Stealing Glitter from the Fire

The moonlight was bright, maddening, illuminating our problems to all of the neighbors on the street as nature lay dormant beneath the fallen snow far away from winter’s bitter cold. My head housed an awful pounding, not knowing if our house was to going to be auctioned. The unspoken subject had taken all the oxygen out of the rooms and left me gasping for a sip of air. This was supposed to be a joyous, momentous time of year, a bauble of Christmas optimism to give relief to having been stuck indoors with one another and forced to deal with our problems while waiting for season’s change. Spring, summer, and fall brought a renewal to our relationship and couldn’t mock our misery. It was 2012. The end was near, and not just the year, but as Gladys Knight and the Pips sang, “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye).” With memories in our way, we went on hurting and pretending and preparing for some twenty-plus family and friends coming from all points on the U. S. map to celebrate.

Even before the holiday season had arrived we were fighting. Marq had planned Christmas dinner without me, without any and all concern for anyone. Turducken. The word itself sounded greasy, slimy, revolting. A deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck stuffed into a deboned turkey, though the vision in my head needn’t any words. There Marq was, a fifty-two-year-old, turning fifty-three six days after Christmas, full-blooded Italian on medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol, feeding his brother, his sister, his seventy-year-old mother and seventy-three-year-old father all of whom had the same problems. There I was, a thirty-nine-year-old man with a long family history of high blood pressure and cholesterol doing everything to prevent myself from getting them. I dreaded the day, and drudged away in finishing my classes at Harvard Extension School, taking the GRE’s, filling out applications for medical anthropology PhD programs, Christmas shopping, and waiting, checking the mail for a piece of good news that the house was no longer on the auction block.

The house. Six months after we met I moved in. The house had a savory new smell, like a newly printed magazine with its fresh ink and its perfume and cologne ads that, when inhaled, take your mind on a trip, engaging, immersing you in its narrative. I took over paying the utility bills, groceries, cooking, landscaping, and cleaning up after the cats, our boys, Oreo the black and white tuxedo, and the orange tabby brothers, Ralph and Calvin, leaving Marq to pay the mortgage. But by December, Marq was five months behind and the house was in foreclosure. I couldn’t extricate myself from my anger and anxiety. Each day the house neared auction felt like unscabbed wounds the mortgage people were sticking their fingers into. His parents saw the auction listing in The Providence Journal and gave him ten-thousand dollars to get the house out of hock before Christmas. I thought he wouldn’t do it again. Even though we had only been together less than a year, it was the beginning of those commitments one makes to keep a family together, even if those commitments were a little frayed. But we were here again.

I wondered if it wasn’t just the bank trying to get rid of us, but if the house was tired of us painting its walls with gloomy colors, of having its rooms imbued with dark matter, and having to sweep up our mess of abnormalities that we saw as normal. Floorboards muzzled, silenced by the heavy stomping of our angry feet, tried to scream out for freedom by way of squeaking and creaking. We tend to forget that a house is a living, breathing being. We believe that with a deed, a piece of paper spelling out the transference of ownership from one person to another, we are in charge, the rulers of the domain. In reality all we do is take refuge in a place through force without understanding its archeological history. We move in expecting, thinking it wants us, believing because we put twenty percent down and make monthly payments that we are entitled to it, never realizing that the house gets to decide who occupies it. Only the house can see and feel a spirit and extract it if it so chooses.

I sensed a presence when I first stepped inside of Mimi’s, Marq’s daughter’s, bedroom. Marq never experienced it, saying it had to be all in my mind until I mentioned it to Marq’s brother who worked at Rhode Island Hospital. He informed us that a young girl did reside in the house, and that she had died of a childhood disease in Mimi’s bedroom. The apparition and the house must’ve seen the cellophane that we couldn’t see, the cellophane that we wrapped around ourselves to keep the distance from destroying the transparent love that stood between us. You could look at us and not see it, not even know it was there. The two of them saw us better than we saw ourselves. Sometimes I felt like they were working in cohorts to get us out, we the usurpers of their comfort zone.

The foreclosure was not to be spoken when everyone was assembled, especially to his mom and dad even though they knew. I was told not spoil the one-time-of-year gathering of his family and friends. “That’s how we handle things in my family,” Marq said. It was one of their formulations, elemental strategies for dealing with the disillusions and disappointments that resulted so often from their own kin. “We don’t just let it all hang out like you and your mother do,” Marq said. It was really his hidden, passive aggressive way of saying, ‘We don’t act like you black people do.’ “Ok, ok,” I said, “whatever.” It wasn’t my family as Marq pointed out to me on so many occasions, starting from the day of his daughter’s twenty-first birthday party, twelve days after mine at his ex-wife’s and her boyfriend’s house. Marq bemoaned, belittled his ex-wife for having to pay her child support for their daughter who was way past the age of eighteen. He told me to mind my own business when I suggested the judge was justified in making him pay fifteen-hundred dollars a month since Mimi was still living at home, while he made a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year working as a regional sales director for Fox television.

His family embraced me like the wings of an angel. “Take care of my son,” Mari said, nudging my shoulder as we goodbyed that first Easter Sunday, the first time we met, a sign I took of her welcoming me into the kinship, fearful that she, the matriarch, saw her son’s new partner as someone ominous given her Old Italian world views and my black ancestry. His close-bonded family was the kind of family I always wanted, having walked away from my dysfunctional one at the age of sixteen, all except my mother, the only representative who had any semblance of decency.

After Mari put her eggplant parmigiana into the oven, a meal that would overstimulate one’s taste apparatus and override homeostatic controls, she headed down the stairs, got on her hands and knees, and began scrubbing the foyer’s white tile floor. Marq’s father, Charlie, sat in a dining room chair with the wastebasket in front of him peeling potatoes out of sight of his wife. Viewing his heavyset, breast-cancer surviving elderly mother in that position, I felt my fountain of reasoning stop flowing so I went outside to finish putting the clear string lights on the front yard bushes.

The yard: unkempt, decrepit when I first moved in, squinted at me in pain, so I untangled its web of wild brush, clipping dying branches, pruning yellowing bushes, digging, wrestling the roots of the deceased, and then planting, greening, bringing back its beauty and photosynthesis. From thereafter, nature became part of my nature: like a tree, spirited and strong, it made me. I couldn’t keep myself from it. I just wanted to give life to the plants, the trees, the flowers, and a home for the birds and squirrels that nested and rested in my wonderland of greenery bubbling with floral scents and rock pond. The course was marked with a weeping white pine surrounded by dwarf Mugo pines, hedge Juniper shrubs, daisies, and a purple clematis growing, spiraling around a black Eiffel Tower trellis at the base of the driveway encased with accent stones. On the opposite side was a cluster of dwarf Alberta spruces, a white Pyracantha shrub, pink bleeding hearts, butterfly bushes, purple-leaved Ninebarks bushes with white Diablo flowers, and a pine ball topiary that stood in the center. Annual mums I learned how to perennial were on both sides slowly preparing for their autumn showcasing. A Japanese maple sprouted high, bringing shade to the drenching golden midsummer sunshine. Along one side of the house were dwarf golden cypresses, white golden Euonymus flowering shrubs and a tall weeping Alaskan cedar in the middle. On the other side were day lilies, succulents, and Eastern Prickly Pear cacti that had a hit-by-a-truck flattened and desiccated appearance at this time of year, but one warm spring day would breathe life back into them and their yellow flowers. I covered the ground around them with rust-colored rocks that reminded me of New Mexico where Marq had taken me for his assistant director’s wedding, and I’d had a transcendental experience as we explored the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos. Having snuck in minutes before it closed knowing the gates would soon be chained, I blazed up the trails, popping in and out of the breathtaking and eerily evocative caves carved in the rock cliffs, leaving Marq trailing far behind me. When I turned around and called out for him to hurry, catch up, an invisible intruder invaded my every orifice and contorted my breathing. A thin whisper leaked out from the ether and pressed upon my heart twisting its shape like an O’Keeffe abstraction, connecting me with my Native American ancestors. It was as if the ancient Pueblo people’s spiritual veneration paused the crying in my soul to show me my future where kindred drops would blend into me once again, my life after we had returned home to our flawed, overstretched, unhappy existence.

The life we had before the distance: we would lay in a crescent on the couch in front of the fire after he had gotten out of domestic laxation, dragging his sagging ass out of bed, commuted two hours to work, and spent twelve hours jousting to sell television ads to make mad money, and I had cooked dinner for when he got home at seven o’ clock. Our nightly routine, short since we only had two hours ‘til it was time for bed, felt, to my wonderment, like it was made to last forever. Marq would go upstairs and get his clothes ready for the next day while I cleaned up the kitchen and waited for him to come back downstairs and give me a kiss of cool-mint mouthwash before saying goodnight. He wasn’t much for looks and no hero out of books, as Barbra Streisand sang, but he was my man, and for whatever my man was I was his forever more. Forevermore. He was my man. He was, a man. Man, a perfect word to describe him, the perfect letters to form the word. The small a creates the head, the lowercase n shapes the torso, and the capital M with its legs, its shorter center leg gives the word its masculinity. I found it interesting how he was pathetic about glitter: a rugged-looking overly-masculine older man who had a daughter with a woman he had been married to for eighteen years, who could in one breath spot a Birkin bag, and then turnaround and identify a 1973 Lotus Europa, a car I never knew existed. It reminded me of how much my mother loved glitter: on her fingernails, toenails, shirts, eyelids, her arms, legs, and how much I detested it, wanting her to dress like the other mothers at school, like Mari. I thought I had escaped the muddled childhood memories that marred my mind for so long until it became clear to me that what we run from chases us down.

The screen door opened. Marq’s eager voice penetrated the crystal night air. His parents followed behind, waving goodbye as they got into their car and drove out of sight.

“That’s not how you’re putting them on?” Marq said with a blue-eyed stare as I adjusted a string of lights.

“What’s wrong with them?”

Smirking, he joked, “It’s displeasing to me.”

“You’re vexatious to me,” I said edgily.

“Don’t use your GRE words on me,” he punted, then picked up a set of lights off of the ground, and began wrapping them on a bush. “You go up and down not round and round. You should know this by now.”

“Vanity, vanity,” I said, “all is vanity. Would you like me to sprinkle some glitter on them?”

“I did think about it,” Marq said, a joke that irritated my mind.

“You don’t even know if the house’s still yours.”

“I made the payment; I’m caught up now.”

“They still have to decide if you get to keep it. You think they’re ok with you being five months behind for two years in a row. Ridiculous, ten thousand dollars. If I made a tenth of what you made...”

“Here comes that black anger,” puffed out of Marq’s thin lips like a highly poisonous dense vapor.

“Don’t go there!” I shouted back as if I were standing on the edge of the abyss. “This ain’t about those immoral monomaniacs who used immoral suasion to enslave black people. Maybe if you actually took the time to know where it comes from you’d understand. You’re always so quick to blame my blackness and forget my English and Native American sides.”

“Cause it’s the only side you show.”

“Your turducken’s calling you,” I sneered.

“That’s it, I’ve had it! Your phone calls and text messaging every other hour checking up on me I can deal with. Sleeping in your own bed and only wanting to have sex with me on the weekends, like I’m your weekend lover, I’ve learned to live with. But that I-know-better-than-you-do, angry black attitude, I’m sick of it. I commute three hours a day, five days a week, bust my ass selling ads to people who, if they had their way would fire me, and come home to you cooking the same boring meals. I want just one day.”

“One day?” I seethed, pursing my lips to stop the wicked words my brain was sending, signaling to let out. “Please, spare me, Marq. I see the empty junk food wrappers in your car, in the garbage bin in the garage, and stuffed in the kitchen wastebasket. You must think I’m dumb.”

“You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” he said, his blue-stoned eyes flickering with darkness.

Feeling like I had been stung by a butterfly, I said, “Now who’s passive-aggressive?” Then I paused, seeing the silhouettes of faces in uncurtained windows, realizing we were once again the main attraction on the street, though unable to firm my lips from releasing the contents of my skull. “Fuck it,” I said. “I don’t need this shit. If all you want is someone who’ll let you do bad I’ll just leave.”

It cut deep. The sullenness that had filtered through Marq’s eyes became a crystalline expression of consciousness filled with pallor, sallow, and remorse.

“Can we work in tandem,” he said referring to lyrics in the song ‘Defying Gravity’ from the musical Wicked he took me to see on Broadway for my thirty-seventh birthday. He then picked up my hand and kissed it, his usual, unusual way of apologizing.

“You ol’ romantic dog, you.”

“I just realized I forgot to buy my father’s beer, and I don’t have any money. Do you have any?”

“You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” I said mocking him quite gaily. He knew I had money. I was a copious itemization of bills bloomer. I didn’t go on interminable shopping trips juxtaposed with the promiscuous spending of money that I didn’t have every weekend; I paid my bills on time and went without buying inanimate, hyperbolical abstractions that lacked depth and originality just to stimulate or validate my ego, putting them on credit cards and putting myself in debt the way he did.

“Of course you do,” he said, “You’re as tight with money as a horse’s ass in fly time.”

“You’re grotesque,” I laughed, his ornate jokes still able to woo me. “Living off of student loans isn’t having money. It’s debt. And I can’t believe you let your mother scrub the floor. She’s seventy-two-years old. I know you said your family does things differently, but I’m sorry: she’s too old to be doing that.”

“I agree but it makes her happy. She doesn’t know what else to do with herself. If I stopped her, she’d be lost. I’m not gonna let her hurt herself.”

“I worry about her.”

Hearing rustling from the bushes I saw orange fur creeping towards me. “Jiminy Crickets, you left the door open!” We scurried to get the boys, adopted from a Boston shelter near Marq’s office, back into the garage and inside the house.

With all the lights strung up, the house staged and ready for its close-up, looking like Martha Stewart had a hand in it, Marq went to bed. I went downstairs to the office to finish wrapping Christmas gifts with the boys. We hunkered down in the office during the wintertime using the tower space heater to keep warm. Turning the thermostat above sixty-three, and filling the oil tank above the halfway mark wasn’t affordable. Oreo, the oldest of the three, and who Marq adored most, a feeling completely mutual, hogged the spot in front of the heater, leaving Calvin to lay by his side. Oreo didn’t like Calvin for reasons we couldn’t comprehend, often swatting him in the face for no justifiable reason.

Calvin, much larger and softer, and Ralph, his agile, energetic more limber brother, came as a pair. Sitting, cleaning his two-toned orange fur, Ralph would, out of nowhere, dash through the house as if swarmed by bees, tormented by mosquitos until he hit the wall in great defeat, disappointed there was no more room to run. Calvin was timid and dependent on his brother, calling out for Ralph when he woke from a nap dazed and confused as to where he was in the house, the reason the shelter wouldn’t let them be adopted separately. Ralph would perk up from a smooth, relaxed state, as though someone yelled fire, and zipline to his brother. Calvin worshipped his brother, giving him a tongue cleaning daily. Ralph felt a responsibility for Calvin, but got tired of it, hissing, picking fights for Calvin to leave him alone, four-year-old sibling squabbles that resembled an old married couple. Ralph’s soul was closest to my spiritual conscious: following me about, waiting outside the bathroom door, watching me do laundry, work in the yard, cook, eat, sleep, and even moving his lips when I cooed at him, trying to scratch down the partition between what cupped his skull and the syllables in his heart. Ralph’s love for Marq was by no means feverish, simply tolerating the savior of his and his brother’s lives, treating Marq as if he were the antichrist, running from him like he was a sinner when Marq gave him a kiss. Calvin’s devotion was categorical for Marq, fighting with Oreo for the space underneath Marq’s arm to rest while he watched television and again when he went to bed.

It wasn’t until after three in the morning that I turned off the heater, told Oreo his daddy would be up in a couple of hours and to stay and wait for him to turn the heater back on, took a shower, and went to bed. I was spent, limp with exhaustion. The pressure, the stress of getting everything to Marq’s satisfaction, that perfection drained me and weighed on and on. We weren’t able to enjoy the holiday until the morning after when those who had attended posted theirs on Marq’s Facebook page. My pleasure came from seeing his. I didn’t want much in the way of material. Love, really, was what I wanted. To be wanted by him. Desperately doing what made him happy to prevent him from opening the door for me to leave—even though he had done it every one of the four years we were together.

I fell asleep as an aching emptiness grabbed hold of my bloody tubes and swirled around my body. I ached for calm, for Marq to stop putting us in financial dire straits. It was dooming our once-delicate, now dying intimacy, ushering in impotent relations between us the past four months. We didn’t get along as it was sexually. His need for it twice a day to my once a week was a painful strain, like his large penis head that gave me no pleasure. I dreaded his arrival home each night, for it was a time of great truth, the kind of truth one finds only when death is close at hand. Our relationship, wrapped in bandages, mummified, yet warm, bleeding, with its ceremonially preserved internal organs still functioning, holding onto a whisper of life, lay in its tomb waiting, praying for the gods to resurrect it. Our communication, when it did take place, was brutal, careless, and empty. Words shot out after each other like daggers piercing the bullseye of the soul. They could be sewed together into an enormous quilt memorializing the birth and death of our relationship with the cause still unknown.

I woke before six, my sleep interrupted by the sounds of sex, and the cold morning air filled with the stench of fresh poop from the cats’ litter boxes outside of Marq’s bedroom. I knew the routine. Marq was watching porn on his laptop and jerking off. His loud orgasm would soon pierce everyone’s ears in the house. I got up, walked down the hallway, closed his bedroom door, walked back down the hallway to my bathroom, washed my hands, peed, then crawled back into bed. Ralph nudged my bedroom door open, meowing after he heard me grumble aloud: “Every goddamn day. If he put as much effort into his finances then the house wouldn’t be in foreclosure.” Ralph walked over to the side of the bed I was lying on and meowed again. I didn’t acknowledge him knowing that ,once I did, he wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. I lay still waiting for him to walk away, staring at the framed photo on the wall Marq took of us the first time he told me he loved me, three months into dating.

At Marq’s friend’s opening pool party on a young June afternoon with solid dazzling sunlight, I watched Marq with his big belly and haunch exposed, no longer hidden by the spanx he wore, flirt with skinny twinks in the pool with him. There I sat shirtless with my Native American high cheek bones accenting my wide African nose possessing a muscular and supple body from years of running and weight lifting, the lone black person sitting alone underneath the canopy, drinking, drunk, riddled with petulance. “I’m not some obsequious black boy,” I told him while we changed clothes in the bathroom so he could take me home. Under fear of losing me, he told me he loved me. This became a perpetual occurrence, a random play of chaos brought back to order by an innate apology learned from his many years of practice when he cheated on me. Marq had, as I said to him, “Dipped his candy cane into someone else’s hot chocolate” more times than I’m willing to admit. I did not. When I discovered his secret lover, he would move on to another as if my knowing ruined the excitement, like I was stealing glitter from the fire, our fire. Each person he cheated on me with injected a pain into my body that multiplied and spread like a weaponized disease destroying every healthy cell, leaving the chambers of my heart empty with agony. I would get so mad, it made me want to give him a kick south of the border, and leave him in my dust like Tina did Ike. Jilted by my Italian lover, as if rejection was the greatest aphrodisiac, I kept going back. My heart told me long ago to find my love and never let go.

December is the month with the greatest amount of darkness. Christmas is one of the shortest days of the year, but not short enough. I dreamt I slept right on through to the other side. Marq’s mother arrived early in the morn to continue cleaning the house, but before she began, she and Marq breakfasted on pancakes and bacon she cooked. The smell of bacon, a rancid greasy stench that has been left to spoil, as I had been, further symbolized the rejection I felt, yet its collection of flavorful compounds released into the air eased my mind back into a happy hazy sleep as I breathed them in knowing Marq and I wouldn’t open gifts until after Mari had gone home to change clothes, and Marq came back from his church’s Christmas morning service.

“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Marq said through my cracked-open door. His shaved head and bearded face were all I could see through my sleepy brown eyes.

“Merry Christmas.”

Ralph jumped up onto my bed, plopped down in the corner, and meowed.

I tenderly leaned forward toward Ralph, and said, “Merry Christmas to you, too.”

“Do you want pancakes?” Marq asked, as if he were poking around a hornet’s nest to see what would come out. “There’s some batter left over.”

A palatable idea, I asked enthusiastically, “Is it your mother’s?”

“Why, you don’t want them if it’s mine?” His quixotic tone shifted, verging on the curt.

“Oh, don’t get all huffy.” With my cheek resting upon the pillow, I repositioned myself so that I was lying on my stomach. “She can cook,” I confessed.

Marq stepped into my room and slapped my ass that, which was sticking out of the valley of the blankets.

“No you didn’t just slap me,” I said, staring up at him. He knew how fastidious I was about anyone touching me uninvited. Wide-eyed, I snickered, “You got glitter all over your face.”

“Where?” he asked, wiping his cheeks.

“Now it’s all on your hands. You’re a hot mess. Don’t even tell me you went to church like that.”

“They love my glitter,” he said dryly.

“John Dryden said it best, ‘For you may palm upon us new for old: All, as they say, that glitters, is not gold.’”

“Thought it was Shakespeare?” he said.

“Shocking, you would think it came from him. His is the flashier, newer version. Just the way you like it. You genuflect at anything that shimmers. How many more trappings in life do you need?”

“I’ve been living like this since I got my first paycheck delivering newspapers,” he explained. “Can’t you leave it alone for one day?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not gonna queer your day in any way. I know how agog you are. Go make my pancakes.”

Marq kissed Ralph on the head who, in turn, jumped off of the bed and booked it to some far-off place where he could not be found.

“You know he ain’t into that faggety bullshit,” I joked, referencing Monique from the Queens of Comedy.

I stepped out of the bed, pulled the blinds up, and looked out onto the quiet landscape, at red cardinals and blue jays floating through the chill still air, as a foreboding slipped through the cracked-open window, seeped into my skin, seized control, and shook in my every limb.

Marq opened his gifts while I lunched on his mother’s battered pancakes. The scent of love permeated the air with each box he unsealed. Boxes wrapped in shiny, shimmering paper was the only way to open his heart. Even when all there was inside was a $5.99 key/wallet/ phone finder from, even without the element of surprise, he gushed on emotions. Presents titillated him more than any kiss, hug, or intimate desire. His love didn’t come in waves washing over me, but rather breaking on me, one after the other, until I would go under, deep, where it was calm, and swim through his love, like a fish swimming in its element breathing, leaping like my heart did for him, returning the love it receives from the water by recycling, excreting, transporting the nutrients it takes, and fertilizing the algae and plankton it eats, keeping the water pure so to oxygenate its gills. This was the kind of love I gave to Marq who, lacking a neurophysiological capacity was ignorant of the element, of any element that involved a conscious display of love. For him, love was an abstraction, a paradox, an even split. I couldn’t reach Marq emotionally. Whenever I tried to kiss him anywhere other than at home, even when we were amongst other gay couples, Marq would pull away and throw me a petulant stare with his electric blue eyes, forcing me to suppress what I felt was natural. Marq both admired and abhorred my showing lovefulness, refusing gifts in any other way, and not expecting reciprocity.

The gathering was quick to start. Cars appeared in front the house, one after the other like ants drawn to a dirt mound. Marq and I worked to get the guests comfortable with drinks and appetizers, while we rushed around to get ourselves dressed after having spent so much time arguing whether my bathroom was clean, which was wasted time because adulation tumbled from stupefied mouths at how stunning was the house. We entrusted Mary’s bed with the coats: Marq didn’t want his marinating with people’s germs. My bedroom door was kept closed because it wasn’t appropriate for people to see a large framed photo of two muscular men lying in bed wearing only underwear and sleeping in each other’s arm, Marq said. “I don’t care if it’s a Herb Ritts.” His embarrassment reminded of something Gertrude Stein once said to Ernest Hemingway, “The act homosexuals commit is ugly and repugnant and afterwards they’re disgusted with themselves. They drink and take drugs to palliate this, but they are disgusted with the act and they are always changing partners and cannot be really happy . . .”

Marq dressed me like always: a black-and-gold striped vest over a black button-down shirt with black dress pants and shoes. I was the doll he didn’t get to play with as a child; his shackled soul still striving, stammering to be freed from the depths of oppression. Though we were both born in Rhode Island, I was raised in the suburbs of Governor Francis Farms in Warwick, while Marq came from the neighborhood of North Providence; both college graduates: Marq from Dayton University, me, a Masters in journalism from Emerson College; both working before our teens: Marq a paperboy at nine, me, twelve, a games attendant at Rocky Point Park. Marq grew up in a strong family with both of his parents, a brother, and a sister. I was reared by my mother who, after divorcing my cheating father, spent my entire adolescent life fighting to get him to pay child support. My mother worked three jobs, forcing me to become a latchkey kid at six. I cooked my own meals, took care of my Springer Spaniel, and saw my mother after I was already in bed. There were times when the heat and electricity were turned off, when we couldn’t empty the cesspool, when we could only take a bath once a week, and flush the toilet after going poop, never pee. With very little money, we wore our pajamas all day Christmas, and kept the laidback tradition into my adulthood. Dressing up warranted such an unnecessary expense, such an uncomfortability that I couldn’t comprehend why Marq, who also grew up poor, had such a need for it.

Marq and I were separated by a cloud of family and friends once he finished clothing me. I shuffled from one person to another greeting, “Merry Christmas, so great to see you,” putting on the performance Marq required me to, though the marrow in my bones gave me a different feeling, a parodistic feeling. Pose, show, who was I performing for? I suspected everyone could see through the fancy, phony clothes, the artificial words I didn’t say in regular gatherings, the host’s duties, though hardly anyone asked me for anything. Perhaps it was awkward to ask a black man to fetch something. Or maybe it was my being fourteen years younger than Marq or, more likely, that no one believed that a younger attractive black man who didn’t have a job and didn’t make the money Marq did truly loved him.

The face of the digital clock on the oven where the turducken had cooked read three-thirty when the guests were fully gathered. Within minutes, Marq had everyone sit down to eat. I did not. Because I wasn’t eating, I catered, getting drinks, extra plates, and forgotten bowls. The clanking of dishes and silverware quickly jammed the cacophonous gathering. I chatted with my mother who was sitting at the one of the small tables, making sure she had what she needed, then briefly talked to Marq’s father. Charlie’s distinctness had to do with my not having a father and Marq’s noticeable absence to communicate with his own: Marl’s father was a family disaster, a scoundrel, a cheat, had seventeen jobs in seventeen years. Charlie’s obese cage sat in the chair next to Mari’s at the dining room table. His rather thick, wrinkled, hairy hand held firm to a beer bottle.

“Dad, you want some wine?” Marq said in a soft voice from a standing position, his belly stretching his black button-down shirt. He had once been a beautiful blond, but his hair had receded and all of the strands that remained had greyed

“Allen got me my beer,” Charlie enunciated.

Marq went to the kitchen, picked a beer glass from the cabinet, took the beer bottle from his father’s hands, and poured it into the glass in front of us so we could all share in his dramatic spectacle. “Here,” Marq said, eyeing me with invisible, insidious steam coming out. The gravity of what I had done sat in his eyes and sent me on my way, but not before he asked me to take a picture of him and his family at the table. I snapped the camera, feeling like the charcoal figure in Picasso’s The Shadow: me, the black boyfriend, the only black person the family knew, outside of my partner’s shadow, outside of his family’s shadow. What was wrong with this picture? The thought felt icy. I sneakily scurried downstairs and lay with Oreo, who was underneath the pool table visibly baffled by my unexpected visitation.

I had been beaten by things Marq had said and done to me over the years, but the exclusion from the family picture made me feel like a eunuch. I clasped my hand around Oreo’s front paw until he pulled it away. His black fur up against my black flesh sharpened the reality: I had for so long believed love could, would, should conquer, that black and white were just an illusion. The hours of our lives had achieved little in bringing us closer; time seemed incapable of delivering us from evil. Fatigue cried out from every pore, every cell. I wanted out of this life, this home, this relationship, but I didn’t. I wanted to buy back yesterday, to when it was new, so new, when we hadn’t any hesitation to love, gravitating to one another’s will. I couldn’t live with or without him. Was there any way to escape this, to rid my mouth of this taste? I rested my head on Oreo’s pillow, my face in his, his purr rhythmic to the ticking of my wristwatch. If only Marq knew how much I felt for him, loved him—but if he did, we would’ve been simpatico and not lost between the fabric of space and time. It scared me more to be depressed without him than with him. The thought of losing the boys, the house, my yard, him was horrifying. To start anew, to walk on? That was worse than death. Death was starting over in another worldly dimension on another plane. Moving on had a certain spite to it, a spasm, a seizure to the mind and soul without any readily available medication. No matter how much you care about someone you cannot force yourself to love them the way they want you to. Being willing is very different than being ready. I was willing to wait for Marq.

I peered up at the bookshelves adorned with shot glasses and framed photos of me and him at his church’s silent auction, of the boys lounging, exploring their newly landscaped front yard, of me and him and nine of his friends all wearing white shirts as we stood inside of Presidio del Mar, the thirty million dollar mansion we holidayed in on St. John for two weeks through Memorial Day, surrounded by water that glittered with pristine effulgence. I’d bought a silver petroglyphs ring that Marq liked a lot, so I bought him one, too, and we wore the matching bands on our ring fingers. At the bottom of a shot glass from the same place, I noticed Marq’s ring resting. When and how long had he not been wearing it, I wondered, dozing off. Days? Weeks? If only the enjoyable fidelity, the unity that vacation brought us had traveled with us back home. I fell asleep for some time before my mother woke me and I heard Marq’s laughter shoot down the stairs. It was clear that Marq was having a salubrious time while I was going to have a bumper crop of dirty dishes to wash.

One by one, in the same steady enthusiastic rush everyone entered the house, they left, worn out by the evening’s profusion of family and fun. I was eager for everyone to leave. My own profusion of energy had vanished when they had arrived, and depleted further when I walked up the stairs, racked by the stack of dirty dishes I would have to run through the dishwasher while Marq was doing his impersonation of Daffy Duck, a sleep apnea sound spectrum made up of a series of discrete sharp peaks with fundamental notes and harmonics. The thought conjured anger I firmly suppressed. For four years I tiptoed around eggshell-thin panels that stood between me and Marq, terrified that the slightest raise in my voice would crack them, knowing what would hatch on the other side was the end.

“We need to talk,” Marq said, sitting in a kitchen chair, drinking wine, his sideways gaze staying with me.

My stomach churned.

“I don’t think this is working anymore. Wouldn’t you agree? You can’t say this is working.” His face was blank.

“I agree,” I said, trembling like flames in the wind. “We need counseling.” We had broken up and gotten back together so many times that I never believed Marq would actually want to make it permanent.

“We can’t go on like this.”

“Let’s go to couples counseling,” I said. Exhausted from fighting but not able to let go, I didn’t feel like the same know-it-all anymore, but someone sensitive to the inequalities of our love.

“I’m sorry, Allen, but I don’t feel anything anymore.”

His words unshucked my heart, taking it right out of its shell.

“You’re telling me after four years you don’t love me anymore?”

“I can’t explain it. I just don’t feel anything anymore. We tried, it didn’t work. Let’s leave it at that,” he said.

His eyes, which every morning, every evening orbited, reflected my glowing, welcoming, embracing smile in their tropical blue pools, flew past me. It was like when I was a child and I waited to see my mother come home from having worked past my bedtime, my eyes desperately trying to stay open just to get a glimpse of the woman I was lucky to see once a day for a few minutes in the morning before she rushed off to work and I to school, jealous that her three jobs had her more than I did. Yet there could never be any competition because keeping the lights on, the heat on, and food on the table would win out every time.

“I don’t believe you don’t love me anymore,” I said, my tear ducts prickling. “After everything we’ve been through. I don’t accept that.”

“I’m saying it’s not working anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

My nerves hit a high note as his words pierced my membranes. The jarring feeling in my heart I knew all too well as a child grew ten times the size now that I was an adult. I spoke delicately, hoping the softness in my voice would persuade him not end our relationship. Jittery, timidly, fearful of jarring the negotiations, I pressed on.

“Please, let’s try therapy. We’ve been through too much to just walk away from it all. After all that we’ve been through, don’t just throw us away. Please, Marq. Take some time to think about it. You have to put in the time. That’s what time is for.”

“I’m going skiing tomorrow.”

“With who?” I cried.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Please don’t do this. I’m begging you. Don’t throw us away. We’ve been through too much to throw it all away,” I said, just stringing words together. My heart tumbled, somersaulted, waiting for his answer.

“I’ll think about it.” Marq peeked up at me with his ocean blue eyes looking for mine to offer him a reprieve. His tone went dry; his sideways gaze straightened and finally met mine. “The only thing that’s ever done any good for me is moving on.”

“What a bullshit, scorched-earth excuse,” I said. “Maybe you oughta look behind you and think about all the things you destroyed on the way.”

My tears became tumultuous; his were as dry as on a clear day when you can see forever. (When he’d one time permitted me to see him cry, a glimpse at the deepest part of him that I couldn’t—that he wouldn’t let me—reach, I didn’t know whether to shout at or comfort him. “This is what makes you cry?” I said. Not his Auntie Edith’s death, not Oreo sneaking out the house and disappearing for three days, not when I was hit by a car, not when his mother was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, but The Secret Life of Bees, a predominately black film set during the 1964 civil rights movement about a young white girl who runs away and lives with three black beekeeper sisters. Sympathy won me over as I comforted him: clasping my arms around his waist, resting my cheek on his back and squeezing him tightly. He barely moved as though the cells of his body weren’t able to register, express, connect with the senses of affection beyond that of lust, deficient of all intimate nutrition. How far beneath his skin did real intimacy lie?)

With every beat my heart hurt. His words were a surprise and yet not a surprise at all. He gave teeth to my pain as he walked up the stairs, and vehemently mumbled, “I’m not gonna change my mind, not this time.” Would he change his mind? Would he say he wanted to try to make it work? Or would he prefer to continue his search for the perfectible man? Marq closed his door—which he hadn’t done during the four years we were together—and went to bed.

I pulled up the bow window blinds for Ralph who was sitting on the sill looking out of them, his brother and Oreo downstairs in the office conked out at the base of the heater. Ralph was often entertained by the evening rustle of crickets, the sound of water cascading into the pond from the fountain, the budless hydrangea branches scratching, sketching invisible abstract drawings on the bow window, and the town’s murmuring. A misty fog draped the town but the moon cut beams of light into it and lay small streams upon house. I watched Ralph staring out into nothingness, blackness, his fixed body, his glowing eyes locked onto something I could not see. I slowly padded over to him to peek. A white-tailed stag stood on our front lawn. The moonlight undulated around it with a mythical, magical halo. I lay down on the couch in front of the burnt-out fire smoldering in the fireplace, and fell asleep, only to awaken in the morning by the smell of bacon from the kitchen, the warmth from the blazing fire in the fireplace, and Marq stoking it.  

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