You take vitamins. Constantly. Despite the fact that they make you gag as you choke them down, you still drop the daily recommended dosage of 27 vitamins and minerals down your throat in pill form, chased sometimes with water, sometimes with milk, sometimes with beer. Once you told me that a doctor scared you, as a child, and said that if you didn’t take your vitamins you would go crazy. Ever since then you’ve taken that pill every single day. I didn’t realize what you were telling me when you said this.
You were an altar boy in a small town in Ohio; your hair was red then but your skin has always been the same alabaster white flecked with melanin dusting across the cheeks and shoulders. One day you were walking home from church and were jumped by some older boys. Your friends ran but you took the beating, and consequently your nose – always a little on the large side – now sports an attractive hump across the bridge. They broke two of your teeth, too, which you carried back to your home in your hands, where your friends waited for your return. Are you alright? they asked as you stomped up the drive, pissed off and covered in blood. No! you shouted, holding the broken bits of teeth out in your hands for them to see.
You sleep with your laptop generating white noise from the depths of the ocean, despite the fact that the dull roar of the highway penetrates the cinderblock walls of your ugly apartment building. Eventually the screen will turn off and your tiny apartment will fill with the same dim light that I’ve seen from a hundred feet below the skin of the sea, floating on my back, as fish swam around me. We wrap our bodies around each other and you will slip into sleep easily. Not me, though. I’m still fighting the king of sleep, our old feud unresolved, and when the sun begins to come up the blackberry bushes under your window will come alive with the singing of birds. You’ve never heard them except for Christmas day when I woke you up and dragged your sleepy head to the open window to listen to them, my unannounced gift.
Three days after we met, you skipped a day of work to lie in bed with me. Your cell phone rang every hour, filling my apartment with its plaintive vibrations, annoyed and ignored. We floated in and out of sleep all day, finally only showering and leaving sometime after the winter sun sank under the sea. Over drinks the subject of first kisses came up, and so I told you of one of the darker parts of my past, calmly and casually. There are things that happen and there is no reason, I said. You can carry them around but you can’t let them own you. You can live there, but make no home. Otherwise you never come back.
Hours later, you were drunk and so was I. You collapsed back on your bed, pulling me with you, both of us still damp from the rain and in our jackets and shoes. You need to know something, you said to me. Backlit by the light of the kitchen, eyes half-lidded with alcohol. You need some background. Some context. And I was drunk enough that the warning signs didn’t go off. Tell me a story, I said with a smile. Give me the background. I was thinking about the dim yellow light bouncing off the planes of your face and a skinny red-haired boy under the skies west of Appalachia.
Drunk, you brought your right hand up, index on point, as if to lecture me. One black curl fallen over the forehead and for the first sentence, I concentrated on that, feeling the smile evaporate from my face. By the second, I was clutching you tightly, my arms burrowing under your shoulders and neck, pulling you closer to me. By the third, I was crying, silently, the rough skin of your jaw line rubbing the thin skin beneath my eyes and lubricated by my tears. And you said in my ear very softly, There are things that happen and there is no reason. But you can’t let them own you.
As a child you can stare at yourself for hours in the mirror, acquainting yourself with all the physical features of yourself – the small nose, the almond-shaped eyes, the tone of the flesh, the lime colored eyes. The location of each and every freckle a new revelation; the play of the muscles below the skin a hypnotic fascination. The scent of the skin, and the taste as well. The billions and billions of cells working in concert to make this unique being known as you – completely separate from everyone else and located squarely within the context that pure chance places you.
And perhaps chance dictates that the first boy you kiss will end up in a shallow grave in the backyard of the man who murders him, or that you will find your mother’s body hanging in the garage one day after school. There are no clean rules that can be applied to the random events that converge within your own personal sphere of influence in the same way that the clean rules of biology can be applied to the miracle and ecstasy of your thin body as you stand naked in front of the mirror after the bath, in awe of the recognition for the first time that you are, in fact, you.
In the fatalistic light of your bathroom, surrounded by mirrors and the sound of the rain on the roof, the remnants of two children bonded now as adults by equivocal pain and something else stand before their reflections as they had once so many years before. Now there is no newness as every bone and muscle has been mapped long ago, the cartography long since charted and every roadside attraction long since become cheap and worn. The weariness and disgust at one’s own visage, though, now supplanted by the wonder and beauty of the other. Only the lucky ones continue to find people beautiful even after waking up in strange beds, time and time again.