Journal #11 (in which said man talks to coffeeshop girl)

“How is the Tinder research going?” she asks me, leaning over the counter. Her shirt hangs down a bit, but just a bit—I can’t see anything. As she leans toward me, her forearms laid across the countertop, she seems to stretch her back, working out some sort of knot with her slowly snaking spine. She watches me with eyes that smile in the way only her eyes can smile—their corners permanently pinched skyward. Her eyes are the color of bark. Her earrings are feathers. A slash of scab stripes the skin just above her left elbow—a souvenir from rock climbing in Canada. Today, her skin is gold. So gold in fact, that I don’t hear her question the first time—

“The Tinder research, how’s it going?”

“It’s going,” I say, and I say it in a way that implies that it’s not going, that I don’t care about Tinder, I don’t care about Brian, I only care about you, coffeeshop girl. You’re the one who keeps popping up in my writing, all throughout the empty spaces in my head. But I scratch you out, I erase you. Your name is a violent strike, a gray cloud. My readers won’t know a thing about you—you who works in the coffeeshop above the bookstore.

This story isn’t about you.

You ask me when I’ll post the first journal. Soon, I say. You ask if I’ve met anyone yet. That would be a spoiler, I say. You ask if there’s anything you can get me. Soup, if I may.

I watch you scoop me my soup. You return with my soup and you tell me it’ll get better.

I think you’re talking about the soup.

You’re not talking about the soup. “It’ll get better,” you say with a voice that knows things won’t actually get better. Things never get better. I will always be on this side of the counter, you will always be on that side of the counter, and both of us will smile at each other because we are paid to smile at each other and this will not change.

“I used to be on Tinder,” you say.

“Did it get better?”

“No. I deleted it.”

“Why?”

“It was awful.”

“What happened?”

“I couldn’t stop using it.”

“But you did.”

You nod. I nod. We stare at each other, nodding.

“I’m sure it’ll get better for you though,” you say.

“I don’t think so.” And then I explain why. The few matches I get don’t talk to me, and if they do they don’t talk to me for long. “Because I can’t sustain virtual conversation,” I tell her. “Because there is something inherently wrong with me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“My soup is getting cold.”

Sitting down, I do nothing but watch you—your graceful, athletic movements, those toned and elegant forearms that really know how to hold a pitcher of milk as it steams, really feels the way to let loose a ribbon of white into a puddle of black and brown where latte foams rise.

She knows man, she knows everything.

In the emptiness that follows, Brian arises. Brian, I haven’t seen Brian since the night I cut his hair, the night we covered ourselves in the shred of said hair. My body still itches. Weeks later I still find his hair scattered on parts of my body I know very well I washed. And still I can’t stop scratching. Rashes of red bloom on my arms, on my chest, on the back of my neck.

I slurp my soup.

It’s one of the slow nights at the bookstore. I’m on the third floor, at the information station where I’m checking my email. I have no emails. I wonder if I’m the only one. Everyone else, they always have emails. I sit there, staring at the computer clicking on links leading to links that lead to dark corners of the internet I should not be touching at work, should not be touching anywhere. The shriek of milk steaming tears through the passages between books. Espresso drips from an abandoned machine.

A quiet falls. A stillness takes me. Somewhere, footsteps.

“Hey you.” Her voice breaks me from my dark, brooding, poetic depths of mysteriousness and darkness and I look up. It’s the coffeeshop girl. She holds a broken cookie. “Whatchyu doing?”

It’s rhetorical, I know, but I answer. “Oh, you know.”

“I know,” she says with her smile, her dimples deeper than usual. “Brought you something.” She extends her hand with the cookie. “It broke, can’t sell it. Want it?”

“I want it,” I say, and take it. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” She takes one look at the screen I’ve been clicking at, says “stay busy,” and swivels in her floured, espresso stained apron to disappear behind some bookshelves where her little cafe lives. I take a bite from the cookie, watch the spot where she vanished. I turn back on the computer. I click. I click. I click again. The computer is off, it’s always been off and all I see is my reflection in its dark, my beard a scattering of cookie crumbles and my eyes so dead I’m surprised they can see how dead they look. I close my eyes, shove the rest of the cookie into my mouth and swallow. I need water.

As the clock ticks closer to closing, I only think of coffeeshop girl and the cookie that symbolizes everything and nothing at all. And how this everything and nothing at all—after passing through a twist and trial of intestines—will really be nothing but shit. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Everything is shit, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

When I approach her in the final minutes of the night, she’s stroking the silver steamers of the espresso machine with short, violent movements that make my mouth go dry, my throat close up. She’s in a hurry.

“I have a proposition,” I announce, because I really, clearly know how to talk to women. She jumps and turns, drops the white rag she’s been cleaning with and says—

“Jesus, you scared me.”

That stops my breath. How inappropriate it is to mention Jesus to me in a time like this. It’s no good, no good at all. It brings all involved far too close to the darkness. Swallowing the thought, I say it again— “I have a proposition for you.”

“Oh yeah?” she says, straightening her back. She brushes her hands against her apron, only smearing the flour further, and smiles in the way she does—the way that murders butterflies.

I explain to her that the writing isn’t going well, that the Tinder research is going poorly. “It’s soul numbing,” I say. This is not news to her. This is not news to anyone. I go on—

“I need your assistance.”

“My assistance?”

“I want you to get back on Tinder,” I tell her. “You’ll get back on Tinder and I’ll watch you, I’ll take notes. I want to know your swipes, see in which ways your fingers move, who they move for, and why. ” I say that, or something like that. “It’s for research,” I tell her. “It’s essential for the blog. I’ll buy you a beer, two even, because you can have mine.”

She leans against the espresso machine, her elbow pressing into the grate. “You’ll buy me a beer?”

“Two,” I say.

“Then it’s a deal.”

“Ah— yes. Well then.”

“Thursday night? After work?”

“It’s a date,” I say, not meaning to say that at all. “It’s a night.”

She nods.

I nod.

I spin on my feet, turn away with a speed that screams coward—what have I done!—and make for the stairs. Before I descend the first step, I turn toward the cafe and catch a glimpse of her, wiping down the counter, a softer smile now, a redness to her cheeks, a look that hasn’t been paid for because nobody is here, the store is closed, she is alone and I’m not watching her—I’m already gone, stumbling in a dizzy state of WTF down the stairs.

😁

join man next week for journal #12 (in which said man eats Thai food with coffeeshop girl, is definitely not a rapist)

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Journal #10 (in which said man concludes the tale of the shredded hair in the night)

Every now and again Brian’s towel will slip and without my saying a thing he’ll grab it, pull it up and keep it snug. With the clippers going in one hand, I graze the empty palm of the other against the now bare sides of his scalp feeling for any inconsistencies. I sweep away loose hair, bring my hand to the crown of his head and brush my fingers through its bleach and blue. I never imagined hair could feel so soft, feel so much like sky. With my thumb and forefinger I take his chin and turn him toward me, tilt his head every which way, looking everywhere except into his eyes. The power structure feels different—I tell him to turn and he turns, I tell him to raise his chin and he raises his chin, I tell him to stop moving and he’s a statue. He’s never listened to me the way he listens to me now and it’s very disarming, my blood is moving too fast to places that it really shouldn’t. I turn off the clippers. “So what do you think?” I ask him.

He wipes the steam from the mirror and eyes his reflection. Sweeping his hair left and sweeping it right, he leans in closer to himself, plants his cheek a mirror inch from his own cheek and fingers the place where the blue hair meets pale white skin.

“Do you see this?” he asks. He means the border of blond hair so dirty it’s brown that I missed. I tell him I see it, turn on the clippers once more and very carefully, with trembling fingers, I shave the dirty border clean. I sweep my palms one last time over his head and say—

“It’s done.”

Brian nods and feels his head without looking at himself in the mirror. He’s looking at me. We’re just standing there now, staring at each other, me with the dead clippers in my hand and covered completely in the shred of Brian’s hair and really there’s only one thing left to say—

“Your friends back then, what kind of things did you show them? What kind of things do they know that I don’t know?”

And Brian nods, knowing what I’ve failed to truly know this entire time, that I’ve been sabotaging myself because I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be with a warm body, if it feels like anything at all. When it comes down to it, I’m terrified of making contact, of the lowering of clothes with a woman I don’t know, afraid said woman will only find the boy that hides beneath this costume I somehow pass off for a man.

In Brian’s eyes I see him working out some sort of problem, like a math problem but I know it’s not because Brian hates math and is no good at it. His nostrils expand with the slow intake of air and I’m not sure if I’ve upset him by the question, by asking him about the times he’d show his childhood friends the secrets of the night, practice new tricks when he—Brian—was still called Brianna.

He never answers. He removes the clippers from my hand, places it in the sink and takes my hand in his. Before I know what’s happening he’s pulled me to my mat in the corner with room enough for one and together, as one, we find room enough for two. His towel is damp against my shirt, my arms are tangled across his back, his ribs cutting off the circulation in my right arm. I feel in the slow friction his towel collapsing around him. His skin is striped milk from the pale moonlight that shreds in from the slatted blinds. I see not just the bruises from the games he plays with Tommy, but marks ancient—prehistoric even—in their scars. Light marks across his wrists and darker ones down. Also, scars across his abdomen.** My heart pumps in a lower region and I feel an alien coldness grab at this second pulse with steady, rhythmic movements.

**Brian has told me about these scars. Some time in the early adolescent years of his life, when the missing ingredients he lost yielded to a darkness that would overcome him, Brian would cut his wrists and play with the blood. His parents worried about this, wanted him to stop, but Brian didn’t want to stop. They threatened to get help, to commit him to one of the bad places of the world, the places with the really, really white walls. Brian went to his youth minister about this (her name was, and is, Winter) and when Brian told Winter about the wrist cutting, she took him in her arms and said, “Oh hun, no. No, there there. Don’t cut your wrists, cut your stomach where nobody can see. Cut yourself there if it makes you feel good, cut yourself there so no one knows.” Brian agreed this was a solid idea.

Brian’s breath is cigarette smoke and sardines and his bare skin is clammy to the touch. Taking a break from his ventures down under, he lifts my shirt and I do the rest. His breasts are pressed against my chest and all of this, all of this, every part of this feels so foreign I don’t know how to communicate, how to move my lips in a way that makes sense because his lips are on mine and mine aren’t moving. My lips are parted and my eyes are open and still he nibbles on my bottom lip, his hand once again creeping down below my unlatched belt, crawling into the sticky humidity of hair underneath. I have now two hearts—the slow rhythmic yanking beat down below and the terrified hammering of a muscle trapped beneath my ribs, desperate to escape what’s happening. There isn’t enough blood here for the two of us, one heart shouts. This body isn’t big enough for us both. Room enough for one… for one… for one… my heart echoes into the blue veined maze of my body, feeding its enemy below. But I am not listening, because in this moment even the beats of my heart are foreign.

No hablo! No hablo! No hablo español! I want to scream and from the look on Brian’s face I wonder if I screamed just that. Brian’s pulling my jeans to my ankles, his lips following the line down my abdomen, but I feel a hint of stubble and tell him to wait, wait on just a second.

He looks at me in the dark. I’m breathing heavy. I don’t think he’s breathing at all. There’s the darkness in his eyes that also lurks behind, creating a shadow halo around his head. Brian is never alone, this darkness is a very physical presence. Our eyes adjust on one another. His breasts just hang there, grazing my thighs and he asks me what’s wrong, what is it?

“What if,” I ask, “what if this isn’t you, what if this isn’t me at all?”

Brian’s shoulders drop an octave. He sits up and he waits, knowing what I’m about to say, what he knows I can’t stop myself from saying.

“It’s just, Brianna—I mean Brian—” a heavy pause “—but what if I called you Brianna?”

And Brian, not Brianna, rolls off me because Brianna was never there at all. The things that pass through my head, the things that should never be said, the things that go unsaid, forever unsaid, like— I love you, Brian, with the emphasis on the Brian, the Brian, and the Brian.

I watch as Brian gets dressed in the pale moonlight with shoulders that hang dead like a corpse’s. He doesn’t say a word. My pants are at my ankles, I don’t know where my shirt is—wait, I think that’s it under my left shoulder—and I’m covered in the shred of Brian’s damp hair. Brian is dressed now, in black pants, black boots, and a green army jacket splattered in dried white paint. He slips his beanie over his head, doesn’t so much as look at me when he leaves.

He doesn’t close the door all the way, I don’t hear it click shut. A lonely wind nudges it wide and I hear the screech of his tires burn rubber at the end of the gravel drive. In the silence that follows I don’t get up to close the door. The bad things out there are already inside, they’ve always been inside. Outside a frog croaks, another frog croaks, and another, until everything outside, everything inside, is croaking pounding screaming breathing quietly with all the things we’re too afraid to say.

🐸

nothing much happens next week, join man in two weeks for journal #11 (in which said man asks coffeeshop girl out for a non-date)

Journal #9 (in which said man tells the tale of the shredded hair in the night)

Nine is the key number here, nine is everything. I open the door, I close the door. Open, close, repeat nine times. When the ritual first began it was to keep bad things from happening out there. Now I do it when I come home too, to keep the bad things from getting in. The night comes down on my western corner of the world, nothing remains of the day. I watch the door. Bad things are out there this night. Bad things want to get in.

It’s long past midnight when I hear the familiar roll of flat tires gurgling down the gravel drive, headlights staining the blinds a dusty yellow. He stumbles through the cottage door, flicks on the light, and it’s only now I realize I’ve been sitting in the dark, watching the dark, waiting in the dark all this time. He looks at me. His hair is manic, shooting up in all directions and the sides aren’t shaved down like they should be, like they usually are. His eyes are also manic. He’s been driving around all night, looking for something I don’t know what, just following the breath of his cigarette smoke, letting it trail behind into the curves of the road that vanish into the everblack trees. The stars are out this night.

He collapses into the foldout chair by the door, oblivious of the smoke that creeps from the cigarette still hanging in his lips and the slow reach of ghost tendrils that burn my eyes, water my cheeks. He doesn’t close the door, not all the way. I never hear it click shut. All it would take is a weak breeze to nudge it wide.

“What’s up,” he says to me, his eyes closed.

Opening my mouth I want to say something—like what’s up with you because I can tell something is up with you but I don’t know what said something is—though my throat is sticky and nothing escapes. How I must look sitting there, like I haven’t seen a soul in weeks. The way my thumb twitches from all the swiping I’m not sure if I can keep this up, if any of this is worth it for a fiction blog I’m to write that I’m not even sure will be fiction at all. It doesn’t matter, I can’t write about it.

Where is Tommy Tinder? I should ask him. Brian, why aren’t you at Tommy Tinder’s?

Before I can ask—if I ever would have said anything is debatable—Brian’s eyes flash open, dart to the calendar on the wall usually marked with big red Xs for each passing day. The days haven’t been marked for some time, they may as well not have happened.

“Shit,” he says. “Shitshitshitshit. Shit.” He flies into the other room, his jacket and smoke streamers trailing, and buries himself in our closet. Moments later he returns with his tin Batman lunchbox with the syringes and testosterone vials inside. Crosslegged on the carpet, he lays it all out before him. I see the writing on the calendar and I see he was supposed to put this testosterone into his body several days ago. He hasn’t been here in several days plus and maybe it’s only my imagination but as he takes the syringe to the vial, his fingers glide in graceful ways that the fingers of men don’t usually move in, he smells of apple cinnamon candles and Eve before the Fall. The syringe full and its needle pressed against his thigh, his eyes meet mine and he says—

“Not sure you want to see this.”

And he’s right, I don’t want to see this. I turn away, face the wall and listen to the tense silence of testosterone pressing into muscle, the rattle of trembling fingers no longer graceful, and then a grunt, a manly grunt, a needle pulling out. The deed is done, Eve has fallen and the candle snuffed out. When I turn around Brian is wiping a trickle of blood from his leg and I see he’s more of a man than I could ever be, the goddamn nuts of it.

His skin is bloodless as he places the lunchbox back into the closet, his movements faint. He grabs a towel, locks himself in the bathroom. I hear water move in the walls and listen as the shower rains itself down over Brian’s bare body, knowing full well that shower time does not correlate with realtime and what seems like 45 minutes to me seems like only a few to Brian. Science has yet to explain this phenomenon. I get up, lean against the front door and click it shut. I click it shut nine times. Behind me the bathroom door opens with the smell of rain and spice and Brian emerges behind a trapped cloud of storm, his towel wrapped around his waist. The storm follows him. It’s the first time I’ve seen his breasts and I notice pale strings of hair growing from them, though I’m not sure, because I’m a gentleman and only look at his eyes.

“Yo,” Brian says, feeling his damp hair with his hands and feeling what could be seen—that his hair has grown unkempt and wild in its time away from me. “Would you mind cutting my hair?”

“But you just showered.”

“So I’ll shower again.”

It’s just us cramped in our claustrophobic, humid excuse for a bathroom. I have no recollection of Tinder or Tommy or the bad things that wait outside, or anything really, and then Brian wipes the fog from the mirror meant for a small person. I see Brian, Brian’s breasts, and myself standing behind all three, the emptiest of looks in my eyes and I remember Tinder, I remember Tommy, I remember the bad things. Everything really. I ask Brian to raise his towel, to cover himself up. Brian rolls his eyes but he does as requested. I grab the clippers from the cabinet above the toilet. The blades are oily, still sharp, and I circle Brian’s head, eyeing the work to be done and I don’t know if either of us have ever been this close to the other, at least not in awhile.

Switching on the clippers, a buzz overtakes the small room. Brian’s hair is lanky and blue on the top and I’m to shave off all fuzzy sides surrounding. Don’t worry about fades, he says, just mow the sides down.

Remember that mirror trick you learned as a kid? The one where you unfocus your eyes and stare into yourself and supposedly you see into the future, what you’ll look like when you’re older? Well, I remember. I’ve never been able to erase that image, the one of my reflection aging before my eyes, the approaching death of it. I convinced myself it wasn’t real, but I still remember that image, it’s hard not to because it looks like how I look now. Now I avoid mirrors. When that’s impossible I avoid my eyes. I’m looking at Brian, his eyes, and my own eyes unfocus, but he doesn’t age. In his eyes I see his youth, the teenage girl he once pretended to be, the virgin he once was.

Brian and his virginity, he lost it when he was 13. He lost it when he still went by and looked like a Brianna. And although Brian will tell you that he was always a he and to call Brianna a she is ignorant and degrading, for the sake of this writing I will do just that—I will call Brianna a she—because this is the role that Brian played at the time. Brian won’t like this, but there are some things I must say, some things I need you to see the way most people see. During the time preceding his lost virginity, Brian was a Brianna. No one knew that the “na” at the end of Brianna had no place being there.

Picture Brianna—long dirty gold locks and the depth of eyes that swallows grown men whole. She believes in love. She’s very much in love herself, and we’re talking the movie, romantic comedy type of love, not yet disillusioned by the forced drab whatever of her parents. She’s in love with Johnny, a boy in her class with shy eyes and a quiet gait. She’s not ready to make love with Johnny, because she still refers to making love as making love and though she is in love, she isn’t convinced. She is nervous. Johnny is nervous. Then summertime. Brianna goes to church camp. Out in the woods, out of earshot from the girls’ cabins, Brianna makes something but loses something else to a boy several years older.** I don’t know his name. I’m not sure Brian knows. I’m doubt Brianna ever knew.

**Some of you may fault me for the use of such a cliche moment in the past of the young, but I will argue that it’s cliche because it happens, it happens a lot, and I’m using the cliche because it happened to Brian.

When Brianna comes home from camp she tries to make love with Johnny but something else comes of it, something in which something else is missing. They keep on doing this something because this something feels good and empties from their souls a key ingredient to the pains of life. Emptied of this ingredient, what one becomes is empty.

Growing up, Brianna primarily has guy friends, young boys who are horny and want to know what sex feels like, what it’s supposed to feel like. Hanging out in small groups at the homes of her friends, Brianna takes each of them aside, one by one, and shows them what sex feels like, what it’s supposed to feel like. Before ever stepping foot in their houses, she knows exactly where to find the porn collections of their fathers. The toolshed, she says, look in the second box of tools. They mimic the actors, become actors themselves. Friends tell friends and quickly they become friends with Brianna and they learn things and feelings and it’s these feelings they’ll be chasing ever since. Brianna becomes a sex goddess, and by goddess I mean god, because throughout all this she’s still a he, he’s still Brian, he just hasn’t told anyone yet. That comes years later.

And don’t get the wrong idea, Brian has always remained and still remains in control, Brian even now pulls all the strings, their strings. Boys, they never forget their first time. You never forget your first time with Brian. There are some things you never forget, things that make all following things worthless.

I’m afraid to touch Brian as I press the razing clippers to the place where spine meets skull. I must grab his neck, hold it steady to keep his head from repeatedly tipping down. I smell the sweat of his body, feel the weight of his blood as I lay my palm against his jugular. I raise his chin and mow the first stretch of hair revealing nothing but a pale, sunless white underneath. Nudging his head left, nudging it right, I mow the sides to nothing. It’s not until I touch the delicate cartilage of Brian’s left ear, its invisible cold fuzz, that I realize neither of us are breathing.

👥

🤐join man next week for journal #10 (in which said man concludes the tale of the shredded hair in the night, during which other things happen)