Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Chapter Six

I live a quiet life, boring and dumb and everything modern life should be, full of dishes and TV and work and sleep. Hair dye can't save me. Walks at night can't save me. I can't even save myself. I spend hours planning escapes, but I never leave.

Even now I can't justify leaving, or even staying for that matter.

I woke up in pain, my lip sore and my eye pounding even after sleeping with an ice pack against it. I don't know if it even helped. I'm not a doctor.

I'm not really anything. Maybe lost. A forgotten man in a mirror, blue hair shining in the light from the window, white shirt stained with spots of blood, eyes staring out from under eyebrows. I don't know me. No one does.

I want to break everything in this room.


When I get to work, Martha is carrying around a stack of applications like a holy relic, holding the pages to her chest and smiling when she sees me. In my head, I'm curious and horrified. On the outside, I am a brick wall.

Then she sees my eye, and her smile kind of droops, but doesn't go away. Her mouth opens when I get close enough to hear her over the drive through orders and the fryers going off, and she says, “Did you run into a door?”

This has to be the stupidest question on earth. This woman needs a prize.

“A few times,” I tell her, and she nods.

“It happens,” she says, not connecting the sarcasm dots.

Or maybe she is. Maybe she knows. I look at her, right in her eyes, and I swear she shrinks into the fry dump, and her smile goes away completely.

Her mouth opens again, and she gestures with the applications in her hand and says, “I got some people coming in for interviews after lunch. Did it while you weren't in.”

And she looks at me, her one eye half-closed, I guess expecting me to ask why, but all I say is, “I'll do the interviews if you do the manager book.”

She smiles again, and hands me the stack of papers, relieved.


I've got the drink bar almost clean when I see Warren come in out of the corner of my eye.

Isn't it funny that no matter how painfully awkward the situation gets, people will follow routine?

I turn to look directly at him, the bleach-smelling, soda-stained towel in my hand. The dining room is empty except for us, and right now I've got visions in my head of holding him down and forcing the towel down his throat. FUCK YOU, I think to myself, and I smile at him. Kind of.

I just want to get this over with. I'm through the dividing door and behind the counter before he gets to the register.

Coming to the counter, he smiles at me with his cut lip, and we stand there, with the cash register as a mutual weapon between us. First to grab it and kill the other wins.

But nothing happens.

We just stand there like dumb pieces of shit, bruised and torn and healing.

Fuck. My head hurts.

“How's work?” he asks me, his voice shaky.

It's totally fucked up now that you're here, I want to tell him.

“It's okay I guess,” I tell him.

Why can't you understand I don't want to see you right now? I want to say. I want to grab the sides of his face and scream it until he screams too, and shoves me back into the wall behind me.

He looks down as he tries to find his wallet, as though I would charge him for food.

“Dude, why are you getting your wallet?” I ask.

He looks up, his wallet half out of his pants pocket.

I want to start a fight. I want to make him bleed.


A quick in-office look through the applications reveals a variety of handwriting. One of them looks like a preschooler wrote it. I mark it by folding the top corner because they also mention leaving 13 previous jobs for “personal reasons.”

Why do people even put that? They have to know I'm going to ask. And it's always someone saying something like “my last boss was a real asshole. Hoping to find a job where I'm appreciated.”

There's a knock on the door and then it opens and I hear Martha come in. I've got this sudden urge to close her in the door.

“First one's here, Aaron. I gave him a cup and he's in a booth,” she says.

“Which one is it?” I ask.

And she just stands there, staring at me.

“One on top, I think,” she says, pointing to the stack of papers in my hand.

I hand them to her and say, “They're not in order anymore.”

She takes them and sorts through them, then looks at two of them over and over, her face pinched. After a while, she puts one on top and hands the stack back. “That one,” she says.

I take the stack from her, and I see that I'm looking at the one I've marked.


Coming around the outside of the fryers toward the front counter, I see him already. He's got a lip piercing, and he's a teenager. And suddenly I feel like the oldest person on earth. I feel roots growing out of my legs and tearing my skin as I walk, dragging along the quarry tile floor behind me.


The interview has been going surprisingly well until now, and he's even answered the “personal reasons” question with logical excuses.

Then I say the magic words.

“I can't let you wear your piercing in the kitchen,” I tell him.

And he looks up at my blue hair and laughs like he can't believe me. My hand goes up to my hair out of reflex.

“They let you have blue hair?” He asks me.

I know where this is going. He sits back and glares, and then he looks away and laughs again, shaking his head.

Any other time, I'd be able to handle this logically, but right now, I'm struggling to keep from flipping the table over on him.

And then he looks at me and says, “What the fuck happened to your face anyway? You tell the last kid to take his piercing out too?”

I stare at him for a second, and he raises his eyebrows at me.

And I smile, and laugh a little. This interview is over. This kid is fucked.

I say to him, “Well...” I look at the application to get his name, “Jacob... it was a pleasure, definitely. I'll let you know.”

And he glares at me, and narrows his eyes. “You'll let me know. I'm sure you will,” he says coldly.

And I sigh and get up from the booth and start to walk back to the door I came out of, and back to the safety of my office.

“When did you forget how to be alive?” the kid yells after me, and it makes me stop and turn to look at him. He's gotten up from the booth, his eyes cold, his hands balled into fists at his sides.

And I imagine the floor opening to swallow him.

I look around and I realize that the whole store is looking at me: the other guests, my employees giggling behind the counter, and Martha with her eyes wide.

I give the kid the thumbs up and continue through the door, slamming it behind me.


I get a call from my regional manager demanding to know what I had said to “faggot” guy from a couple days ago, telling me that I had better be in the store tomorrow because he wants to talk to me about some things I've been screwing up lately.

I just sit there with the phone to my ear, waiting to hear his head explode.


I've had it with this place. In my mind, I imagine the fryers exploding, the broiler bursting into flames, all the windows exploding.

And all the people running, never getting away.

I can definitely relate to that.


I'm putting the last of the info into the computer when there's a knock on the door, and it opens.

“What is it now?” is the nicest thing I can think of to say, and I don't look away from the screen when I say it.

A few quiet seconds later, Martha says, “Some guy's here to see you again.”

Fuck my life. I turn to smile at her.

“It just keeps getting better, doesn't it Martha?”

She blinks at me behind her glasses and says, “I'll tell him you're busy.”

“I'm not busy,” I tell her, my chest tight and my eyes wet. “Just give him a cup and sit him down.”

Martha stares at me just long enough for me to realize she's still there, and then she says, “Do you suppose they're related?”

I'm not even going to try to understand what she's talking about. I can't concentrate at all. It was hard enough a moment ago to get the data into the computer without cruising for plane tickets and crying over my life.

And then Martha's out the door, which is still open.

I swear to god. One of these days I'm going to nail it shut.


When I come around the Fryer wall, I see Harrison. His eyes go first to my black eye, then my lips, then they get really distant.

I stop in front of the register, my stomach cold and dark and full of acid. How did I become this person?

On the counter by the register is the cup Martha put there for him.

Harrison's eyes refocus on me, and I watch his hands ball into fists at his sides, and then I close my eyes, wishing I were dead.

His voice is low and calm and flat when he asks me what happened.

It's a very serious question, and not really a question at all to me, but a confirmation of my lame bullshit status as a victim today.

I open my eyes and smile at him.

“It's a long story,” I tell him.

And I hope that stops him from asking. Lame, I know, right?

He stares at me, his face blank, but his eyes a darker blue than before. His hands are still fists, and my blood is ice water.

“I've got time for a long story,” he says to me.

And that's it. I have to tell someone.

“That's for you,” I tell him, nudging the cup.

He just stands there, then he looks down, and runs a hand back and forth over his green hair, then looks back up at me, his eyes sympathetic and full of pain.

Then, he smiles sadly and takes the cup from the counter.


The view from the roof of Burger King is incredible. I come here sometimes to get away from work and procrastinate. From here, I can see the grocery store across the vast parking lot, and in all directions houses and buildings and cars and people.

I've got some lawn chairs up here. I'm in one, and Harrison is in the other.

“I really don't know what to do with myself anymore,” I'm telling him, like some stupid emo fucked up moron, tears in my eyes.

And he's sitting in his lawn chair, looking sad for me, his cup of lemonade in one hand, the other across his lap.

“I hate him,” he says.

And I run a hand over my hair, and in my mind, it's not just blue, it's shining in the light from the sun. “I started it,” I say.

“He punched you,” Harrison says, and he adds, “in the eye,” as though for emphasis.

I sit back in my lawn chair, laughing, my eyes wet, and my hand goes from my hair to my chest and I say, “I beat him with the remote.”

And then we're both laughing.


When I get home, Warren's car is already in the driveway, and there are lights on in the basement.


Part of me wants to just drive my car into the house and fuck everything up. But then I think of insurance and rebuilding the house and all that other stupid shit.

It's amazing how my mind works sometimes.

It's full of F-bombs and violence right now.


The house is a mess. Seriously. I don't think I've ever been so completely defeated.

And the smell from the basement is so strong I think I'm getting a contact buzz up here in the kitchen. I mean for fuck sake. Really? We have to do this tonight?

He hasn't come up here at all. I don't know if he knows I'm here yet. And there are other voices downstairs that I don't recognize.

But life goes on, right? Stupid fucking god damned life goes on, and dinner has to be made. So I'm making it.

My cooking skills are admittedly limited. I have my things I'm good at and I repeat them, especially when I'm freaking out.

Spaghetti tonight.

Deal with it.


And then comes the magic moment.

I hear the door to the basement open, and I hear two other sets of footsteps coming up the stairs, and two male voices I don't recognize.

I don't turn around because I don't want to look at any of them.

I hear them cross the room behind me, and no one reacts to my presence at all. Like I don't live here. Like I don't even exist.


We're at the table, eating like humans. The silence is overwhelming. I don't know how to talk anymore; I can only complain.

And then he says, “Spaghetti is getting old.”

And it's like an explosion. It's like being spat on, having your finger broken and watching an animal die all at once.

All I can think is FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU.

And before I can think, my chair is on its back on the ground, and I'm stalking to the counter like I could kill him. Maybe I could. But where would I hide the body?

Warren's still at the table. I can feel his eyes on my back, and the sounds of fork and plate mingling have stopped.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks me.

“Nothing,” I say. Which is a lie.

He laughs from the table, and I turn to look at him and run a hand over my hair. My stupid blue hair. Fuck fuck fuck.

He motions to the table and says, “Come on, Aaron. Let's just eat and be nice.”

“Who were those guys with you in the basement?” I ask, and it's like the question comes out of me on its own, propelled by fear and self-loathing and anger, full of bile and blood and tears.

He looks at me like I've lost my mind. Maybe I have. I don't remember when. Years ago, maybe.

“Friends,” he says, his voice quiet and irritated. He motions to the table again and says, “Now sit the fuck down, please.”

“There's nothing wrong with spaghetti, Warren,” I tell him from the counter, my voice cracking.

“I never said there was,” he says, and it makes me laugh.

I run a hand over my hair again and I look over at the sink and I want to smash every single bowl and plate and glass in the strainer against the wall.


What does anything matter anymore?

He's already in bed. He's just fine. But here I am, standing in the bathroom, wanting to die.

Anything could be a weapon.

Even looking at the toothbrush, I can imagine it sticking out of my chest, moving with my pulse.


I'm going to bed.

(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt

Chapter Five

One of the big themes of my fucked up life is that no change ever goes the way I expect it to. I've been awake for at least an hour now, and I'm in the bathroom brushing my teeth when Warren comes in to pee. He stands there at the toilet as he does, his hair a mess and his eyes sleepy, looking at my hair. And his face registers nothing.

My hand goes up to touch my hair out of reflex, and he looks away and smiles. Not a good smile, though, kind of like a smile that says 'wow, you're an idiot.' The urine stream stops and he flushes the toilet and looks at me again, and I stand there with my toothbrush sticking out of my mouth, waiting.

He just raises both eyebrows, still smiling, and leaves the bathroom, fixing his pajama pants.

And I stand there, my heart pounding, cold washing over me, a bit of toothpaste foam dripping from the stem of the toothbrush now, and I want to scream. I want to slam the door to the bathroom so hard it opens the wrong way. I want to break the mirror. But instead, I grab the toothbrush and finish brushing my teeth. And I guess I don't realize how hard I'm brushing, but when I spit into the sink, what comes out is mostly blood.

I wipe my mouth off and rinse and go downstairs to finish getting ready.


There's something about watching Martha creep up next to me out of the corner of my eye that makes me want to run screaming into the office, but I just stand there and let her think she's being sneaky. She likes to watch how I fill out the manager book sometimes because she has a hard time remembering what goes where.

I look over at her when I'm sure she's out of stealth mode.

“I'm doing sandwich boards for a while,” I tell her.

And she looks at me like I've just said I'm going to hang myself from the flag pole. Believe me, I've considered it. It's too complicated.

I look at her and smile and say, “You're in charge up here until the other kids come in. Then I'll come up and take over.”

She nods, and kind of smiles. And I laugh a little. Poor, sad Martha.

And I go to the back and get ready, washing my hands and putting on gloves, and I go to the main board, where Danny is already working.

He looks at me like I'm an alien. I only do sandwich boards when I have some aggression to get out.

And you know, for the first hour, things go smoothly. But as it gets busier, I start to lose control of the board, the screen filling with orders, and I'm making them too fast, throwing them together and Martha is demanding them faster than I can make them, customers glaring at me and Danny through the openings in the heat chute and fry dump. And I remember how thankless this part of the job is.

And Martha looks at me, her face all pinched, and says, “Aaron I need those whoppers.”

And I throw them up on the chute so fast that they hit her in the gut, one after the other, and she looks at me like I'm stabbing her. Believe me, I could do better than that. I could take these fucking whoppers up there and smash them in her face and twist so that the pickles fly out and then pick up the drinks waiting to go out the drive thru window one by one and hurl them into the car waiting there.

And out of the corner of my eye, I see some of my employees filing in, and I feel a wave of relief. I start to feel like going out to the dining room and slitting my throat and bleeding all over strangers' food.

When one of the kids takes over, I go to the office, throwing my gloves away and shutting the door.

I guess a couple hours pass. Martha comes in once in a while, making requests for the authority to give out free food or clean the shake machine or piss on the floor or whatever she's doing up there. I'm holding her hand through it all from the office.

And a novel idea strikes me: This store is filthy. I have to clean it.

And I'm out the office door and rounding up idle employees to assist me. I send them to take out the trash and sweep the floor and I take a broom and dust pan outside to do the dirtiest of all the jobs: sweeping the parking lot.

And let me tell you, I hate every second of it. But it allows me time to think.

For a while, my mind wanders. I'm sweeping up cigarette butts and fry cartons and thinking about shoving all this shit into the mouths of the people who tossed it there. I look up at the cars in the drive thru and imagine going up to one of them and just beating the shit out of the windshield with the broom.

And I see Warren's car pull into the lot. It's lunch time, I suppose.


And there's still no comment on my hair. We've run out of small talk, and I'm sitting there ready to leave at any second, ready to burst into hysterics and overturn the table and break a window.

But I just sit there.

And finally, over his fries, Warren says to me, “What did you do to your hair?”

And I laugh, because it's like being slapped.

“I cut it,” I tell him.

And I'm ready to grab the ketchup pump and smash it on the ground, sending dead tomato paste across the quarry tile floor. I'm ready to break my hand on the table.

He's so quiet for a while that I have to try to tune out the conversations at other tables. And finally he raises his eyebrows and laughs and says, “Why?”

I stare at him for a second, considering the consequences of each possible response, and finally I settle on telling him, “Because I knew everyone would hate it.”

He looks away and shakes his head, still smiling. “I don't hate it,” he says, “I just don't understand why you did it.”

I put all of our trash on the tray and stand up and I say, “Are you done?”

He looks at me, all shocked and innocent.

I pick up the tray and clear it into the trash can and carry it back to the dish sink at the back of the store, letting the door to the dining room slam shut behind me.

I spend a few minutes doing the dishes, my heart beating me to death, my teeth clenched, throwing the clean dishes into their places, then I stalk to the office, running a hand over my buzzed blue hair and slam the door there too.


And it's almost halfway through my shift. There's a fearful little knock at the door, and it opens without waiting for a response. I'm already looking at the door. I've been staring at it for a long time. Martha stops and blinks and says, “You okay Aaron?”

I just sit there, the forms I was supposed to be reviewing sitting on my lap untouched.

“You want me to take over so you can leave?” She asks.

I sigh and look around me. I look up at her and say, “If you don't mind, Martha.”

She smiles and nods and leaves the door open as she goes back up front.


I go out to my car and scream until my throat hurts.


I'm standing on the bridge over the highway now, my car a few yards away, the hazard flashers blinking. There's something about this moment that seems like fate to me.

I look out over the road below, and in my mind I'm falling over the edge and plummeting to the pavement, parts of my body exploding and bending the wrong way, and semis mangling me beneath them, cars hitting me like a dead deer, motorists pulling over to inspect their bumpers.

And I close my eyes, smiling. I start to laugh. And when I open my eyes, I see the trail of blood still fresh on the highway below me. I look down and I realize it leads to where I stand.


When I get home, I go in and cross the living room to the hall and go up the stairs, not looking out the window upstairs, and I go into the bedroom and get out of my disgusting uniform and just stand there in front of the mirror looking at myself in my underwear, my buzzed blue hair and my tired face. Then I pick up the jeans I've laid across the bed for myself and pull one of Warren's hoodies out of the closet and I put them on and go downstairs, my mind a mess of insecurities.

I really hate my life right now. I hate this house and these clothes and my hair. Anything and everything. I hate every person I've ever known, and every opportunity I missed.

And I've missed plenty of them.

My mind goes to the Vegas Motel as I leave the house, thinking of Harrison's arms around me, the water rising.

And I know that I've died. I'm dead as fuck. I'll never be alive again, but ironically I'm still here. Death is just as fucked as life, the same people, and every day the same shit.

I start down the road toward campus, my feet small against the cracked pavement. I'm walking past cars and houses and buildings I don't even remember right now, quickening my pace, quickening my breathing, almost running.

And when I get to University Strip, I stop and collapse against the side of a building, people passing me, and me wishing I was dead.


I feel like every second of my life is spent running away from something.

I've been against this wall for a while, waiting to die.

But I decide it would be better to go into the book store across the street from where I'm standing and try to calm down. My chest is tight and I'm sweating.

And right as I push myself away from the wall, the door to the bookstore opens and Harrison comes out, carrying text books, his hair new and green, and our eyes connect. I want to run away. I don't want to be here, with him seeing me right now, and me shitting myself from how it makes me feel to be so close to him.

He waves and I just stand there, panicking. He crosses the street when it's clear and comes over and hugs me, and I just stand there still, arms at my sides, and he laughs.

He pulls away and looks at my hair, his blue eyes wide, and he says, “You look great!”

And inside I'm screaming, but I don't know if that's good or bad.

He runs a hand over my hair, then his own hair and laughs again and say, “You inspired me to color my hair too.”

And I force a smile, my stomach in knots. I want to cry.

He hugs me again, and I finally am able to hug him back, closing my eyes and breathing him in, remembering us laying on the bed together, and I start to tremble. He pulls away and holds me by the shoulders, and says, “I was just about to get some iced coffee downtown. You look like you could use some, too.”

And I have to admit, iced coffee sounds amazing.


So we take the bus. Silent dancing crazy lady is on this bus again, and we watch her all the way to the station, which is a few blocks from downtown. We get out and start the walk to Starbucks.

“I don't know why I cut my hair,” I tell him, without being asked.

I look over at him and he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I like it.”

He looks over at me, and our eyes lock uncomfortably, and I look away, thinking about dead animals.


And then we're sitting in Starbucks, watching the cars and the buses and people passing the building, all on their way to destinations I will never know.

“What happened today?” He's asking me.

And I can't really tell him can I? What difference would it make?

“I'm just having a bad day,” I tell him.

I look at him, and he's frowning at me.

“You can tell me,” he says.

I look out the window again. Not really, I think.

“It's just a really bad day.”

And he lets it go for a minute, and then he says something that makes my heart stop.

“You ever wonder what it would be like to leave?”

I look at him with my mouth hanging open, scenes of us leaving town in my head.

“Leave?” I ask, sounding like I don't even know the dictionary definition of the word.

“Yeah,” he says, a smile crossing his face for a second. “Leave.”

I look down at my iced coffee and I shrug and say, “Where would I go?”

And he says, “Anywhere.”

I look up at him, and we're making eye contact, and I don't look away. I can't. I'm trapped. I think for a second I might even piss my pants.

“Sometimes I think about running away,” I tell him, my voice quiet.

He laughs and sits back in this chair.

“You're great, Aaron,” he says.


The light's fading as I'm heading back from University Strip, Harrion's voice in my head: You ever wonder what it would be like to leave?

I smile, staring down at my feet, still so small against the pavement, and then I look up at the cars and houses passing silently on either side.

I wish I was gone already. On a bus out of town, my backpack in the next seat, a middle finger to the life I know.


I spend a nice long time doing the dishes from this morning, waiting for Warren to get home.

I wash each plate and bowl and cup as though it might break if I handle it too harshly.

I look up at the pink siding out the window and I laugh.

It's just like me.

That stupid pink siding will never change. It will just keep peeling until it's gone.

Lost and forgotten and dead.

I picture myself dead, and the tombstone says, 'He was good at dishes.'

And I laugh until I start to cry and then I'm kneeling in front of the sink, my hands gripping the counter, screaming my throat raw.


Warren gets home and I have dinner ready. Spaghetti as always. I just don't have the energy for anything else.

And he laughs and says, “At least we're back to normal.”

And in my head I think FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU.

And I smile at him, my throat sore.


Who am I? I'm watching TV with Warren in my own home and I don't know who I am. I'm sitting on the sofa in the living room, and I couldn't tell you what we're watching.

“You okay?” He asks me.

“I'm okay, yeah,” I tell him.

And a while passes before he speaks again.

“I'm sorry about earlier at lunch.”

And I say, the words coming before I can think about them: “Shut up.”

And the words are so harsh that I surprise myself.

And I feel his eyes on me.

I look over at him.

“What's your problem?” He asks me.

And I just stare at him. I put a hand up to my hair and then retract it.

“You need pills,” He says, his eyes cold.

And I can't do this anymore. I can't just sit here and take it. I reach over and grab magazines and remotes off of the coffee table and start throwing them at him, and when they're gone I'm just hitting him with my hands, and he's grabbing for my wrists, and finally catches them, his lip bleeding, his eyes wide.

And our struggle is over. We stare at each other, breathing hard, and he sits up from the slouched position he had assumed, his eyes wide and scared. He lets go of my wrists. And all I see is a flash of fist. Then blackness.


So we're laying in bed now, and we've both got cut lips and eyebrows, sore gums and I've got a black eye.

And I just lay there waiting to die.

But I don't die.

I think of Harrison.

I could run away.

I could.

But I probably won't.

(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt

Chapter Four

There are situations that have no good ending. I find myself in these situations once in a while. I think we all do. It's the kind of situation that can only end with someone leaving.

My heart is a smear on State Route 505. There's a trail of blood leading from the motel parking lot, stretching for miles to where I'm parked in the lot at work. It's not really there, if you were to just go look at the road. But it's real.

I am mostly dead today. And yet I'm alive.

And the human mind is capable of miracles. A dark curtain is drawing, and my breath is quickening. And the car is filling with water, coming in the doors and spilling in through the open windows.

And I think of his words the night before: It's hard to breathe when you're gone.


There's a dull buzz to life today. Like white noise. Like I'm standing on a railroad listening to a train approach from miles away.

I'm up here at the counter filling out the manager book, and I've got teenagers on either side of me, taking orders at the register to my left and the drive through to my left. And for all I know, they could be cursing out every customer that comes into this place.

My focus is gone. I don't know what to think or feel or say or even do with myself.

The question is no longer “who am I?” but “what have I become?”

And it's a good question, isn't it?

I'm still Aaron. My hair is still bright blue, but I've combed it today. I still get compliments on it, too, though I couldn't tell you what anyone said.

And even Martha's little nonsensical inquiries don't disturb me. She knocks and comes in without waiting about 5 times in 3 hours, and leaves the door open each time, and I just close the door after a few minutes when I realize she had been in my office. I couldn't tell you what she even said to me. She's been nothing but background noise today.


Warren comes in for lunch and we sit in our usual booth. And there's a sense of normalcy to it that I find almost comfortable. And His hair is still orange and mine is still blue, but there are a million miles between us.

“Did you have fun?” he's asking me across the table.

“It was okay. I'm glad to be coming home,” I say.

And he looks at me all quiet, with his eyes searching my face. My stomach tightens. And he half-smiles at me and says, “Last night really made me think. I really missed you.”

And my heart is pounding. I wonder if this is the end. I don't think I want an end right now. And I smile back at him and say, “I missed you too.”

He looks over at the window next to us, at the trees and the cars and the highway, and he says to me, his voice quiet and broken, “I know I've made a lot of mistakes, Aaron.”

And I can't take it. I want to cover my ears. I want to scream.

“It's not all your fault. I don't think that,” I tell him.

And he looks at me, and smiles after a minute and laughs. “I thought you were never coming back,” he says.

And maybe I wasn't going to. But I'm here, now.

“I'm here; I'm not leaving,” I say, my voice really rough, and I clear my throat.

I've got a lump growing in my stomach, cold and warm and unwanted.


The drive home is uneventful. I cross the bridge without incident. My car stays in the lane.

My knuckles are white from gripping the wheel.

I'm almost dead, coming off the bridge. I might as well have driven through the guardrail.


And when I get home, the house is clean. The living room is neat and orderly, the remotes on the coffee table, and the kitchen is clean, the sink free of dishes. I feel useless. There's nothing for me to do here. So I go upstairs to my office and sit down at the computer but I don't turn it on.

And I guess I sit there for a lot longer than I realize, because after a while, I hear a car door shut, and a few minutes later I hear the back door open downstairs, and Warren's footsteps echo as he comes into the kitchen from the laundry room. Then I hear him on the stairs, and I just sit there like a dumbass in my computer chair.

And the door opens and there he is. And he's got flowers. Roses. And here I am, undeserving, useless, numb. I don't even know who I am. I'm not the guy those roses are for.

“Hey,” he says, his eyes bright and his work clothes dirty.

I smile at him, autonomous reaction. I can't not smile.

He holds out the flowers to me, and I just sit there. And then my eyes are filling with water. And then there's a sound, loud and hurt and sad. At first, I don't know where it's coming from, but then Warren's face goes from happy to concerned to panicked and I realize it's coming from me. My mouth is open and I'm making the noise and my heart is beating me to death. And I realize that this is the moment I've been dreading since last night. I want to die, right here. I don't want to be alive anymore.

And Warren has dropped the roses onto my desk and is helping me stand up. My legs are rubber, and I'm almost on the floor a few times as he half-carries me to the door. After a minute or two, he gives up and just picks me up, and I wish I could stop crying. I hate crying. I feel like such an idiot.

And he's carrying me down the hall and into the bedroom and he puts me on our bed and gets on the bed behind me, putting his arms around me and holding me.

All the things I thought today up until this moment have been muffled and garbled to some degree, but this is so clear to me. I can't block this feeling out, this anger I feel inside me when I think of my life.

And Warren's voice is soft and familiar. “I'm sorry for being a dick,” he says.

And it's so horrible to feel this way. It's like white noise on full volume, my mind trying not to think. I think I'm dying, bleeding out on the bed, a bullet is in my chest.

I've outlived my expiration date, and no one can tell me why. Not even Warren. He knows what he knows, and he can't help me.

And then he says, like salt in an open wound, “You are the most beautiful person I've ever known.”

And the tears are hot and the pillow is wet, and my hands are shaking on his across my chest, his stomach against my back.

And then he says, “I've realized that I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

And I hear him breathing, and I feel it on the back of my neck, and I'm lying on a table, and he's pulling my guts out of me, making room for himself.

And somewhere inside me, I feel my heart slowing to normal. And I know the reason. I am calm and I am here, trapped and loved and doomed to live with it, because I love him too. I've always known it. I don't deny it. Much as I wish it away when I have time to think about it, I do love him.

And then I know my fate isn't as bad as it seems. I may be putting a bullet in my own head this time, but death is logical. It always has been.

“I love you,” Warren says in my ear.

“I love you, too,” I say to him, staring at the wall ahead of me.


My flowers are in Pizza Hut glass on the counter in the kitchen. Warren's hoodie is across the back of the couch in the living room. There are dishes in the sink.

I'm upstairs, putting checks into envelopes and filling out forms on my computer. Life goes on, in whatever form.

There are no messages on my phone. So I put it in the drawer under the sink in the bathroom and go downstairs.


While I'm doing the dishes, Warren comes up behind me and puts his arms around me and kisses my neck, and I almost smile, looking up at our reflection in the night window.

I put the bowl I'm washing away and put my head back against his shoulder and look up at the ceiling, and he says things into my ear that make me laugh. We're almost normal tonight. It's kind of nice.

He goes downstairs and I'm alone with the dishes and my thoughts. I look up at the window but I can't see the pink siding because it's night and the lights are on in the kitchen.

There's something about this one simple truth that makes my heart beat faster.

I can't see the house next door. It doesn't exist.

I drop the plate I'm rinsing back into the dish water and back away from the sink, staring at the window. And I go to the switch on the wall and turn the lights off with wet hands.

And when the lights are off, the kitchen is dark, the only light coming from the open doorway to the living room and the stairway in the hall. And now I can see the siding of the house next door. Everything is okay.

But just in case, I keep the lights off until the dishes are done, looking up once in a while to make sure the pink siding is still there.


The best thing about owning a house is being able to sweep the living room at 11pm if you want to.

I pick Warren's hoodie up off the couch and put it in the closet by the front door and I sweep the floors. Then I go into the other rooms downstairs. They're all clean. I'm still a little numb, but cleaning helps.

And the knowledge that I can still leave if I want. My car has a full tank of gas.

Freedom is still at arm's length, though muted now.

I can quit this life anytime I want to.


It's about midnight when Warren comes upstairs to the living room where I'm watching TV and says, “Let's go for a walk.”

A walk. I open my mouth to say something but nothing comes out.

He smiles at me and says, “I know you love to walk.”

So we go for a walk. I wear his blue hoodie and he wears his red one. Our shoes are soft in the grass of the yards of neighbors, cutting across alleys toward the empty building where Warren when to grade school. The playground is still intact after 8 years of neglect.

And we sit on the swings and talk for a long time, about nothing. About our lives. A flood of memories, tall and suffocating, washing over me.

And he ends me with just a few words. He says, “Aaron, you're the only man I've ever loved.”

And I'm dead. Shot to death, bleeding out on the wood chips around me, limp in the swing.

I can't go back from here. I can only go forward.


And the funny thing is, I've always loved him. I've always fought it, but I've always known I love him. And tonight is a defining moment in my life. I wish I could have been born right now, just like this. No regrets, nothing missed out on. That way I could have enjoyed it.


We walk to campus after a while, holding hands, and I'm still leaving a trail of blood behind me.

And we walk to the cafe where we met, the building dark and closed. University Strip is cold and forgotten. He sits down in the chair he was in that night, and I sit across from him.

And he says to me, “I haven't been here in years.”

And I laugh.

And his hand touches mine across the table.

There's something about this moment that has been worth the years of pain. I can't explain it, and it's gone as fast as it's there.

Then we're just two guys at a table.


And when we get home, Warren says, as we're crossing the street toward the house, “I'm hungry as fuck.”

And I say, “Pothead.”

And he laughs and says, “Whatever.”

I laugh too, and we walk to his car in the back, cutting around the side of the house, our shoes parting grass, the pink siding of the next house closer than ever.

“We're not going to my place of employment,” I tell him. “I spend enough time there.”

“Taco Bell it is,” he says.

And we get into the car, doors slamming and engine starting.


In the Taco Bell parking lot, we eat in the car. It's 3am.

“I swear I said no tomatoes,” Warren says.

“Those bastards,” I tell him.


When we walk into the house, Warren goes into the kitchen to put our leftovers in the fridge so we can look at them for days, wondering what they are.

I go downstairs, my hand sliding down the railing, and the smell of pot has faded a bit. My eyes go after a minute to the door across the room, next to the bathroom door.

I hear Warren's footsteps coming toward the door upstairs, and I just stand there. He comes down the stairs behind me.

“What's so interesting down here?” he asks me, and then he sees the door too.

It's a storage room. Probably meant to be a bedroom when the house was a college rental, years ago before we bought it.

Warren is standing behind me now.

“I haven't been in that room in a long time,” he says.

I turn and smile at him and say, “Let's look inside.”

He says, “Why not?”


I knew what I wanted that room. I found it at the back of the room. A box marked “School stuff.”

And we're going through it now, upstairs in the living room, binders and folders and textbooks covering the floor. I've moved the coffee table, and some dumb reality show is the background noise.

And I find it. There it is. A manilla envelope with Warren's name on it in my handwriting.

“What's that?” he asks me.

And I laugh and open it up, spilling the contents out onto the floor.

In front of me is every card he gave me that first year, before we quit school, and ever letter he wrote me when I was home on for Christmas vacation and Thanksgiving and the summer.

And I say to him, my chest tight, “I think I've found what I've been looking for.”


I'm getting ready for bed when I get the text. I've been able to forget about it for most of the day. The brain is a magical thing, able to suppress anything. Until this moment, I have been increasingly calm.

But here, with my toothbrush sticking out of my mouth, standing in my boxers at the sink, I hear my phone vibrate in the drawer.

Warren is already asleep in the bedroom down the hall.

And reality is like an anvil, crashing down through the floors and framing of the house to where I stand.

For a second, I don't move. But it's not something I can avoid.

I open the drawer and take my phone out and press a button. HARRISON, it says.

My heart is beating me to death again. I want this text to kill me. I would deserve it.

I open the message and it says: I'm sorry if I caused problems for you. I hope you're okay.

And I'm not. I was. Until this text. I was blind and numb and wanting to be okay.

And I respond: I'm okay. I'm sorry I just left. Thanks for listening to me.

And then I turn my phone off and I look in the mirror. My hair is bright blue against the white tile behind me, and I just stare at it.

I put my phone down on the sink and I grab my clippers and I look at my reflection again.


The sink is blue again, but this time it's hair, not hair color.

I'm looking at myself in the mirror, and I'm smiling.

I've cut my hair shorter than Warren's, about a fourth of a inch long. And it's still blue, but this blue is new. It's shiny and full of freedom.

I run a hand over it and laugh, my voice echoing in the bathroom.

And then I clean the sink out, throwing the hair away.

This moment is new. I've never been here before. I'm almost scared.


I wake up in the middle of the night to feel Warren's lips on the back of my neck, his arms around me.

And I close my eyes. I'm bleeding out, the sheets red around us. But this time, I've pulled the trigger myself.

Then he says, dreaming, “It's hard to breathe when you're gone.”

I open my eyes, and I'm dead, my pupils fixed on the wall.

His breathing slows again, and he's asleep.

(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt

Chapter Three

I think the thing that pisses me off the most about this morning is knowing that I am the reason I am in the situation I find myself in right now. I put myself into this relationship with this man who, usually, is a very nice person and is not hard to live with as a boyfriend, and I also put myself into the position where I'm almost 28 years old and have nothing to show for it. Even this house isn't entirely mine.

This fact is very obvious the second I open the door to the hallway, and there's Warren, asleep against the wall. If it weren't for the circumstances, I would say that the way he looks right now is the only reason I stay with him.

But circumstances being what they are, some deep dark part of me wants to pick him up and throw him down the stairs, just to watch parts of him break.

I'm such a bad person. I really am. I tell myself this as I step over his sleeping body and approach the landing. And I'm dreading what I'll find downstairs. I could spare myself the grief of seeing it, I suppose, by taking one of our pictures off the wall on the way down, breaking it and slashing my throat with it. I might do that one day.

But not today.

And as I reach the bottom I realize that the house is very quiet down here. I find the living room to be clean and orderly, and I just stand there. I mean, it's not the way I'd have done it, obviously, but I start to really feel like shit for locking Warren out last night. This room is not at all how I'd last seen it. It 's void of his brothers, relatively clean, and I just feel like shit.


I've been sitting in here, dreading the moment when Martha would knock on my door. And it seems that the moment has finally arrived. I recognize her tiny little fearful knock. Then she opens the door without waiting for me to answer. I swear, one of these days, I'm just going to slam it shut on her as she's opening it.

“I got a guy asking for a free sandwich cos he says he ain't gonna pay for the one he's got,” she says to me in her usual run-on sentence. If you typed her daily conversation out it would just be a big block of text with no periods or anything. I'm in such a bad mood right now.

I look at her, and I'm sure I look like shit, blue hair messed up and uncombed. I just said fuck it after seeing the living room.

“Aaron what do I do?” she asks me.

“Martha, you're a manager. Promo it off. I just don't care today.”

And she looks at me like I am the craziest motherfucker in the world. And I probably am right now. And then she leaves, not closing the door.

That's the last time I can take that particular habit of hers. I doubt the teenagers working in my kitchen have ever heard the office door slammed quite as hard as I slam it just now, clipboards and pens falling out of their holders on the wall. And I lock it. And then I sit at the desk and stare at the computer screen and wish for death. All kinds of death.

I could destroy this whole office right now and not feel bad. I could burn this fucking place to the ground. My mind is filled with scenes of Warren cleaning the living room, totally hungover, then trying to open the door, then giving up. And I want to destroy something.

There's a knock at the door, and I smile when I hear Martha trying to open the door. She can't do it. It's locked. And there's no window. I'm in here, calm and undisturbed. I am an island.

She knocks again, then I suppose she goes back up to the front, because it doesn't happen again for a few hours.


I must have fallen asleep, because I'm suddenly awake and pissed when there's a knock at the door that won't stop. I roll over to the door in the chair and unlock it and fling it open and stare at Martha, waiting.

“Aaron there's a guy up here won't go away, and he ain't very nice. Wants to speak to the store manager.”

Fuck my life.

I stand up and follow her, not talking, to the front, running a hand over my uncombed blue hair, bubbles popping over my head. I am not happy.

And there's this fucked up redneck guy standing on the other side of the counter, holding a half-wrapped sandwich, yelling at one of my employees. No, screaming. Veins practically popping out of his skull.

And suddenly, this one thing has caused me to snap. I have lost the will to maintain control.

“Danny,” I say to the kid he's yelling at. His eyes are full of water as he looks at me, backing away. “Go do back cash for a while.”

And he runs to the back of the store.

Then it's just me and this guy, on opposite sides of the counter, and he's looking me over. Even Martha has left the scene. Customers are staring.

I am not in the mood to answer questions like this. I picture him exploding, and it gives me the strength to do my fake customer service smile. And in a calm voice, I say: “What seems to be the problem?”

His face contorts into mock surprise, somewhere between a turtle and a walrus, and he slides the sandwich he's holding across the counter toward me. “Look at that shit,” he says to me, all indignant. I picture this massive inbred fuck wearing a tutu, and it helps me to keep smiling. “This ain't made right,” He adds, pointing toward the kid I sent to the back, “That little faggot fucked it up.”

Using that word, he's lost all credibility with me. I don't care if Danny peed on it, and then peed on the guy's face. This fight is over.

And the words come out of my mouth before I can think about what I'm saying. “Get the fuck out of my store,” I say to him. I see all the customers in the dining room turn to look at us again, and I hear some of the kids in the back laughing.

“You can't say that to me,” he says.

I walk to the cash register and open it with my key.

“You hard of hearing?” He asks me, coming over to talk to me with his onion breath. Giant man in a tutu, I think, and I laugh a little, and I look up at him, counting out the bills.

“What did you order?” I ask him calmly.

He looks at me for a second, and then says “Number one.”

I hand him 5 ones. I close the drawer and void his order and I say, “You have your money back, now.”

And he takes the money, but then looks at me like he can't understand why I'm giving it to him. Finally he says “I still want a sandwich.”

I smile at him, feeling a bit light headed. My mouth opens, and once again I lose control of my speech. “Get out of my store. I'm not telling you again.”

He blinks. And his mouth opens too, and I swear he has the same problem, because he says “Listen, you stupid faggot, I paid for a sandwich, I want a sandwich.”

And that's the deal breaker. All customer service is gone.

I say to him: “You need to get out of this store before I have you removed. You've come to the wrong place to be flinging the word 'faggot' around. This is not high school. I suggest you grow up before you walk into my establishment again.”

And the whole place is quiet. I'm sure I've just made Burger King history, and secured myself a pink slip. But right now, this is war.

He opens his mouth to say something and I say: “Do you have something unintelligent and uninformed to add?”


After I destroyed a paying customer and kicked the office door in when I realized I locked myself out, Martha had offered to take over my shift.

So here I am, driving home. Fuck my life. I feel like I'm killing myself one piece at a time.

And I'm crossing the bridge now. And I'm letting the car drift toward the guardrail, and I'm moments from freedom.

But at the last second, I grab the wheel. And I'm in tears now.

This world is a trap. This car is a bullet. And I don't have the guts to do it.


So I get home, and there are dishes in the sink. And you know, this would not matter on any other day. I might complain a little, but normally I would just do them and be done with the whole thing.

But today is different. The sight of dishes in the sink is so jarring and insulting that I just stand there in the kitchen and scream as loud as I can, and I imagine the room on fire.

And then I do the dishes. I'm shaking and I want to break every single one of them, running them under the water and trying not to break them, but I want to. I want to break every dish in the house so there can never be dirty dishes again.


In the bathroom upstairs, I take out every bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet and put them out around the sink and look at them. Every prescription Warren and I have ever been prescribed and stopped taking. We're not very good patients. But there they all are. At least 20 bottles, most of them half-full.

And there it is. My silver bullet.

But my phone vibrates right then, from the lid of the toilet. For a second, I'm so focused that I don't hear it. I only hear in on the second round of vibrating. I look over, and the world is becoming surreal. And when I see the name on the screen, my heart starts pounding so hard I have to grab the sink to keep my balance. HARRISON, it says.

He's calling me.

Like he sees me about to off myself.

Looking through a window or something. My eyes go to the window, two stories up. Nonsense. There's no one there.

I let it vibrate again, and then voice mail gets the call, and I just stand there with pill bottles all over the sink, wondering what to do. Then there's a voice mail. And I just stand there like an idiot for a second, then I sit down against the wall behind me. Then I grab my phone and dial voice mail and put it to my ear.

“Hey, I just wanted to make sure you're doing okay,” his voice says in my ear, and I look up at the edge of the sink, pill bottles towering over me. “And we should hang out. I may visit you at work. I know you're at work so you can't answer your phone but--” I stop the voice mail and put my phone on the ground, thinking.

And I smile and laugh and I say, all crazy, “This is too stupid to do.”

And I pick up the phone and dial Harrison's number.


And before I know it, I'm walking toward campus, and toward his apartment, having put all the pills back.

I have self-control sometimes. It's one of those things people used to admire about me.

I guess. I don't know.

I don't know why I called him back, but here I am, walking to meet him.


Harrison's apartment looks like the one Warren was living in when we met. One room, a wall kitchen and a tiny bathroom hidden behind a curtain. When I get there, he's in his pajamas, and he's been playing video games all morning. The resemblance is there.

He closes the door behind me and we're suddenly in the same small, suffocating room as one another. And he just looks at me and says, “You look tired.”

And I know I look like shit. I smile at him and he smiles at me, and my stomach is warm.

“I am tired,” I say to him, not knowing what else to say.

I sit down on the sofabed he sleeps on, defeated.

He goes over to the little college refrigerator that dominates the wall kitchen and opens it, bringing back an energy drink. And normally I hate those things, but I guess I make concessions for people. I take it from him and I suddenly feel too tired to be alive.

“I am so tired,” I say to him, quietly.

He sits down on the sofabed really close to me and he pulls me over to him in a hug, and it's amazing. It's like the best feeling I've ever felt, all over my body, and I don't even try to pull away. I just sit there, holding the energy drink, not even hugging him back, just feeling his body against mine.

And then he pulls away and smiles at me and says, “You need a vacation.”

I laugh and say “A vacation is not an option for me.”

His face gets all sad then, and he reaches up and puts a hand on the back of my head and he says “Aaron, you make me so sad.”

And I have no idea how to respond to that.

“You're such a great person, you've got everything to offer, and you could be so happy if you knew what you wanted,” he says.

If I knew what I wanted. I'm hoping he doesn't read minds.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” I say to him.

He smiles, moving his hand in my hair, and I close my eyes, focusing on how it feels.

“We have to get you out of there, even for the night. You have to think about stuff.”

“Think about stuff,” I mumble with my eyes closed, brain-dead from the feeling of him touching me.

Then he takes his hand away, and I almost cry, opening my eyes.

He's still smiling. And he says, “You're amazing.”

And my heart is pounding again. I'm probably dying this time.


I'm so not okay right now.

My heart's still pounding.

Like some stupid teenager.

My knuckles are white on the steering wheel.


Warren works at a warehouse on the other side of town. My car is tiny in the parking lot. Most of the workers are on lunch. I've brought some food with me from another fast food place. I wasn't about to go back to work to get food.

And when he gets into the car, he smells like work.

I hand him his food. “I'm not going to be home tonight,” I tell him.

Then we're silent. He doesn't eat his food at first. Then he says, not looking at me: “I'm sorry about last night.”

I smile at him, suddenly calm, and not knowing why. I never know why my mind works the way it does. “I know you are,” I tell him. I think of the living room.


And then there's the matter of getting shit packed. Don't even get me started. Part of me doesn't want to be home when Warren gets home. It would just be harder to leave. So I pack fast. It's only for the night, but it feels like forever. And part of me wants it to be forever. But the house will be here when I get back, and Warren, waiting for me to come home.


There's a motel on the edge of town I pass sometimes, on my way to wherever. The Vegas Motel. And I've never actually been inside, or even in the parking lot. It's this huge old 1950s roadside motel, and here I am in the parking lot, my backpack of clothes leaning against the tire of my car.

Freedom is all around me. This is the farthest step I've taken so far.

I pick up my backpack and go inside and I ask for a room.

The little man behind the counter gives me the key and I leave the glass-walled lobby and climb the stairs and walk along the balcony until I get to my room. It's the one on the end, where the balcony ends in another stairway and some vending machines.

And this room is my room.

This is the best moment. I swear it is.

I know it's not real; I know it's just for now. But I could die like this.

Maybe I will.

But probably not.


It's about 3 in the morning, and I'm in tears again. Fuck my life. I'm such a pathetic person. I'm on a one-night vacation and I can't stop crying long enough to have fun.

I just keep thinking about Warren cleaning the living room and how alone he must be right now.

And how alone I am.

I can't go back yet. I don't want to go back.

And the phone is on the bed in front of me, with an unread text message from Harrison. It's been that way for an hour.

Why is this happening to me?

And I pick up the phone and call him, not even reading the message.


It takes Harrison about twenty minutes to get here from across town, and when the knock comes at the door, I nearly shit myself. And then there's the hesitation. Now that he's here, I don't know if I want to talk to anyone. But then I get up and go to the door.

And he's waiting on the other side, still in his pajamas, his hair wet from sleep, and his eyes tired, but he's smiling.

“I'm sorry I woke you up,” I say, feeling stupid.

He comes in and closes the door behind him. He says: “It's not a big deal. I don't have class or anything.”

He looks around the room and then at me, and I sit down on the bed, all weird and abrupt. And he says to me: “Where's the pizza?” And he smiles again, rubbing one eye.


After having pizza delivered and watching a movie or six, I guess I must have passed out. Only I don't remember passing out. And Warren is pressed against me from behind, sleeping.

But then I remember that I'm not at home, but there's still someone laying behind me on the bed, arms around me, and body pressed against mine.

And my heart is racing. I'm still in the motel room, and I'm laying in the bed with Harrison, our bodies pressed together, and this is worth dying for.

I imagine water trickling from the ceiling and onto the floor, and then running down the walls, pouring out of the faucets in the sink and bathtub, even overflowing from the toilet.

And he moves against me, his arms tightening, and there's a shortness of breath that keeps me there, not moving, not fighting. And it's just like the first night Warren and I spent together. It's so familiar to me, and so beautiful that I can't think of anything but how bad my chest hurts thinking about it.

And the water level is rising. Bubbling out of the sink and the bathtub and the toilet, falling from the cracks between the ceiling and the walls, filling the room with water from pipes that lead to rivers that lead to oceans.

And he says to me, dreaming, his voice soft against my hair: “You're right. It's hard to breathe when you're gone.”

And it is. It's hard to breathe.

Because the water is coming up over the bed now.

And I'm just lying there like a dunce, waiting to die.

But I'll die happy this time. I'll be okay this time.

I don't want to be alive anymore.

And the water closes over my head.

(c) 2011 Roman Theodore Brandt