by Benjamin Jin
I text Oscar: I don’t really know what happened. Feels hella awkward.
I don’t think I did anything wrong.
He replies: It’ll be fine.
I believe him. I believe him because it is comforting to do so. I scroll up in our texts to see photos of himself that he sent me yesterday, him in the shower. There is one of those thick frosted bathroom windows, through which sunlight pours over his body and makes him look as though he is covered in a thin wet gauze. He isn’t, of course. These photos and many others, all in my hand: they comfort me, too. I’ve known Oscar for longer than I’ve known Daniel, even though that one time years ago that Oscar and I got together was the only time. Every time I look at these photos I think of that one night. It’s more about the sentiment than anything else.
I see Daniel every day. We live together. When I see Daniel, I think of the future. What’s for dinner, what plans we have for the weekend. Sometimes I think further, towards a future, our future, that is wondrous and attractive and slippery.
Oscar texts me again: Lol how long have you been in the bathroom now?
Like five minutes. Heading out now, I reply. Thanks for listening.
He replies: Hope things go well.
I get off the toilet and look down at the empty bowl. My reflection in the clear water, against the cream white porcelain backdrop, looks fine and good, and I smile at myself -- a nice smile, I’d say -- and flush the toilet. I look at myself in the mirror and then around me. There is a painting of flowers, red and yellow tulips in a vase on a table, above the toilet. The shower looks clean, the glass door with some spots from the hard shower water, but otherwise clear. The soap dispenser next to the sink displays a label with a fading image of lavenders. The soap that comes out smells of eucalyptus. I don’t wash my hands and let the tap flow the soap off my open palm, down the drain.
I dry my hand on the mint green hand towel, look in the mirror once more, and leave the bathroom. I go in the living room. Next to it is the dining table, still covered with leftover food but devoid of people, and I hear Daniel and his mom, Fei-Fei, still talking in the kitchen. A part of me feels compelled to go into the kitchen but a barrier prevents me from approaching the doorway. Instead I scoop some fried rice onto my plate and eat it, although I am full, bordering bloated. I move quietly but Daniel and Fei-Fei are talking in a low Mandarin. I wash the greasy rice down with the remaining sparkling cider in my cup. I would kill for a stoag but Daniel and I already discussed previously that that would not set a good impression for his parents and I don’t wish to make things worse. I go into the living room, dimly lit by the ceiling light over the dining table. I think about turning on a living room light, one of the bulbs in the center of the ceiling fan, or one of the lamps on the tables at either side of the sofa, lamps of carved, sloping wood over a square base and topped with yellowed cloth-over-paper shades, but hesitate as I focus on the murmurs coming out of the kitchen, the soft foreign language.
I ball my hands into fists, scrunch my knuckles against one another. No new lights. I can see enough, I think to myself.
The sofa faces a thick projection TV; between them, the coffee table topped with plastic coasters adorned with images of birds and trees, each coaster an even distance away from one another. Shelves on each side of the television are filled with old books and small ornaments: a wooden Buddha, a replica jade cabbage, many carved, smooth-marbled stones. Everything looks quite old, although there is no dust or any other sign of stagnancy. I guess that’s what happens after you move but keep the same things -- Daniel said, when we first came in, that almost nothing looked new, the same sofas he'd grown up sitting on, the same TV he grew up watching, even if his parents had moved to a new place.
I thought that was strange. You’d imagine, going to a new place, you’d want new things.
What’s out of place: a crystal vase with a gaudy red-and-gold ribbon around the neck, filled with local lupines and yerba buena stems (a welcoming gift from the neighbors); one family photo, all smiles, in which Daniel looks to be elementary school age (so, early 2000s), but no others; and among all the yellowed Chinese book series and animal and evolutionary science texts -- his dad is a veterinarian and large mammal scientist -- a surprising number of Ann Beattie collections (I don’t read much, but I recognize her name because of Daniel’s dissertation). A large painting hung above the sofa, done by Fei-Fei before Daniel was born, when she still worked. Also, the walls are colored an unusual robin’s egg blue, not unusual in that it is disquieting, but just not what I would have expected these low-key Asian parents to keep. I asked about it when we first came in, and they said that it was just the way it was, why change it if it wasn’t offensive? But I guess it isn’t so out of place here. Many of the houses around Monterey are colored gentle pastels, soft pinks and sandy tan. There was even one house of a seafoamy pistachio, which seemed pleasant at first, but after a minute looked like cartoonish bile.
Also out of place: the two paintings on the ground, leaned against the wall. Those are Daniel’s, or I ought to say ours. Daniel bought these from an estate sale, before we came to his parents’ for dinner. I didn’t want to go to the sale, wanted even less to buy these paintings, but he was clearly anxious about dinner. I never want him to feel bad. Daniel and I have been together now for five years. He has met my parents many times, and they all get along splendidly, but he always seemed to be troubled by the prospect of me meeting his. This troubled me. They’ve known that I exist and that I’m a man (Daniel says they are fine with that, and they did seem to be fine with it). They’ve even visited our nice Foster City apartment, but only when I’ve been at my workplace in San Francisco. I don’t know much about his parents -- he rarely talks about them -- but I know their marriage is troubled and that he is closer to his mom, talking in a loud Mandarin on the phone with her during weekends. He speaks in English with his dad, but this happens so rarely and is always so polite that there isn’t much to gather from whatever bits of conversation I overhear. His parents moved to Pacific Grove last month after his dad retired from his position in Davis. I saw that as my chance. I pitched this trip here to Daniel, framing it as a fun time to a beautiful place. I added that the occasion of checking out his parents’ new home as the format of finally introducing us all would both lighten the mood while removing the entirety of the focus from me. He took a while to think about it, over a week, and perhaps was hoping that I’d forget about it. I asked again. I was insistent. Who doesn’t introduce their parents to their partner? When we finalized our plans, he stroked my thigh the way you touch a friend who is crying, even though I wasn’t.
I look at the paintings again. A 70s paint-by-number of The Last Supper, which was five bucks, and an unframed portrait of some sort of cartoonish, reptilian-looking succubus, bright red lips, concentric circles for tits, all atop a tapering, scaled body ending in a fleur-de-lis tail. That cost fifteen. The estate sale lady, with lips the same color as those in the portrait, had said she didn’t know where it came from or what it was supposed to be. “Even better,” Daniel had replied. He said that people put more unusual paintings in living rooms and pleasant ones in the bathroom. He’s doing the opposite in our apartment -- paint-by-number Jesus above our Ikea dining table, reptilian succubus above our toilet.
“Just imagine,” he said as he held the portrait up, looking it in the eye as we left the sale, “taking a piss, this thing looking at you.” He loves decorating. I’ll throw a pillow and blanket on the carpet, call it a bed. He will pick the bedframe of the right color with the rest of the room’s frame, consider the angle of the sun coming out of the windows, then construct the frame and place it in its ideal spot. When we moved out of his graduate school housing into our current apartment, he arranged all of our furniture, the sofa the perfect distance away from our TV screen so that our necks wouldn’t need to crane, coffee table in between to put your feet on without impeding the walkway. He even took some choice magazines from his dentist’s and optometrist’s offices, National Geographics and New Yorkers, to fan over the table, placed next to the stack of coasters. I remember him that day, sitting on the sofa, looking around him at our new place. His face was serene, as though he had solved a tremendous puzzle.
“Satisfied?” I had asked.
“Everything’s in place,” he said. “It looks like how I’d always imagined. But maybe we can get some stuff sometime to put on the walls.”
The tulips in the bathroom -- I think they were maybe striped, which I’ve never seen in reality, but they’re just tulips. No one is missing the toilet bowl because of tulips. That large painting above the sofa -- now that’s something. In its center, it depicts with the grandeur of the Birth of Venus a slender young woman, nude, up in the air, next to a tree from which hangs cherries, oranges, and green apples. A smaller man dressed in white waters the tree, hand on the trunk, as if he is holding the tree upright, or perhaps the tree is supporting him. From a distance, the woman looks as though she is floating near a branch; her hair flows along air currents and her face is alive and bright, her cheeks as rosy and fresh as the fruit. Daniel’s mom used to work as a painter. I learned during dinner that she was famed within her school for her paintings of hyper-realistic objects in surrealist settings. She stopped painting once she, with Daniel’s dad, came to America from Taiwan, mostly to raise Daniel, but also because she grew sick of the way others both in Taiwan and here described her work. “Perfect snapshots of chaos”; “clarified portraits of mystery.” Rolling her eyes, she called these quotes from reviews intellectual-juxtapositional-mumbo-jumbo. They ravaged all her motivations for painting. She’s painted nothing since. She puts small drawings in her mailed birthday cards for Daniel, jubilant expressions in plump, shaded faces.
Daniel told me some time ago, when he first started looking out for things to hang on the walls of our apartment, that she always said he was the only person she’d known who really understood artwork. He had shown me a picture of this living room painting. I definitely didn’t “get it.” When he was around ten or so, Fei-Fei had shown him all her paintings that she still held onto. They were locked up in a closet. His dad was at work. She laid them all out and asked what he thought of them. She did not tell Daniel that she had drawn them. At the time, he did not know that she could draw anything more than smiley faces or Chinese characters. He gave each of them a serious look and concluded that they were just another person’s view of the world, he didn’t have an answer, and asked if they could go walk outside. She began to cry and held him as though he were running away. Daniel told me that he remembered holding his face as cool as possible while hugging her back, he was so afraid he had said something wrong. The face he had while he told me this could’ve been described similarly, but he looked at me and smiled a Mona Lisa smile, an expression he’s unintentionally perfected better than anyone I know. I wasn’t sure how to interpret any of this, so I smiled too. Afterwards, she had him pick one of the paintings to keep and took the rest to the dump. He chose this one, because the fruits looked fresh and delicious, and the tree beautiful. He doesn’t remember what the others looked like.
As I peered at his photo of the painting, he told me its secret. He told me never to let his mom know he’d told me. I didn’t understand why that mattered. I hadn’t even met her yet. It was especially odd because I couldn’t even tell if this “secret” was true from that photo, but I said okay. I wouldn’t.
I make sure that he and Fei-Fei are still in the kitchen, step onto the sofa, and peer closely at the woman in the painting. My nose almost brushes against it. The secret is real: a gossamer thread, almost invisible even up close, spun by a tiny worm on the branch, wrapped around the woman’s neck. Being so close to her makes her otherwise slender dark brown eyes widen into an expression of complex surprise, something like ecstasy in a glance, turmoil in another. A dizzying amount of detail emerges from this intimate distance: the glare of sunlight reflecting off the cuticles of leaves, the dimples that texture the oranges, the nonchalant expression of the man.
I step back, and the woman looks lovely once again as her tether vanishes. I sit down on the sofa. I get back up. I go to the table, spoon some more rice into my mouth. I’m so full but I can’t help myself. It’s so tasty.
This is what happened.
Dinner had been going fine. I’m a good talker; my parents and my friends have always said so. I’m sure Daniel thinks the same although he’s never said so as explicitly as others. I can reliably charm people with just the right amount of attention placed on everyone involved in the conversation, including myself. It’s just attention and mathematics. Daniel was quiet most of the time, looking calm and cool as he usually does, but held a bit more mirth in his cheeks. His eyes were darting between me and his parents. He was noticeably nervous, I could tell. I thought I was doing fine.
We were talking about work. I gather that there’s a bit of a tension between Daniel and his parents over his dropping bioengineering halfway through college to pursue a degree in comparative literature. We met right around the time he made that decision, during which I was also ditching computer sciences for economics, and we started dating soon after. I’d only dated women before, he’d never dated anyone. It unnerved me a bit, two people who didn’t know what they were doing, even if I had some “relationship experience” under my belt. But he was never fazed by any of that. Things don’t seem to ever faze him much, which I find admirable. Now we are still together, around the Bay, and Daniel is still at Stanford, now pursuing his doctorate -- his dissertation being something about analyzing the various authors grouped by the Chekhovian style, the shifting of the label of “ordinary” folk over time, something along those lines -- while I, too, am analyzing data, as a financial analyst for Bank of America. It all worked out splendidly and I presented it as such when his parents asked about us, our life. His dad was very interested in my work. He was impressed that I worked in FiDi and had access to the Transamerica Pyramid. We were talking about the importance of passion within our professions.
“You need to have it,” he was saying. “I retired, sure, but you know, I’m still on-call here at the Aquarium. I keep up with the academic literature about mammalian science. I’ve always wanted to live here, and it’s only because of what I’ve -- what we’ve -- done, that we could make it.” He smiled at Fei-Fei. She smiled at no one in particular and poured more Martinelli’s sparkling cider for him and herself.
“Definitely,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. I looked at Daniel. “There was an aspect of changing our careers that was terrifying. We talked about that a lot. But we made the change because it was what allowed us to pursue what we wanted. We followed our hearts.”
“But I think you need to be practical,” Fei-Fei said. “I feel like you still need to think about how it’ll fit with the rest of the world, and --”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry so much about that,” Daniel’s dad said. “That’ll all get figured out if you keep doing what you’re doing. Like you said, follow your heart.”
A beeping from another room drew all of our attention. Daniel’s dad excused himself, saying it was his pager. He disappeared into the other room.
I reached for the spoon in the tray of fried rice. The table had been resplendent with some dishes Fei-Fei had cooked -- a fish with eyes like fogged glass, now picked to the bone, and two dishes of garlicky stir-fried veggies, both long gone -- alongside some catered side dishes from a local Chinese restaurant. It was all heavy and delicious. I was going to top myself off with the rice. “Do any of you want some more?” I asked first. Fei-Fei was looking at her empty plate and shook her head. Daniel handed me his plate and I grabbed it. He didn’t let go. I looked at him and he looked from the empty plate to me and then let go. I spooned some rice onto his plate. As I handed it back, his dad reemerged.
“Work emergency,” he said, as he slid into a jacket. I was impressed. He was clearly someone with a great work ethic. “Sick sea otter.” He paused mid-sleeve. “I have to admit, though, that I somewhat enjoy these nighttime on-calls. Now that I’m retired, it makes me a little nostalgic.” He finished putting on his jacket. “Nonetheless horrible timing. I’m so sorry.” He held out his hand.
“No problem at all. I’m glad to have finally met you,” I said, standing up to shake his hand. A firm handshake. I respected that, too.
“Me too. It took long enough!” he said, throwing the words jokingly at Daniel. He waved at them; Daniel and his mom remained seated at the table, looking at us.
“Bye dad,” Daniel said.
“Have a good night,” I said.
“Bye,” Daniel’s dad said. “Let’s all of us get together again. Soon. We’ll drive up to you next time.” He looked at me, smiled warmly, and opened the door, letting in the evening sea breeze. When he closed the door, I sat back down and spooned more rice onto my plate. It was starting to cool now, reaching that perfect point of warm and cold when you could take consecutive bites without thinking.
“I really admire that he’s still working even after retiring,” I said after swallowing a mouthful. “I hope to be like that too, when I’m at that level.”
“Excuse me,” Fei-Fei said. She got up and went into the kitchen. I watched her leave then looked at Daniel. He was looking at me. At first his face seemed to progress through several different expressions, but it soon solidified into cold stone.
“Everything okay?” I asked. I wiped my mouth.
He kept looking at me. He started to say something, then stopped. He closed his eyes tightly, then said, “I just can’t understand, really cannot understand, how someone so smart, can be so fucking clueless at the same time.” He got up and went into the kitchen. I heard him starting to talk with his mom. I began to feel warm, so warm that I took off my sweater and walked around the living room for a few moments. God -- I didn’t realize how full I was until I stood up and felt the weight of my stomach drop. I thought about what to do and decided it would probably be best not to go into the kitchen. I went into the bathroom. I sat on the toilet. I held the cold porcelain then held my forehead. I took my phone out of my pocket. My thumb was already in motion before I touched the screen.
I’ve been looking at the books in the shelves. When Daniel and Fei-Fei come out, I’m flipping through Beattie’s Secrets and Surprises, an old edition with a solid black cover and titled in bold red print, styled like a neon sign for someplace seedy. Daniel had been rereading it the week before today, his newer edition with an image of softly-colored balloons over a blue-grey sky on the cover. I look up. Daniel comes to me and holds my hand. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. We go back to the table where Fei-Fei has sat. She’s brought out some cut fruit. Her face is red and puffy although I swear I heard no crying.
“I hope I didn’t say anything wrong,” I say. “Is everything okay?”
“No you didn’t, and yes,” Fei-Fei says. “I’m sorry for being in the kitchen for so long. Thank you for being so patient. Daniel is right: you’re a good man.”
“No worries at all. You’ve been so nice to have us over for dinner while you’re still settling in. I should be thanking you,” I say. She holds the plate of fruit to me and I grab some orange slices and a peeled, quartered apple. I’m full as can be. Fruit is good for indigestion.
“It’s getting late. Let’s head back after this,” Daniel says. He touches his mom’s hand as he gets some fruit. “I’m sure you’re tired.”
“We’ll all see each other again soon, I’m sure,” I say. They are still looking at each other, but then Fei-Fei turns to me and smiles. “I wanted to ask,” I say, while smiling back, “who reads the Ann Beattie? I know that she’s one of Daniel’s favorites.”
“Oh, that’s me,” she replies, peeling the skin off an orange slice. “Actually when Daniel’s dad and I came to America, we had a neighbor who tutored us to improve our English. You know, we were taught some English in school, back in Taiwan, but obviously we weren’t fluent. Our neighbor liked Ann Beattie and had us read her stories for practice. We moved from Taiwan in the 80s when Beattie was very popular, and I don’t know if you’ve read her stories, but she uses language that isn’t too complicated.” She pauses, then chuckles. “The neighbor said that her stories are also a good introduction to this so-called American culture.”
“So you both read them?”
“Yes, for practice, but I don’t think Daniel’s dad actually enjoyed them. He thought they were boring. I think she is interesting. I kept reading her, even after we stopped taking lessons.”
“That’s how I first learned about her, from going through all the random books in our shelves when I was growing up,” Daniel said. “I like her stories too. I think they’re still very relevant.”
Daniel recommended one of her stories back when we first started dating: “Colorado.” Never having been much of a reader after grade school, I procrastinated on it, and finally read it before we went on a road trip to my home state of Colorado, so he could meet my parents for the first time. I dozed off a few times throughout. Those unhappy, generic characters, their hollow feelings, unexplainable decisions. They were constantly drifting, like a bad joke never landing -- those balloons of the cover becoming an obvious, omnipresent symbol -- and it made the sunny Bay Area day outside feel repetitive and dull, cold, even. So many of their problems could be solved simply by getting some therapy and a hobby. Relevant? Maybe. I had asked Daniel afterwards why he recommended that story.
“Because I’m from Colorado?” I had quipped. “Because that’s where we’re going?” Californians love asking me if I know so-and-so who is also from Colorado. These big state folks.
“No,” he replied. “It’s just one of my favorites. It makes me feel grounded.” He will sometimes tell me, while I listen patiently, his thoughts about random things he’s read by Beattie and others that he’s reading for his dissertation: Munro, Cheever, Carver, some others I don’t remember, and of course Chekhov. Whenever Daniel tells me his impressions of all these stories, he sounds as though he is invoking lessons from shining, long-lived fables. I asked him a few nights back why he was reading Secrets and Surprises again. He replied, “Just getting in the mood for our trip.” I didn’t know what to make of that, either. I didn’t want to ask further. Better not push it.
“I’m touched that you remember her name from me talking about her,” Daniel says. He is talking the way he does when he feels guilty, trying to make me feel better, even though I’m fine now that things seem back to normal.
“Of course I would,” I say. I don’t do so out loud, but instead visualize myself sighing with relief.
When we leave, Fei-Fei hugs me with no hesitation and holds on for a few seconds, a real hug, more than plain formality. I watch her and Daniel grasp each other. “We’ll all see each other again soon,” I say once more. They let go. Daniel and I hold hands as we walk away. When we reach the street, Daniel turns back, and we see Fei-Fei running towards us, holding the paintings from the estate sale.
“You almost forgot these!” she says. We each take one and thank her. She and Daniel hug once more before she goes back. We wave to each other when she reaches the doorway. She closes the door.
“Let’s go by the beach on the way back,” Daniel says. It’s a clear summer night. The sun set not too long ago, so the remaining colors of the sky are dark and sultry, swirling around each other in their transition to blackness. The hotel we’re staying at is only a sandy walkway down from Lovers Point, a perfect place to rest and digest before turning in.
“Well. That went alright, yeah?” I say.
“Yeah. My parents definitely like you a lot. I’m sure when I talk to my mom later she’ll only have good things to say about you.”
“And you were so afraid of introducing us.” Daniel doesn’t reply to this. “I thought they were really nice,” I continue. “Dinner was great, although I’m full as all hell right now.”
“Me too. Thanks for waiting to smoke, I’m sure you’ve been hankering.”
“Eh. But hey, what happened earlier?” I look at him. “When you two were in the kitchen.”
Daniel sighs. “It’s not worth talking about, Nick. Don’t worry about it.”
“You were pissed. I just want to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong.”
He lets go of my hand, rubs his chest and shivers. I put my arm about him and he leans into me. “It’s not anything to worry about it,” he says. “It’s their problem, not mine. Not ours.”
“But what’s the problem?”
He sighs again. “Just think about it, will you? It’s 9 pm, on a Saturday night. Who the hell is at the Aquarium at 9 pm on a Saturday, looking at the sea otters?”
The sky is black now. The more we walk, the more my stomach feels as though it weighs me down. I’m bloated and, now that Daniel mentioned it, my mouth is dry with desperation for a stoag. The chill of the air seems to stab the pores of my forehead.
“Janitor?” I say. I feel very stupid saying it.
Daniel laughs. “Yeah. Janitor.” He is quiet for a moment. He looks very thoughtful. “My mom thought that things might be different when they moved here. She had hoped that he’d -- that he’d stop, and they could get closer. But some things don’t change. She told me things still hadn’t changed last weekend, right after you and I decided we’d come down today for dinner.” He smiles his Mona Lisa smile. I realize suddenly that his perfecting of that expression may not have been unintentional. As I look at him, listening to his words, a wave runs through me. I let go of him and use my sleeve to wipe the sweat off my forehead. He keeps looking straight ahead.
“She’s all alone in that house,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where they are. She’s alone. I’m the only person who understands.”
We don’t say anything the entire way to the beach at Lovers Point. There is a group of people around a bonfire on the sand, close to the bluffs. Their shadows stretch and bounce with ritualistic fervor along the walls of the rock. One guy sees us, stands up, and walks over to us.
“Hey guys,” he says, “would one of you happen to have a smoke on you?”
Daniel and I look at each other and shake our heads. “Mine are back in our room,” I say, gesturing inland up the bluffs.
The guy hangs his head and sighs. “Hey, all good, no worries. I’ll ask whoever comes along next.” He looks back up at us, then at the paintings. “Say,” he says, “I thought those were surfboards at first. I must be drunker than I thought.” He laughs, we laugh with him. He points at the one Daniel is holding, the reptilian succubus, asking with a chuckle, “What the hell is that?”
Daniel holds it up. “Not sure,” he says. “But it’s neat, isn’t it? We’re putting it in our bathroom.”
“Yeah, that’s really somethin’. Well, have a good night.” He turns back to join his group. He turns back to us again, saying, “Stupid of me to think those were surfboards. Can you imagine going out to sea on those? Wouldn’t last a minute.” He turns once more and runs back to his group. He stumbles just as he gets to them and kicks sand onto the person next to him. They all laugh. They are laughing at him. I tell myself: they are not laughing at me.
I stand there looking at them. I don’t realize I’m staring until Daniel puts his hand on my back. “Let’s go,” he says. I trudge alongside him, back up the bluff, across the street and into the parking lot of our hotel. Daniel’s hand is still on my back, leading me to the building. I am exhausted. I was exhausted last night, too, after the drive in. I left my workplace at around 5 pm, drove through rush hour, grabbed our bags from our apartment, then picked up Daniel at Stanford, then drove all the way down here. It ended up taking about four hours. I fought for this trip. I made it happen. When we drove into the parking lot last night, I remember Daniel’s Google Maps, connected to the car, proclaiming in its mechanical tone, “You have arrived at Lovers Point.” It should’ve said Lovers Point Inn, but Daniel disconnected his phone before it could finish the sentence.
I don’t realize how frustrated I am with this tiny, meaningless moment until I unclench my fists and shake the soreness out of my hands. My arm is tired too; the painting under it may as well contain the weight of several surfboards.
Why aren’t I happy with how things have gone?
“You okay?” Daniel asks.
“Yes,” I say. Curt, but I don’t have the words to explain myself right now.
We get back to our room. The air is toasty. I give him the painting I’ve been holding -- I resist the urge to toss it off the balcony, frisbee-style -- and in its absence, I think that I could fly. He lays them on the ground, leaning them against the wall. I rip off my sweater and the shirt underneath and collapse on the bed while Daniel goes to the bathroom. When he comes out, he grabs my pack of yellow Spirits and tosses them next to me. They land on the pillow next to my head and bounce onto the sheets. I look at them and slide out a stoag, putting it in my mouth, but make no motion to put my clothes back on or get up. I put the pack on the nightstand and slide over so Daniel can be next to me. He sits; he rubs my back, his hands somehow both soft and strong.
“I saw you last night,” I mumble. I am facing the wall.
“What?” he says.
“Last night,” I say, turning over to face him. “When you got out of bed in the middle of the night. I woke up because you weren’t next to me. You know how I am.”
“Yeah,” Daniel says, grinning. “Serial monogamist. Has to have his dolls to sleep.”
“Whatever,” I say. “But I saw you on the balcony. You took one of my cigarettes. It looked like you were listening to music, and dancing, or something. Swaying, I guess. I could barely make out your figure but you were swaying back and forth.”
“Yeah. I did. I guess I was.”
“And then when you came in, you stood at the window, staring outside. It felt like forever. Then you reached for my pack but then put it back without grabbing another.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were awake?”
“I don’t know. No, I do. I had figured you were just nervous for dinner today, and I didn’t want to bother you. But now I realize I don’t know if that was the case.” I think about if I want to say what I’m about to say next. I stare up at the ceiling. “I’m afraid there might be a lot about you that I don’t know.”
“I was nervous, Nick. You know I’ve been putting off you meeting my parents for a while, now.”
“But why? What’s wrong with me that you didn’t want it to happen? And why didn’t you tell me about your parents before now?”
“It’s not you. I was afraid of what you’d think of me once you met them, once you saw what I came from. I still don’t know how to judge myself, sometimes, knowing all that I know about them.”
I sit up. “That’s not fair. I can judge for myself. You have to trust me. We need to trust each other.” Daniel pulls his knees up to his chin, stares down at his feet. “Listen,” I say. “I need to tell you something. We’re not going to end up like your parents. But I need to tell you something. I need to admit that I’ve still been chatting with a guy I knew from before.”
Daniel looks at me. “Chatting?”
“You know. Sexting and shit. Texting a lot. But I’m ending it. I don’t want it anymore.”
Daniel keeps looking at me. Sometimes I wish he were more expressive, especially moments like now. Then he does the strangest thing: he smiles, Mona Lisa. He smiles and sighs, reaches out and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for telling me.”
“You’re not mad?”
“No point in that, is there? This happens all the time. Who was it?”
“Oscar. How can you not be angry?”
“Wasn’t Oscar first guy you met up with? That was before you and I even knew each other, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I can’t believe you remember that.”
“It’s the magic of the first. Did you two ever get together again?”
“No! Never. We only hooked up that one night. But we’ve stayed in contact ever since. Like I said, just photos, and, you know, videos and whatnot. And we’d just text a lot.”
“What would you be texting about that made you feel like this was something you should bring up after learning about my parents’ situation?”
I didn’t think about that.
“I don’t know. He was just someone I could talk to when -- when I couldn’t tell you things. Like when you and your mom were in the kitchen, I was texting him about it. I guess I can talk to him without any sort of judgment because ultimately I don’t care at all about his opinion of me. And it’s extra comfortable because, you know, because of all the sexy photos.”
“Hah. I know what you mean. I don’t think it’s bad to have that in your life. Do you actually want to let go of that?”
“What do you mean? You’d be okay with me having that type of relationship outside of ours?”
“I mean, I don’t know. Tell me more. What’s the type of relationship that you two have?”
I look at him. He looks at me, gentle and expectant. I think for a moment. “I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like I said before. We can just tell each other anything. He’s told me about his boyfriend, the problems that they’ve had, and he doesn’t really expect a response or anything, he just vents, and I get that. I like that a lot, actually. I don’t know, it’s weird, but I --” Another sudden realization. I’ve been talking to the wall this entire time so I look back at Daniel. “Wait. This isn’t what I want. I want to talk about us. Why aren’t you angry?”
“You asked me that already. There’s no point in fighting about something like this.” He cocks his head, frowns slightly. “Hey. Are you okay? You look sick.”
Do I? I feel fine. I felt fine, I thought, but now I realize I do feel vexed. I try to breathe but my chest feels constricted; I’m still so full of rich, greasy food that it reduces the remaining space in my body to a fraction. I lie back down, face into the pillows. I think about the stoag I grabbed earlier, hoping I haven’t accidentally crushed it in the bed. A prickling heat starts settling in. “I just don’t know if this is how things should feel,” I say, my voice muffled by the hotel pillow. I shift my neck to look at Daniel, who is silhouetted against the lamp. Last night when I spied on him, dancing on the balcony, his dark shape was fluid and slender and dynamic, swaying with the slippery beauty of fish underwater. Now, sitting still, looking down on me with its shoulders square, the shadow looks to be a hard, solid monument. I shift my face back into the pillow, nervous and surprised.
“Well. Then how’s it supposed to feel?” Daniel asks. The sentence is pleasant and curious and conversational. His tone is calm and even. He reaches over and trails his hand, wonderful in how cool it feels, along the curve of my back, starting at the very bottom, just under my waistband, going all the way up. Soft, never losing contact, but so slight that it’s almost as though he isn’t making any contact at all, as though his hand is just floating past. It reaches my neck and then opens, hugging my nape with his thumb and second finger. Pressing in gently at the tips, massaging. At least, I know that’s the intention, yet I can’t help but feel as if I’m now the fish, hooked and wriggling mid-air.
“You know how it is,” Daniel says. His hand slides upwards, runs through my hair, and I shiver from the touch. “You’ve been through it before, with your girlfriends, with Oscar. I haven’t. You know better. Just tell me how it’s supposed to be.”