That winter, Per was thirty-two and worked in a bookstore in SoHo. He lived with a couple in a fifth-floor Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, where he slept on a pull-out in what they called the living room but which was really everything that wasn’t the narrow strip of kitchen and the skinny bedroom. The toilet was in a closet and the tub was in the kitchen. Per didn’t mind sleeping on the pull-out, and he appreciated that the lack of space kept him from bringing books home from the store – strays, he called them. He stowed his things in a corner behind a Japanese screen and on a clothing rack behind the couch. He lived a tidy, monastic life amid the clutter of the couple, who for the most part alternated between doting on him like a helpless child and resenting his very presence with an alienating silence.
At first, Per found this a little confusing, but a friend explained that gay men over forty had a tendency to want to fuck you and also make you porridge and teach you to tie your shoes, and in the midst of this sexual confusion, they felt both rejected and parental, resulting in a wildly swinging ambivalence. Per acclimated to this strange weather, disappearing in the mornings and returning in the evenings with fresh cut flowers or pastries from their favorite shop or good coffee from the roasters downtown. They converted back to their doting selves upon receiving these gifts like furious gods of old going silent at the burning of offerings.
There was no lease of course, and they might have turned him out at any moment, but Per did feel a real fondness for the couple. They made elaborate dinners, mostly Eastern European – Hungarian and Polish fare. Per always brought bread home for dinner because there was a very good French bakery near the bookstore, and it made him feel like he was in a French film carrying baguettes down into the subway. He liked that he had a role to play in their apartment life. Bringing bread. Clearing and washing the dishes. Unfolding the dining table. Putting away the dining table after they had eaten. Rolling their post-dinner joint and setting up the cushions by the open window so they could smoke. Watering the plants. Seasoning the cast-irons. Discarding the coffee grounds for composting. These things made him happy.
Still, seven months into the arrangement, he knew it was not a long-term situation.
For one thing, he could hear the couple fucking. Initially, they did try to go about it stealthily, but after his first couple days in the apartment, they said to him over breakfast, ‘We’d like to fuck tonight. Don’t come back until after two.’
Per had never heard someone be so frank about sex before. Not toward him anyway. He gulped down his coffee and practically yelled, ‘Of course!’ as he leapt from the table.
The couple laughed, both of them, and Per felt embarrassed at his response and his clumsiness. Ever since, the couple had simply started engaging in sex when they felt like it, even while Per slept a few feet away in the living room on his lumpy mattress. He listened to them coo and sigh and the squeak of the platform bed shifting under their weight. Sometimes he got hard listening to them go at it because they’d curse and gasp and make brutal, hitching sounds. But for the most part, their sex made Per sad because it was so soft and gentle and they seemed to know each other so well. It made him realize no one knew him that well, and probably never would. He never felt so lonely as on the nights when those two made love.
In the bookstore, Per worked from morning until evening, mostly down in the stockroom unboxing and cataloguing shipments. Breaking down the boxes and setting them out for recycling. Making sure that the deliveries of receipt paper and hand soap made it upstairs and into the staff bathroom, which he also cleaned. Then there was the dusting before hours and the sweeping after close. Checking the light bulbs and making sure that the books were mostly put back into place. He felt a little like Quasimodo, to be honest, scurrying around in the shadows, peering out at the real people who had come to buy books for themselves and for loved ones, for gifts, for leisure, for work, for clout on Instagram and social media, to signify to whatever part of the world was still sensitive to such signals that this was a person who read – what such a signal meant in today’s world, Per did not really know.
One morning, pre-open in mid-November, Per’s boss said that they would have a party at the bookstore. They were all gathered on the first floor for an impromptu team meeting. Per had been summoned up from his crypt.
‘Like, a reading?’ someone asked.
‘No, a party. For the customers. To celebrate the start of the holiday season,’ Imogen, the shift lead, said.
There was a murmur of unease. Per had his hands in the pockets of his apron. He was thinking about the boxes he’d left on the counter downstairs and making a list in his head of which shipments he should open first.
‘I don’t suppose we have a choice,’ Anil, one of the senior booksellers, said.
‘From on high,’ Imogen said.
‘I don’t love, but I guess them’s the breaks.’
‘It’ll be early December.’
‘Are we . . . getting paid, at least?’
‘Some will be working. But of course everyone is invited to attend.’
‘So it’s not a party. It’s work.’
‘Festive work,’ Imogen said dryly. ‘I know it’s annoying. But please don’t shoot the messenger.’
Imogen said they were free to go, and Per descended the stairs into the children’s section so that he could cut into the back and resume his box duty. A party sounded nice. Working during a party did not sound so nice. But it might mean time and a half. And if he was on his regular stuff, then he’d be able to hide downstairs and avoid most of the trouble. That didn’t seem so bad. Imogen called after him as he reached the middle landing.
‘About the party,’ she said.
‘Festive work sounds better, I think.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ she said, but then, sighing, ‘It might be best if. We’re going to be running a tighter ship that day. We’ll be closing early to get the shop ready.’
‘Oh,’ Per said.
‘It’s not certain, but you might not. Be on. That night. But you would be totally welcome to come. And you know, be merry and bright. And. Secular in a seasonally appropriate manner.’
‘Am I being laid off ?’
Imogen frowned. ‘No.’ She descended the stairs and took his arm in hers and coaxed him further down. She glanced up behind them to make sure that no one was on the stairs and when they reached the children’s section, she put her hand on his shoulder.
‘I know how hard it is for you. These kinds of things. I spoke to Bette and she’s said that you don’t have to work that night if you don’t want to.’
Per’s neck was hot and his vision momentarily folded back and across itself, splitting everything in fuzzy doubles.
‘I’m not an invalid,’ he said.
‘I know that,’ Imogen said. ‘I know. Look, do what you want. I just wanted you to know it’s an option.’
Per’s mouth was dry and he stared at Imogen’s hand on his shoulder. She was older than him by about five or six years, but she had the steadfast and loose authority of a camp counselor, derived from a small yet intractable difference in age and experience. She had clear brown eyes and dark roots, but she was never cruel and she was never brutal and she was always fair. He tried to remind himself that other people’s kindness was not an indication of weakness on his part. He tried to remind himself of what his doctor had said. That it was okay for people to look out for him sometimes.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very thoughtful.’
She smiled at him and squeezed his arm. ‘You bet.’
Imogen went back upstairs and Per went into the back room and he lifted the yellow X-Acto knife from the counter and slit the boxes in the way he had been taught, drawing its edge away from himself at a depth sufficient to cut open the box but not to harm the books. He kept his wrist loose but firm, trying to make sure there was no excess tension so that he could do this all day without injury to himself. Early on, he had held the knife so tight that his knuckles went white and his palms shook. The key was consistent pressure, not too much, just enough to let the knife stay steady and to let the sharpness of the blade do the work. Cutting was easy that way. And to move the blade away from yourself, not toward, as was his instinct. Why was that? he wondered. What made him want to draw the knife toward him? Why was it not human nature to draw it the other way? The biomechanics made no sense. God had put humans together in such a strange and funny way.
Per looked down into the box: Frog and Toad.
Just before lunch, one of the girls, Siva, came into the back to collect her bag and coat. She and Emmaline, another bookseller, were going to the restaurant down the street for lunch.
‘Do you want something?’ she asked.
‘No. I’m all right,’ Per said. She stood by the back exit for a moment, the denim jacket hanging off her shoulders. Per had been unboxing all morning and his hands were raw from handling the cardboard and shrink-wrap. He’d nicked the inside of his palm along the webbing between his thumb and finger. When Siva had come in, he’d been in the process of putting a Band-Aid there only for it to come off a moment later.
‘It’s best if you use the tape,’ she said. ‘High flex area.’
He looked at his hand and at the open first-aid kit. It seemed rather obvious now.
‘Oh, you’re right,’ he said.
‘Do you want some help?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m okay. I can do it.’
Siva put her jacket back on the hook and had Per sit on a stack of boxes. Then she wheeled a chair over and set about putting gauze between his fingers.
‘Press,’ she said. Per applied pressure and watched as she took the white medical tape from the box and did a couple quick, tight circles around and through. Then she secured it and checked her handiwork.
That close, he could see the red part of her hair, where her scalp was irritated and flaky. And he could smell something like oil and geranium on her. When she looked up, their faces were close, and he saw a ghostly white scar around the corner of her mouth.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
They sat with their knees touching while overhead the early lunch foot traffic went groaning on.
‘Are you excited for the party?’ she asked.
‘No. Yes,’ he said. She laughed a little.
‘I think it’ll be fun. A good thing for people after the last couple shitty years.’
‘And if it’s not, we’ll be able to say it is anyway,’ he said.
‘Now you’re talking. Delusion is one of the best parts of the holiday season.’
Per nodded and looked down at the white bandage on his hand. It felt warm and tight. He felt looked after.
‘Are you going home for the holiday?’
‘No,’ Per said. ‘Not since I was in college. They don’t. I don’t. We don’t handle it well.’
‘Each other,’ he said, laughing, snorting even, but then he saw that Siva was not smiling and realized that he’d said something troubling instead of funny again. ‘That’s a joke.’
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘Sorry. I’m. Unsettling.’
‘No you’re not,’ she said. But then she stood and took her jacket back off the hook. She did not offer, as she sometimes did, another invitation or offer to bring him something back.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he said, reaching, but then taking his hand back when he saw her eyebrows raise and her eyes widen. He put his hand against his stomach.
‘You’re fine,’ she said. ‘See you later.’
The door always creaked like it was in pain when you opened it and slammed shut when you closed it. It made the small break room feel extra quiet and empty. He stood a moment in the echo of the door and tried to think about what he could have done better. Might have done better. He tried to think about what sort of person he wanted to be in this world and how he might bring that about. His doctor told him that he could only control his actions and not the feelings of others. But the kind of person that Per wanted to be was the kind of person who elicited from other people predictable, good feelings.
Per checked his watch and saw that it was almost time for Anil to take his twenty. He did not want to be around when Anil took his twenty, so he went upstairs to check the carts for re-shelves. Anil went down the stairs and Per sighed. Clem, another bookseller, spotted him watching Anil and laughed.
‘He’s not so bad.’
Clem and Per had come at the same time. For a little while, Anil had tried to make a joke of their names: pears and clementines, fruit of the loom, fruit bowl, stuff like that. But the puns lacked the snappy cruelty of a good inside joke and fell out of use almost immediately. Clem had gone to school with Siva and Emmaline – Bard College. They each had grown up in different parts of New York. Clem in Hudson, Emmaline in Westchester, and Siva in Brooklyn. Per, like Anil, was from Alabama, though unlike Anil, Per was from a small town in Central Alabama whereas Anil had grown up in affluent Daphne, seven years later at that. Also, Anil went to Harvard and Per had gone to the University of Alabama in Huntsville to study aerospace engineering.
Sometimes, at night, Per liked to imagine the different trajectories they had each taken to get to this job in the bookstore at this particular moment in time. He assigned each of them a color and traced them with his fingers in the air.
‘I don’t think he’s bad,’ Per said. ‘I just don’t think he likes me.’
‘He likes you about as much as he likes anybody.’
‘That’s the problem.’
Imogen waved Clem over to take the register so she could help a pregnant woman find a book. One of the older shift leads, Barbara, was doing stock on the computer. Per pushed a small cart bearing books through the art section and tried to wedge a monograph of somewhat terrible black-and-white photography back into place.
The strain made his hand sting and he glanced at the bandaging and thought of Siva. The warmth of her hand on his. The way she’d touched the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth. It was nice, what she’d done. He should get her a gift. Something that said thank you, we live in the world together. That fact didn’t mean much to most people, but Per found it kind of miraculous. That of all the people who had ever lived, these people were alive at the same time as him. And he got to see them and be seen by them each day. How strange. It could have gone any other way. Really. There was an array of possibilities. Alternate lives. Routes. Choices.
But other people.
The cart had some poetry on it too, things picked up, read snickeringly and then set aside. Some people confused reading and literature – they supposed that these two things had a great deal to do with each other. This made for a lot of confusion because it prompted people to believe that reading was somehow the sort of behavior that was inherently good in a moral sense. When in fact the moral value assigned to reading had to do with the creation of the idea of literature, which some people imbued with all the solemnity of the holy when in fact it was a middlebrow bourgeois anachronism created in universities and retroactively applied to some of the greatest works of human history. In that way, reading and literature were the same. Yet in today’s world, reading had diverged even from these modest middlebrow origins and had sunk into some horribly populist activity.
A modern bookstore was perhaps the greatest example of this kind of fallacy. There were no true believers of this new religion, only empty-headed evangelists flogging the idea that all reading was good reading and that anything could count as reading, and anything could be literature, and that any reading was in fact reading literature and therefore morally unassailable, and in this way not merely morally good but also aesthetically good. There could never be a true faithful to such an empty string of logical transformations. Who could ever earnestly go on their knees in the quiet and the dark of their human soul and raise their face up and say to the vast and unknowable gods of that quiet inner darkness, Any reading is good reading.
Per did not read the books that were popular in the store where he worked because those books were books, not literature. They had very little to do with life and would not be read in five years. The books most popular in the store were popular precisely because of the hyper-localized nature of their idiom and the narrowness of their concerns. The books described a mode of life that would be utterly unrecognizable in a year or two. Or worse, they were about a generalized, abstracted version of the past that had been mostly cobbled out of quickly digested research articles and hazy family memories from across the diaspora. The contemporary novel as Per understood it was mostly about the self, but also about things that had happened to a family across many generations but also about Nazis but also about slavery but also about some obscure local historical atrocity that reverberated through to the present day and had shocking consequences for all involved but also about a painter on a train going to Prague and thinking about a bad man she had slept with once or thought about sleeping with anyway.
Unfortunately, Per was the kind of tiresome person who enjoyed Henry James and got emotional in the back of rideshares on his way to parties because he remembered the final words that Ralph Touchett says to Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady:
‘And remember this,’ he continued, ‘that if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel – adored!’
More than once, Per had gotten drunk at a party or a bar with his co-workers and tearfully explained that this was the most beautiful moment in all of English-language literature to which someone invariably responded, ‘Yes, but what about Sula?’ Per did not have a comeback in the moment. He always felt that Morrison’s poetic force was a different thing than James’s. And part of what made the moment with Ralph so powerful was that it was James resorting not to his flights of fancy or interiority, but simply letting the character say what he needed to say to the person he loved most in the world.
Per checked his watch. When it had been twenty minutes, he went back downstairs. The break room was empty. Anil’s jacket was gone and his apron hung in its place. He was probably smoking out in the alley even though they weren’t supposed to. Anil’s other preferred perch was up on the street near the restaurant where the girls were eating lunch. He could be such a pest. Per tried to take that thought back. To think of Anil in a good way. A kind way.
He put away the first-aid kit and checked the store email. There were some virtual orders he could pull. Some slips to fill. He was grateful for this small domain over which he reigned and for its hum of activity. Down here in the dark, amid the boxes and the rustling pages of books.
That night, after the shift, Per went out with some of his co-workers to the tapas bar across the street that had recently reopened after a long closure during the pandemic. Anil knew the owner because they had gone to college together at Harvard, which Anil did not like to tell people except when he was drunk and feeling self-pitying. He was happy, actually, that he worked in a bookstore because it proved how fake the whole infrastructure of the American meritocracy was, since he, the son of immigrants, could work his ass off and go to Harvard and still end up working in a bookstore across the street from a bar owned by his classmate who had skipped most of his classes to do coke and coasted on family money. It was fine, actually, so fine, totally fine, funny actually, that he had a Harvard diploma hanging in his parents’ house outside Birmingham, Alabama, and here he was in New York, selling copies of Glennon Doyle and Braiding Sweetgrass to stay in a studio apartment on Canal Street. There was something so beautiful in all of that.
Anil was already getting wound up, drinking mescal and recounting the days he and the owner of the bar had spent getting wasted and not going to PHIL 302 or whatever. The owner was skinny and a little short. He seemed not to know what to do with Anil’s little speeches except to stand good-naturedly by and refill his friend’s shot glass. He welcomed them all into the bar with a friendly, open air, and Per thought he seemed like a nice enough person, like nothing had seriously gone wrong in his life and so he had managed to reach adulthood with his capacity for kindness still intact.
Emmaline and Siva were talking among themselves at one end of the bar while Anil and Clem were at the other end talking to the owner, whose name Per now knew to be Chester. Per sat more or less in the middle with his glass of seltzer and lime. The bartender was tall and tan and he had a neck tattoo of some indecipherable creature that rose just above his starched collar. He was shaking margaritas for a table near the back wall. The tapas bar was elegant – marble and gold finishes. Everything was slender and sleek, polished. Running along the side wall was a black velvet banquette. In the summer and autumn and in good weather the windows opened out and up, creating a sense of al fresco.
They were in a decent part of SoHo, catty-corner to a church and a playground. In the springtime the trees were beautiful over the sidewalk, and in the dead of winter the church rose high, dark and solemn over the street, imbuing everything with a certain Graham Greene-like aura. It was unseasonably warm for November, and Chester had called for the front windows to be opened, so that the bar filled with the sound of cars from the street. It was a little after seven, the primal dark of late autumn, but it was strange, with it also being so warm, and Per had the sense of being out of time. There was a quality to the darkness in autumn, so different from the darkness of summer or spring, deeper, somehow, richer in tone and temperament. It came so quickly, autumn darkness, that by the time it was seven it seemed like midnight, even though there was still so much day left.
Anil shouted, ‘I just think it’s mad wild, bro, mad wild, that you own this place! How sick is that!’
Chester shrugged and poured more mescal into Anil’s glass. When he noticed Per watching, he winked.
‘No,’ Per said, now feeling a little embarrassed because he hadn’t even finished the seltzer he’d asked for.
‘Are you doing a sober thing?’
‘No,’ Per said. ‘I mean. I’m not sober. I mean. I don’t drink. But, like, not like, systematically.’
Chester blinked slowly, then he said, ‘That’s cool.’
This time, Chester flinched slightly, and Per wondered if he had been hostile. But then Chester smiled and nodded.
‘I’m eighteen months sober. Systematically.’
‘Oh wow,’ Per said. ‘Congratulations. Or. Not congratulations, that was probably rude.’
‘No,’ Chester said. He leaned on the counter and put his chin in his hands. ‘It’s nice. You’re the first person to properly congratulate me on it.’
‘I mean, I don’t go around telling people. It’s bad for business.’
‘Then I won’t tell.’
‘I appreciate your discretion,’ Chester said. ‘Can I get you something else? It’s hurting my feelings the way you’re hoarding that seltzer and not drinking it.’
‘I’ll drink it.’
‘You don’t have to. We have other stuff.’
Chester leaned back and looked down into the space behind the counter. The bartender had just finished shaking out more drinks and stood awkwardly by while Chester inspected their stores.
‘Need something?’ he asked.
‘Just. Uh. Something for the, uh, chronically sober.’
‘Oh, we keep the chocolate milk in the back?’ the bartender said, pointing with his thumb to the swinging door. Chester stared at him coldly. Anil had stopped barking at the boys and looked their way. The girls too. Everyone was looking at the three of them, Chester and the bartender behind the bar and Per on the stool in the middle. He felt bad, like he was ruining the vibe in some way too subtle for him to really parse. So he gulped the seltzer down, and in doing this seemed to release everyone.
‘See. He’s fine,’ the bartender said.
Chester scraped his teeth across his lower lip and flexed his hands a couple of times like he needed to shake something out. Then he turned to Anil and lifted the bottle and said, ‘Don’t stop on my account.’
The bartender poured whiskey sours and took them to the other side of the bar near the girls from the bookstore. Chester watched him go.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘We’re . . . still getting back up to speed.’
‘It must have been very stressful, being closed.’
‘Yeah. Something like that.’
Chester leaned on the bar again. Anil and Clem had come to stand closer to Per.
‘I was telling them about how we used to skip class,’ Anil was saying, starting the story again.
‘They don’t need to hear that one again. Change the station.’
Anil frowned childishly, and truly seemed to be casting around in his mind for some other anecdote. It was kind of miraculous, this silence extracted from Anil. Clem laughed, which made the girls come back over too, and just like that, they had become a group again.
Chester watched over all of them, rather pleased, like a hen tucking its chicks under its wing.
‘How do you like working in the store?’
‘It’s great,’ Emmaline said. ‘Well. It’s a job.’
Siva laughed. ‘It’s more like a hobby.’
‘At this pay, what’s the difference?’ Clem asked.
‘Health insurance,’ they all said mordantly.
‘Technically,’ Anil started, ‘we probably shouldn’t even be talking to you. After all, we are labor.’ He drew a circle indicating himself and the other bookstore workers, then pointed at Chester. ‘And you are an owner. This is bad Marxism.’
‘What about the sheep lying down with the wolves?’ Chester asked. ‘Doesn’t Daddy Marx imagine some great future where we’ll all come together for the betterment of mankind?’
‘That’s MLK,’ Anil said. ‘Marx says we should put you against the wall.’ He made a gun with his fingers and stuck the barrel between Chester’s eyes. He smiled.
‘That’s Stalin,’ Clem said, putting his own finger gun to the base of Anil’s skull. Siva put her finger in Clem’s ear and whispered loudly, ‘Lenin.’
Emmaline rolled her eyes and put her finger under Siva’s chin and said, ‘Robespierre.’
They all groaned and extricated their fingers from each other’s soft spots. But before they’d broken up, that continuous chain of human connection had made Per shiver. In the light of the tapas bar, Emmaline’s blonde hair and soft eyes and Siva’s sharp brow and delicate black ponytail, Clem’s boyish pout and bony wrist, Anil’s luscious dark hair and vibrant eyes, and Chester’s good-natured blue gaze and placid expression – all of it had made him think of two paintings. The first by Goya, The Third of May 1808, and the second by Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. For the richness of the color, the delicate humanness of the expression, the surging dark undertone of the subtext and the roaring animal scream emitting from its subjects. It was a jolt, the image of them all linked up like that, pretending to murder and butcher each other at the first moment of rhetorical weakness. Not because he thought they would do it. But because they were capable of alluding to a world in which it was possible to murder one another. Even after they had taken their hands away, Anil’s finger remained between Chester’s eyes, and the others had stopped laughing.
‘Bang,’ Anil said. Chester kicked his head back as if he had been shot. Lolled back dramatically. But Anil wasn’t smiling. He turned to the rest of them and said, ‘Did I tell you guys how I used to skip class with this guy?’
They were entering prime tapas time, and people were starting to come into the bar in order to ruin their appetites. New York ran on such meals. The fast, the expedient, the readily consumed while drinking.
Anil asked for a table, which Chester obliged in giving them. Per sat between Siva and Clem. Emmaline and Anil were on the banquette. The music was loud. The street was a little busier now, the bar next door and the restaurant across the street next to the bookstore had their lights on and their windows and doors open.
Chester had a rabbit paella sent to the table.
‘It’s a new dish,’ he said. ‘We’re trying to expand our offerings. Be more of a small-plate situation.’
‘Paella isn’t small plate,’ Anil said.
Siva pinched him under the arm. ‘It looks so good.’
‘Let me know if you like it,’ Chester said. He was standing with his hands on the back of Per’s chair, and Per could feel his weight pushing down. When he left, his hand grazed Per’s shoulder. Clem was watching. Per focused on the paella. It was in one of those traditional pans, deep, flat on the bottom. They could hear, over the noise of the bar, the faint sizzling of the underside, the rice gone crispy and dark. The rabbit meat looked juicy and rich. Oil glinted on the rice and the meat. Per felt such a vicious desire to taste the food that his mouth hurt.
‘Check out Alabama Oliver Twist over here,’ Anil said. ‘You
look like you’ve never even seen food before. What’s your problem, robot man?’
‘Shut up,’ Clem said.
Per tried to manipulate his face into a neutral expression, but he did not know how to exactly. He hadn’t realized that he’d expressed something with his face, and now he understood that he had shown his hunger. It embarrassed him. His face was hot again. And his
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I’m not really hungry anyway.’
‘Seriously, man, shut up,’ Clem said. Emmaline put her hand on Per’s shoulder.
‘It’s okay, really, don’t worry about him.’
‘No, no, no, it’s fine. It’s funny. I’m fine.’
Anil reached across the table and slapped Per’s chest with the back of his hand, ‘Man, I’m fucking with you!’
But in doing so, he upset the dish and some of the oil in the pan lurched up its side and onto the table in front of Per. He jumped back, which made the dish lurch the other way, and lift briefly from the table. It returned with a loud clank. Per, having lost his balance, fell back in his chair and hit the floor, and the air whooshed out of his chest.
He lay there stunned, then, beneath the receding numbness, the burning arc of the chair back pressing into him, hurting. He groaned and tried to sit up, but the world grew dizzy, sloshy. And the others bent over him.
‘Are you okay?’ Siva asked.
Per turned his head to look at her. Tried to smile, but did not remember how exactly. The expression eluded him, and it was gone for so long that he thought he’d never smile again.
‘Oh my God,’ Emmaline. ‘I think he has a concussion.’
Clem was crouching by him. Emmaline too. Anil had got out of the banquette and was standing over him. Per felt hot. Flushed. The air was too thick, too heavy. He really wanted to taste that rabbit. He swallowed thickly and sat up.
‘I just need to catch my breath,’ he said. His back still hurt. Then, throbbing, the base of his skull. He reached back to feel for blood, but found none. Still, there was a deep, splitting pain back there. He’d have a knot in the morning. He tried to stand, but felt dizzy again.
The music had stopped, and people were looking at them.
‘Why did you freak out like that?’ Anil asked. ‘It was just some hot oil, man.’
Per stood and braced himself against the chair and tried to catch his breath.
‘Come with me,’ someone said. It was Chester. He had taken Per’s arm gently in hand and was pulling at him. ‘He’ll be all right, please, eat.’
Per took his coat and his bag and allowed himself to be pulled along, his steps heavy and plodding. They went through a side door and out of the restaurant. They were in a dark passageway.
‘Please,’ Chester said. ‘This way.’
The air in the passageway was cool and clear, and Per felt he could get his breath back. Still, he followed the pressure of Chester’s hand and they went to the back of a hall and then through another narrow door and slowly up some steps. And then they were in what looked like a stairwell.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes,’ Per said, nodding his head, but then the sharp pain made him stop. ‘I’m all right.’
Chester looked him over, which required Per to look down since he was taller.
‘My place is just up here,’ he said. There was an elevator, thankfully dimmer than the stairwell, and they rode upward in silence. ‘Sorry for being so presumptuous but you looked like you could use a breather.’
The apartment was spacious, there was that. It had big windows for walls and a central sitting area with the same lush velvet and slender metal finishings as the restaurant. Below them, the city. The trees and the churchyard, the bookstore, and the buildings of the bars and shops. People in the streets. The darkness tinted blue.
‘Sorry about Anil,’ Chester said. ‘Please, sit.’
Per did as he was instructed and sat, slowly, on the velvet chaise at the center of the room. The world had stopped spinning quite so much, but the pounding in his head was still going strong. It was in a counter-rhythm to his heartbeat, which made him woozy.
Chester gave him some aspirin and a cup of warm water.
‘It’s better warm, trust me.’
Chester stood anxiously over him while Per held the empty glass and stared down at the carpet.
‘Should I . . . take my shoes off ?’ Per asked.
‘No, you’re fine. Actually, if it’s not a hassle.’
Per laughed. Then he pulled his shoes off and set them neatly by the coffee table. Chester had already done the same, probably out of habit. And he’d been politely standing there while Per kept his shoes on, not saying anything.
‘Did something happen to your hand?’
Per looked back at the bandage.
‘Oh, yes. I cut myself with the box cutter earlier.’
‘Rough day,’ Chester said.
Per lifted his hand and examined it against the backdrop of the city. His throat was dry. For some reason, looking at his hand while his head hurt made him want to cry.
‘Can I lie down for a moment?’ Per asked.
Per turned on his side and curled up on the chaise. It smelled like cedar wood. He pressed his face against the velvet.
‘I’m sorry I made a loud noise in your bar. I wasn’t trying to be disruptive.’
‘You weren’t. It’s Anil.’
‘Why do you let him act that way to you?’
‘What way is that?’
Per had turned his head and could now see Chester watching him from the floor with an amused expression.
‘I think you know what I mean. He is mean to you. Did you do something to him?’
‘No,’ Chester said. ‘ Well. Yes, long ago, I did something awful to him.’
Chester sighed loudly. ‘Do you want some more water?’
‘No,’ Per said. ‘But can you tell me what you did?’
Chester leaned back on his hands and looked up. Per reached down and squeezed his foot. He was warm, this man, and firm. Chester looked at him, a little shocked, but then something softer came into his eyes.
‘He wanted me to love him in a way that I couldn’t. And I knew I couldn’t. But I slept with him anyway. For a long time.’
‘Oh, he’s gay,’ Per said.
‘Yes,’ Chester said, nodding. ‘But that’s not really what I did to make him this way.’ His face was red, and he was again looking away from Per. This time, out the window at the building across the street, into its open, golden window where two people sat at a small table making dinner.
‘What did you do?’ Per squeezed his foot firmly. Chester groaned.
‘Well, it made me so miserable, I went on a really bad coke bender and left him on a spring break trip to Aruba. Like. I left him there.’
‘Oh,’ Per said. ‘Oh wow.’
Chester nodded slowly, his foot switching back and forth so that his toe grazed the inside of Per’s palm.
‘The funny thing is, he was totally understanding. Like, when he came back, he just said, Okay. And I went to rehab.’ Chester closed his eyes tight and held still for a moment. His voice was cracked and raspy when he spoke again. ‘The funny thing is. You’re not going to believe this. But he wrote me letters. Not, like, sexy letters. But he wrote me these really funny letters. And at first, I really, really, really didn’t want to read them. I threw them away. But this one doc at the rehab saved them and about a week, two weeks in, he gives them to me. These letters. And I read them and they are so funny and earnest and I don’t know. Sometimes you just. Need to know someone out there is thinking of you, I guess.’
Per’s eyes got warm and he put his face against the velvet of the chaise again.
‘Do you feel that way sometimes?’
Per did not answer. He kept his face flat to the chaise and then he felt Chester’s hand against the nape of his neck and then the middle of his shoulders. He did not want Chester to see that his eyes were wet, but then he might ruin the velvet so he turned his head and Chester was looking down at him. He was on his knees, rubbing Per’s back.
‘Me too,’ Chester said, then he sat with his back to the chaise. ‘I’ll just sit here a while with you. If that’s okay.’
Per was not sure how long they sat there. Eventually, the pain in his head subsided. Some of the vividness returned to the world. And he was able to sit up. Then Chester joined him on the chaise and they sat there, Chester’s head tilted over the back of the sofa and Per trying to sit as upright as possible. Chester told him about Harvard and about rehab and about failing to stay sober and about Anil and about second rehab, this time in California. They talked for a little while, but then Per got dizzy and Chester’s phone kept buzzing. He excused himself to take the call in the bedroom and Per lay back down with his arm over his eyes, trying to quell the sense of whirring motion all around him.
He might have gone home, but the couple were eating dinner with some of their friends and would need the living room for most of the night. He might read in a cafe or go to another bar, maybe walk through the park since the weather was so warm.
‘I don’t think you can be left alone,’ Chester said. ‘I think you maybe ought to go to the hospital. You might be concussed.’
‘I’m okay,’ Per said. ‘I can just –’
But then it was clear to him that there was no place for him to go. Other people had places. Other people had other people. That was not a part of his fate. Per stood and walked to the window. His knees felt firmer than earlier, that was good.
‘You should just stay here,’ Chester said. ‘You can, you know. I don’t have to be downstairs. I can stay up here. Your friends have left.’
‘They aren’t my friends,’ Per said, but then, looking at the bandage Siva had wrapped around his hand, he felt guilty. ‘No, they are.’
‘Stay,’ Chester said. ‘And if you barf, we’ll go to Urgent Care.’
Per sat as he was told to sit. And he held his breath and waited to see if he felt like barfing. He didn’t. He felt heavy and slow, but absent the urge to void his stomach. Chester sat next to him.
‘The restaurant is busy tonight, but it’s okay. I’ve got my mobile command center. Are you feeling okay? Need some food? More water?’
‘More water, maybe?’ Per asked.
Chester got him another large glass of warm water, which Per enjoyed, to his surprise. He was Southern and therefore accustomed to cold water. Chester said the warmth helped digestion.
‘That makes sense,’ Per said. He leaned back and closed his eyes. Again, he was struck by the thought of the Goya painting, the ghostly yellow and white, the grimy brown bleeding in out of the dark. And again that image of all of them pointing their fingers at each other, a chain of violence terminating in Chester whose crime was being rich. He was scrolling his phone now, biting the edge of his thumb. Per watched, and then when Chester noticed, he looked at him openly.
It was a disarming expression, totally receptive, without any hostility at all.
‘Are all sober people like you?’
‘I hope not,’ Chester said.
‘It’s a little unnerving. Normally, I’m the one who unnerves people.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I’m,’ Per started. ‘I’m like. I mean, you notice how I am.’
‘No,’ Chester said. ‘Not really.’
‘I don’t always handle people well. Or they don’t handle me well. I find it hard to know what to say or do or to hide that I don’t know what to say or do.’
‘Oh,’ Chester said. ‘So you’re totally normal.’
Per prickled, looked away. In the corner of the room, a slender golden lamp with a spherical shade.
‘I don’t think that’s true. I don’t need it to be true. I’m just. Myself. And sometimes I can’t really. Mesh with people. They confuse me.’
‘I’m sorry. I was being glib. I didn’t mean it that way. I find it hard to speak to people sometimes without making a joke.’
Per’s doctor said that jokes were a way to relieve the repression of difficult things and to sublimate those things into pleasure. They were an attempt at mastery.
‘I’m bad at jokes,’ Per said.
‘No you’re not.’
‘You’re so funny,’ Per said.
Chester’s face reddened again. ‘Yeah, whatever. Flattery, flattery.’
‘I mean, sure, but it’s true. You’re funny. I like your jokes.’
‘Have you even heard my jokes?’
‘In the bar, you said thank you for your discretion. I thought that was funny.’
‘You didn’t laugh.’
‘I did. Internally.’
Chester laughed. Per rested his head against the back of the settee. He wanted to close his eyes very badly, but he didn’t. Chester got in close and also leaned his head back. They were looking at each other. Chester lifted a hand up and touched the soft space under Per’s lower lip. The contact was warm, electric. They were not friends. They were not even really acquaintances. They were just two people in a room somewhere in the whole vast world of seemingly like temperament. They were leaning there looking at each other, now Chester touching Per’s lip with his rough thumb and their faces coming nearer. Per held his breath. Chester kissed him. A little bit of animal tenderness, and then Per’s lips opening and the slick warm wet of Chester’s tongue and then they were kissing fully.
But then the movement jostled Per’s head and the pain came back sudden and brutal, and he leaned forward and threw up between his knees.
At Urgent Care they sent him to the emergency room. Per lay in the bed on his side. His mouth was sour and his stomach was roiling. His head throbbed under the lights. The doctor had seen him and checked him over and thought he looked fine but definitely had a concussion and should schedule a follow-up with his proper doctor later in the week. In the meantime he needed observation. Chester told the doctor that he’d be on it.
Chester asked the doctor how long before Per could sleep, should he be allowed to shower, to drink, to watch TV, and more. He asked the doctor informed questions that made Per feel stupid and slow. Then, when he was discharged at three in the morning, they stood on the sidewalk. It had finally gotten cold. Chester got a car for them and Per leaned his head against the cool glass.
When they returned to Chester’s apartment, they were greeted by the smell of Per’s vomit. Chester wedged some windows open and stood by while Per showered. And then climbed sorely into bed. At each step, he insisted that he was fine. That he was okay. And at each step, Chester said that it was okay, he didn’t mind, not to worry. In the end, Chester got frustrated and held Per down and said, ‘Just let me be nice to you. Okay? You can pay me back later. Just relax.’
Per lay down. He thought about what his doctor would say. That not understanding why a person was doing something did not mean they were concealing some evil motive.
‘You have to learn to trust people, Per. Not everyone wants to hurt you.’
Under Chester’s blankets, Per turned to look at him. He reached out and took Chester’s hand and he said, ‘You aren’t trying to hurt me, are you?’
Chester laughed. ‘No, Per. No I’m not.’
Photograph © Ksenia Mikhailova, Untitled, 2022