when, maybe reading something in my face, she sits back down instead, beside me this time. She slides her arm around my chair and says quietly, “You could ask.” She lowers her mouth quietly to my ear and says with a tone somewhere between kidding and conspiratorial, “You could just say you’re his brother.” I say yeah, thanks, good idea, because I do want to see him, and I’ve seen this kind of lie used so many times on TV and in movies. Sometimes all it takes is a little lie because sometimes people just want to be lied to. Inches from the nurse’s desk, my legs  begin to wobble, my scalp dampens. Instinctively, I’m ready to do this, to tell a lie to slow my racing mind, and yet something in that same mind cannot reconcile faking those words so soon after speaking a truth that felt so easy and right. I search the deepest corners of my imagination for something—anything else that will provide me access to Lover without abetting this deception, but I come up empty. The nurse looks at me, my mouth open and my eyes lolling in confusion, and asks if she can help me. The decision is made for me, though, when moments later Lover shuffles out in to the lobby. His face is flushed with embarrassment and he’s wearing a crooked grin. There are paper slippers on his feet, and I realize I somehow neglected to put shoes on him. He says he feels better aside from a sore torso, but they have given some aspirin for it. An x-ray showed nothing and when they felt around his stomach and chest, nothing hurt. They tell him it was probably just a muscle spasm, at most a maybe a rib vibration—a fluttering most common in pregnant women when a baby’s kick is too sharp. (The irony of this diagnosis makes us both laugh.)

Geneva gives us a ride back to campus. Lover and I sit in the backseat, our necks crossed like sleeping dogs. When we get to Lover’s room, I find the thickest socks he has and cover his cold feet. Even though he swears he’s fine, I insist on helping him into bed. “My hero,” he kids with a lilt in his voice. Once I’m unbuttoned, I slide into bed beside him, resuming our tangle from the middle of the night. The shades are drawn but slivers of the full morning sun glitter on the walls and ceiling. Soon everything is still and I lay there, my eyes watching the door, expecting another jolt, another scare in this near-darkness. Maybe a seven-foot maniac with a machete coming at us fast, determined. I think about how there is only one window, behind us, and it drops two stories down onto pavement. I think about how if that machete pierced Lover’s body, the up and down of his chest moving in perfect rhythm with mine, it would pierce me too.  I think about how there would be no escaping this. And I think about how, in this moment, that would be all right. I stretch my neck awkwardly so my face is above his, then push our mouths together harder than I should, secretly hoping he’ll wake up again. But he doesn’t. So, I lock my arms tight around his waist, keep my eyes on the door, and wait.