Chukwu talked me into it. He talked me into shit. On the first page of the summer of my second decade, we sat in the front of his graying Corolla, lounging, tuned to the siren of an indefatigable season, his last in town, and my first under the delusion that I could make Something Happen. Eventually I’d fall for one boy and say goodbye to another; one of them mutually, neither of them congruently, both of them warmly, malignantly, as if I’d set out with some rogue angel’s permission to do a very bad thing. I did not know this would happen at the time.
“Three months,” he said, “Pulling’s easy like boosting a tire. Slipping a lock.”
I told him we were on completely different pages.
“Shit’s in the same book,” said Chukwu, “So not really.”
We’d just left a shallow luncheon in a molding hotel, to sign what I’d been assured were essential documents. But I’d only gone because I was hungry. Like malnourished. Chukwu and I had rounded out the listless finale of our ongoing Starvation Piece, relying on acquaintances, acquaintances’ parents, and acquaintances’ parents’ parties to fulfill a recommended caloric intake. Most of the acquaintances were Chuk’s. I wasn’t invited to most of the parties.
A new hire sat by the end of the hors d’oeuvres, passing out clipboards. He looked like the guy delivering your pizza probably sounded: scruffy and slouched with impossibly messy hair, lost in a too-big Bright Eyes tee.
I’d heard that band. They’d kept me company.
I took four of everything, one of the clipboards, a second to linger. Six seconds. He looked up.
I didn’t get his name, which I chalked up to his not wearing a nametag. Getting names was my summer project.
Chukwu’s plans were less pliable. He’d already applied to grad schools. Seven of them. None of which were in Houston. From the face he made when I asked why the distance, you’d think I’d inquired the diameter of the moon.
“Distance,” he figured, “Makes the heart an easy fuck.”
Or something like that.
His departure asked a lot of the organ: every girl in the Bayou batting an eye earned a house call. Rich or poor. Black or Not Black. If the car took him to her place, he’d take her the rest of the way. And I made for satisfactory accompaniment. His libido-less Watson. A dark-haired Weasley, bumbling and rummaging and eternally free for the evening.
Those first few weeks I lived in living rooms. Poking at portraits and biting my nails. The families in the photos stood red and smiling. Daddy in architect’s glasses. Mom in a cardigan. The girl, very nearly always blonde, stood smiling, as bright at age five as she glowed in her twenties, or at least looking it, mixing Coke with liquor with Chuk in the kitchen.
She usually had a friend, and she usually wore glasses. We occupied the sofa. Texting imaginary acquaintances. Glancing up occasionally to sigh. Our inner monologues were always the same:
Men, despite their occasional acquiescences in the affirmative, are immitigable assholes, they’d think.
Correct, I’d nod, Men, despite their occasional acquiescences in the affirmative, are immitigable assholes.
And I’d pat their hands and crack their brews until Chukwu proved us right.
Wherever he went—Shiner in one hand, paramour in another—I followed. Happy for the company. The luckiest boy in the frat-house comedy. I’d grown accustomed to my bubble; fit it all with all manner of cushions and plush, with some paint for the walls, some cable for the stay.
But Chukwu assured me that this time it’d be different.
He’d scored me a job at the hotel for the break, from some girl he’d known named Shakita. Or Shwarma. It covered room and board, under the assumption that we juggle paperwork, property, constituents.
“You”, he declared, “will do the rest”.
He slapped the dashboard when he said it, willing the prophecy true.
We’d known each other for all of two years, about seven hundred days, and while I may not have taken a bullet or sat on a landmine or served as a taste tester for his inimitable regime, I’d have certainly found someone to do these things for him.
I met him at another job. Glorified babysitting. Chukwu showed up early because, as he put it, it’s hard enough being the black guy on staff without becoming The Black Guy on staff. I’d shown up early because I have no fucking sense of direction. And I hadn’t known what to wear. I’d decided on sweatpants, sandals, and an Astros sweater.
He donned black tie. His hair rose cavernously, sharp as a caveman’s. A lopsided grin stained his lips. Tipsy, even then.
When Jimi Hendrix crashed London in 1966, journalists deemed him “The Wild Man of Borneo.”
When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, his teammates said they’d rather sit.
John Henry raced a steam-powered hammer, with his own hammer, in a competition to prove his worth, or maybe his strength, or maybe just to hold the shining green banner of masculinity over his head, briefly, while his other hand clutched the tool’s wooden handle. And he won. He beat a steam-powered hammer. Then he died.
In the two or nine instances I’d heard Chuk’s name, you’d think he’d found a new note on the piano. Chukwu had bedded so and so’s sister. Chukwu had bedded so and so’s sister’s friend. And then again. Both. Simultaneously.
I stooped against a wall and did my best to smile.
Chukwu asked, not unkindly, what the fuck I was doing.
Which is as good a way to meet someone as any.
Not once, over the course of our acquaintance, did I hear him apologize, to anyone, for anything, ever. I’d remember. I was there. Silently, at first. But eventually, after months of rehearsing, I spoke up. And he listened. Or did his best to.
What’s important isn’t that hadn’t turned me away, but that other people saw that he hadn’t turned me away. His friends logged it into the public record, italicized in parentheses beneath his credentials.
People started asking me to relay messages, invitations, solicitations. They just assumed I knew where he was. They assumed, despite all visible social evidence, that we were matching furniture ends.
Once, a hooded brunette called me Fuckhead to my face. She told me to pass it on.
When I got around to doing that, Chukwu didn’t even look up from his phone.
“Does it bother you?” he asked.
To which you could either tell the truth, or say nothing.
So that’s what we were.
The next closest thing had been years ago. Like ten. With a boy in the fifth grade, dark-haired and pale, Scotty or Stevie or Nicholas or Travis.
He’d shared his lunch once. That was my In. A sandwich and crackers. We sat and ate lunch and kicked ant hives into oblivion, and one night, on the bunk above his, I sat up and I thought, Fuck.
In the morning we had cereal. They didn’t have milk. We sat in shorts and no shoes. He was slow spoken and tired. Our toes swung from the chairs, and we smiled across the table, as if we were the same.
Bright Eyes’ name was Marcus. I found him slapping his laptop on my first day. This was a part of my pledging to be a better person, speaking to someone who hadn’t spoken to me first.
“It usually works,” he said, pointing at the screen. “It was working a minute ago.”
“Well, I’m useless. You should probably call someone.”
“And invalidate my heritage?” said Marcus. “Get the fuck out.”
He’d landed the position in March. He’d wanted something abroad, but they hadn’t wanted him.
“At least this way,” he said, “I’ll make a little money.”
I glanced once at his face, and then once again. Couldn’t decide who he looked like.
“We don’t really get paid for this,” I said, after a while. “I mean, a place is your pay.”
“Zero’s a number too.”
He had the face of a refugee who’d expected better. Dirty shoes and fluttering hands and eyes as sharp as a knife on a phallus.
We sat in swivel seats behind the desk. We wore nametags, button downs, and belts matching our shoes. He downed a handful of chips. When he asked me how I’d gotten the job, I told him.
“That guy’s a piece of shit,” said Marcus.
“Well,” I said.
“No,” said Marcus. “He’s pretty shitty.”
“Sure,” I said. “But you don’t really know him.” I wanted to add that, even if he did, that even if he came, in time, to see in Chuk the same fire I saw, sometimes, whenever he allowed me to, whenever I allowed myself to, it wouldn’t have mattered, because he couldn’t have held it, because the pressure would have set him aflame. But I didn’t.
“It sounds like you two get on well.”
“You can do that in small doses,” I said.
“Not always,” said Marcus. “Not usually.”
Then he frowned, folding both arms and a leg.
“Or not,” he shrugged, “Everybody’s got their agenda.”
Our hotel catered to children and idiots. The campus it fell on was sleepier than it should’ve been. Just students lazing through summer credits, professors in sandals.
Chukwu worked mornings. I had nights. He habitually struggled with hangovers, while I couldn’t stay awake for shit. Whatever company he’d negotiated the evening before walked him to the lobby before his shift.
In this way, I was reintroduced to Chuk’s World of Women.
Deeming him shameless dodges the point entirely. The girls in his life made up half-days of the week. He drawled numbers from the tombs of endearment.
Monday fetched his bread and coffee. Tuesday took the Corolla for an inspection. Thursday came the closest to bucking his parameters, juxtaposing her frown from his coos and caws, but like a mountain wanting only to smolder slowly, she eventually took to sewing his hoodies, re-lacing his shoes.
He carried himself like a warhorse or a dragon.
My first actual conversation with him had something to do with books.
I don’t know how it happened. Somebody’s birthday. We’d found ourselves on opposite sofas, legs crossed like Soviet diplomats. Chukwu had sworn his allegiance to Jules Verne, while I sat vaguely surprised he could read.
“Because it’s a journey, right?” he’d explained. “You’ve got this guy, by himself, and nobody expects him to do this thing that he’s doing, because nobody’s done it before. This guy in this boat. I don’t even know his name. Captain something. Nemo. Shit doesn’t matter. Anyways, you’ve got this guy, and he’s spotted this monster—big fucking octopus thing—and nobody else wants to tackle it. Godzilla in the water. Mothra. But an octopus. And they’re like, fuck it. It’s a sea monster. Nobody wants to fuck with a sea monster. You don’t want that in your life.”
Clearly wasted, with a fist on his chin, the other hand gesticulated. Our cushions were green and stained. A minor huddle developed around us, enveloping a constellation. No one egged him on. No one coughed.
“But this guy,” said Chukwu. “Nemo, this captain, he’s a man about it. With balls. Like, I know what you are. I know what you’ve done. I know what you’ll do to me. But he pursues it anyways, in spite of all that shit, because that’s his prerogative. His fucking prerogative. You’ve got to follow that shit.”
I told him I hadn’t read it.
It was another few weeks before we saw each other again, on an intersecting crosswalk adjacent to a business school. He was dressed for work, with female accompaniment.
She wore a black dress. He introduced her as Tina, his fiancé, and it made her smile.
“You read that shit yet?”
It took me a minute.
He reached in his bag, this maimed koala of a thing. Tina and I watched him rummage on the sidewalk. We’d formed a polar triangle, a stain on the pavement, and she winked at me as she leaned over his shoulder. She felt for a pocket, the only one he hadn’t perused. Extracted a spineless hardcover. It could’ve been a game they played, Tina the Beauty with Chukwu her Beast, and when he kissed her on the lips someone should’ve yelled “Cut!” Someone should’ve clapped. He shoved the script at me.
“Homework,” he said.
Marcus and I smoked cigarettes after work. The hotel had a roof. We had the key. It was late enough in the evening for your breath to linger, and if you leaned over the ledge you could see the draft of a skyline. Someone’s always working in a skyscraper in Houston, and there’s no sense in wondering when the lights will go out. They won’t. But it makes for something to wonder when what you’re wondering’s still suspect, and we went on wondering if, or at least when, until one night Marcus stepped on a footfall and proceeded to straddle the ledge.
I pretended he hadn’t. Then he extended his arms.
“It’s cool,” he said, “I’ve got balance.”
“Said everyone that’s everyone fallen.”
Rather than move, he reached for another cigarette.
“How about a question,” he said.
“Shoot,” I said.
“Would you date another black guy?”
It was how our conversations progressed. We’d start with general observations, before we moved into a looser quiz format. The Wheel of Fuck Knows.
I made a point of making faces. He’d perfected a French inhale.
We talked about the weather and we talked about Radiohead and we talked about AIDS and sometimes our parents.
He’d told me how his mother, who was Korean, and his father, who wasn’t, threatened immediate deportation when he’d raised the issue of attraction. Korea, he explained, was somewhere he had no intention of going. I relayed the report of that week’s Jamaican martyr, a son who’d been set on fire by his father. The kid had been trying on makeup. It took a little while for a neighbor to call the cops, a little while longer for them to put him out.
In this way, we came to our own conclusions.
“You’re speaking in hypotheticals.”
“It was a hypothetical question.”
A door slammed somewhere below us. We both jumped.
I told him anything was possible, the Spanish Inquisition, Obama. I added that Marcus wasn’t black.
“Nope,” he said, “I guess that’s true.” He made as if to stand.
I caught his wrist and he laughed and I said it wasn’t funny. I said I wouldn’t even feel bad if he fell.
But May came and May went and the invincible summer limped on.
June sculpted something like a routine. I met Chukwu in the mornings, willed away the afternoons, spent my evenings blowing smoke rings with Marcus. The hotel coerced a steady clientele. We had rooms to stay in, and food to eat. Most of it was edible.
Some middle-aged drunk crooned the song of the summer. The dates became as indeterminable as his lyrics. Habit became routine. Routine pretended at permanence. I called my mother, leaned on food trucks, and thought about getting a haircut. Two weeks into July it became unavoidable, and what had been a conservative afro became immoderately savage.
Chukwu offered to take me to get one, and then to find someone to come to me, and then to give me one himself, all of which I declined, until he came crashing into a tenant and I, one day, in front of the lobby, knocking the both of us over, with this big fucking grin on his face. He said enough was enough. He’d taken to another girl with family out East, absolving me from my tenure of designated driving. I’d taken to spending evenings with Marcus, smoking on the curb or throwing rocks across the pavement or sometimes just sitting, saying nothing.
So we’d seen less of each other.
After Much Deliberation, the University of Tampa had accepted his application for their school of business. It left him with a little money to spend. He didn’t chip for gas, never paid for dates (“For the looks on their faces when the bill comes”). Eventually, it just made sense to let him drag me to a barbershop.
After the cut (where I asked for a Caesar, and was asked to Try Again) we idled through the neighborhood sitting behind it. He may as well have dropped us in Tatooine.
Chuk was bald. He’d skipped on the tip.
He asked if I wanted to see something. We slipped down a road no different from the one before. We parked by a house no different from the ones afterwards. He put the Corolla at idle and sank.
It was on this road, or maybe one just like it, that we’d had our talk the year prior.
We knew each other well enough by then. He’d launched into a treatise on Tina, who’d suggested they take a break, and wasn’t that a terrible thing, where did she even get that kind of nerve, honestly, like, whose fucking soap opera, who was her teacher, and when the opening didn’t present itself I said, “Shucks, well, this probably wasn’t the best time to come out to you.”
He’d stopped the car.
“Come out of what?”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to run.
“Well,” I said. “A metaphorical closet, I guess.”
The Corolla idled. We’d parked in a very rough neighborhood.
“What the fuck does that have to do with her?” he asked.
I opened my mouth. Then I closed it.
“It doesn’t,” I said.
And that’s another thing, he started, she was always interrupting him, with twelve degrees of bullshit, like she thought he didn’t care, and he started the car and the engine jumped and we blew through a stop sign.
Now we sat on that road. He looked at me, and he grinned, and he asked me if I remembered.
And I opened my mouth. And I closed it again.
On the fourth of July, two days after our nation’s bloody separation, to the tune of a high school marching band beneath a poorly cooked sky, Marcus and I saw the parade from an overcrowded curb, between a mass of mismatched shoes, downing French fries heavy with mayonnaise, and I accidentally called him Marc out loud. No clouds. Some kids were tossing a Frisbee. He just stared and stared.
“That’s not how it works,” he said, “At all. Marc’s for boyfriends. If that.”
My mouth was full, but I still apologized.
This one night with Tina on the tile of her apartment, sprawled across construction paper and paint for a project of Chuk’s. It was cold out, plants were dying, and even after Tina and I had volunteered to drive, Chuk declared his opposition to the weather, to cars, to God himself for creating both of them. So he and I cobbled some change for Chinese. When the deliveryman came, we sat a dollar short.
“So much depends, upon a red wheel barrow,” Chukwu began, dragging the bags, “Glazed with rain water, besides General Tso’s chicken.”
I’ve successfully avoided describing Tina well, if at all. It just wouldn’t be fair. She wasn’t a cheerleader, and she wasn’t a scholar, and she wasn’t exactly beautiful in the commercial way. She wasn’t anything like that. But at the same time, and this is where it gets hard, she was all of those things, without my ever being aware of it, without my ever having to be aware of it. Like what the fuck do I know.
Tina asked about his old neighborhood. He bit her ear. I mixed green and blue to make purple.
He didn’t talk about his childhood, unless he was preoccupied or fucked up or stuffed with his fiancé in his lap. He’d squint into space, murmuring. If you missed it, you’d missed it.
“Low key,” he said, “It was fucked.”
He smeared paint on her cheek to prove his point. Tina prodded him, called him an asshole, said that wasn’t supposed to happen.
He told her nothing, ever, really, was supposed to happen, shit just kind of came out on its own. Then he set his nose into her neck, and she rolled onto the construction paper, and I asked what, exactly, we were trying to accomplish.
I’d asked him, once, why he did what he did. What it really meant to be Chukwu.
It’s disgusting, I said, the things you’ve done.
It’s disgusting, he said, the things you’ll do.
In late July, Marcus and I went to the park. We sat by the fountain on the lake, watching other people watch the birds. I stubbed my ashes on the marble step between us.
When they started to spark, he grazed my cheek. I jumped.
“Whoops,” he said.
We watched some remarkably ugly ducks do their thing.
“It’s not you,” I said, after a while.
“Let me guess,” he said. “The stubble.”
The ducks barked triumphantly.
“Whenever someone says that,” said Marcus, “it’s specifically who they’re talking to. Or they’ve got twins in a trailer park somewhere.”
“I don’t have twins.”
“Touchy subject,” he said, squirming a bit. I’d never seen him do that. “But I guess that’s a little too gay for you?”
“It’s just the touching,” I said. “And it wouldn’t matter who you were. I wouldn’t go for it.”
“Right,” he said.
The crowd cleared out after a while. Families wheeled their coolers, lovers reached for limbs, and I stood and I stretched and I said we should probably get going. Marcus sat.
“To where, exactly,” he said.
I said it depended. We could grab a drink. We could drive around a bit. It made him laugh.
“You know exactly what I’m saying,” he said. “Or maybe you don’t.”
“Maybe you’re speaking in code.”
“You don’t get it,” he said. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“What I mean is that you’re dabbling. Dabble here. Dabble there. You’re a dabbler.”
I watched him rock on his ass. I watched the lake.
If I’d had a rock I would have stoned him.
“You’re fucking crazy,” I said.
“Fine,” said Marcus. “But at least I know what the fuck I want.”
“And what is that, specifically?” I asked. My face burned, and I knew he couldn’t see it. “What is it that Marcus wants that’ll make everything better?”
He took a long look at me. I wanted to make him shout, and I wanted him to make me hate him.
“That’s your problem,” he said. “It’s not about making it better. It’s never been about making it better.”
“But it might be easier for you to see it that way,” he added, smiling. “Maybe it’s easier for you to think that this is something you can’t control.”
When Tina finally left him, Chukwu drank for three months.
Everyone knew that Chuk slept around. Chuk drank and Chuk fucked and Chuk laughed it off the next morning. He laughed and he laughed, until no one felt like laughing anymore. No one could blame her.
They’d been at it for a while. Her visits became scarcer, until our only interactions fell in spades, whenever either of them was sedated enough to hold onto a curse or a glare or a shout. The last time I saw her she was on the phone.
Chukwu drank a bottle of rum. He had some more. He progressed to tequila, and then barley, and then he took to taking shots. A shot for every thought he had about her. An uninvestigated memory meant an unopened canister.
At some point, someone told me. I found him on the sofa in his apartment that evening.
He did not look strung out. He did not look bereft. He looked like the bottom of an empty mug. He shrugged when I came in, and again when I left.
Chukwu drank. He did not drive. He did not watch television. He did not sleep. I visited him when I could. Called in for food. Once, I may have paid. We watched each other chew, or I watched him watch me chew, saying little more than nothing about anything. I didn’t tuck him in, and I didn’t tie his shoes. I turned off the television. I locked the door behind me.
Sometimes I watched him sleep.
I could have kissed him then.
Not all at once. Gradually. In snippets. Until it added up. Until it showed itself for what it was. What it’d been all along.
I hated myself for that.
We never talked about it.
We haven’t talked about it.
We won’t talk about it.
I visited him when I could and eventually he stopped drinking and that is enough.
He left in August. He drove for seventeen hours, stopping eight times to pee, once to re-stabilize the television, and once again for running a light. He wouldn’t call until a week after he’d made it to Florida.
The evening prior, Marcus asked if I wanted a smoke. He’d bought an extra pack.
I said I was trying to quit.
We observed the atoms mingling on the wall of our office. It was past ten, and the place was empty.
Summer was almost over. I was headed back to my life at light-speed.
“Some job,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Marcus.
“Like, it wasn’t bad at all. I’m grateful it happened.”
“It was inordinately easy.”
“It was,” I said, “Could’ve been worse. I mean, we could’ve been in Damascus.”
My phone’s screen lit up. There wasn’t a message, just an alarm.
“Neither of us would have had any reason to be in Damascus,” said Marcus.
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“My friend’s leaving tomorrow,” I said.
“Chukwu. I heard.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
He clicked at the computer monitor between us. Nothing came up.
“It might not matter how you feel about it,” said Marcus, “It might just be some bullshit thing that’s happened.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening,” I said. “I knew it would happen, and now it is.”
The monitor’s screensaver ricocheted like an echo.
“Sometimes,” said Marcus, “That’s not exactly a bad thing.”
So Marcus and I slept together.
When I finally get to this point in the story, whoever I’m telling it to usually nods, and sighs, and informs me that it’s actually a love story, that that’s what I’ve been getting at. That is the ending. And I’ll smile, usually, because if they’ve listened to me talk about it this long, uninterrupted, that’s probably the right thing to do. There are rules, after all.
But this isn’t a love story. I don’t know what that looks like. Garcia Marquez wrote love stories. Blake and Austen and Achebe wrote love stories. Quite a few people are struck by lightning every year, and not all of them die, but they don’t all fall in love with life again afterwards.
Sometimes, you just sit and brush yourself off. You look around a bit. You go back home.
Or maybe you stay there, in the dirt, waiting for it to happen again. Knowing it probably won’t. But waiting, nonetheless.
When I woke up in the morning he’d already hit the interstate. The sun sort of bled through the window.
Marcus snores. His back rises, and then it falls, and I watched that happen for a while. I grazed his back for my phone.
One missed call, zero messages.
Chuk never left messages.
That, he’d explained, was how you got caught.
But two nights before he left, Chukwu threw a party.
He never threw parties. Chukwu attended parties, crashed parties, chewed and spat and deconstructed parties. He never gave them.
So that was big. This, I thought on the highway, is Significant.
When I finally made it to the bar, late, the line bled through the door. Taco Tuesday or some such dumbness. You couldn’t slip between tables without jostling arms, liquor splattered shoes. People smoked cigarettes and texted and did their best to look beautiful.
He didn’t turn around when I touched his shoulder at the counter, brooding over a beer and a half. He nodded towards an empty seat, asked me how I’d been, what the fuck was up.
Nothing, I said, and it was true. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
We watched his people for a while, drinking and talking. We watched them dance. After a while, he tapped my shoulder, and then we were outside, on the porch, walking down the gravel, keying into his car.
We got in, going nowhere in particular.
He’d stumbled through a motley of frequencies. The radio was off. You couldn’t hear anything but the sounds of the street. Washington Avenue, polluted with footprints. We passed McDonalds, Pappasitos, a Benjy’s, and a Sammy’s. Soma Sushi, Povolina, Candelari’s, Blue Fish. We reached the bridge across Studemont, saw most of the city as we passed. You see all of its buildings. The lights are always on.
He’d driven well out of the city before we spoke. Cowhided silhouettes would reward if you squinted. The sort of territory our state seemed so famous for. All its fucking renown. Blank space over blank land over nothing skies above us.
And yet, his foot stayed on the pedal.
And yet, I had no objections.
I’d like to say that I finally said it. The thing that could have put an end to it.
I’d like to say that he didn’t look up. That he just nodded, eyes on the road. That, in his own way, he acquiesced.
A part of me is always in that car. Going nowhere, but going.
That’s another ending. It’s not the one that makes sense, but they usually don’t.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.