By Alan Semrow
Just like the night before I flew out the year prior, the cat pawed at my feet every hour on the hour, as if to say, “I know I haven’t paid you much mind, but tonight that changes.”
In the morning, I rolled to my side, acknowledged the hangover, and winced at the cat, seated beside me all comfortable and innocent.
“You’re fucking with me.”
I stood from the bed, stumbled into the kitchen—hair shooting into the air—grabbed a mug that read “UW Mom” from the cupboard, and poured the coffee Greta had so graciously prepared into it.
She’s a keeper, Greta. After what happened that afternoon, I kind of wish you’d gotten to meet her. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have the picture on the wall.
As had become habit, I took my first cup of coffee out onto the balcony, along with a pack of Marlboro Menthols, my phone, and Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran. The story of Malone and Sutherland and all the other characters around them, it was starting to deeply affect the way I looked at the people that came into my life, for however brief (sometimes, for whatever reason, it really matters).
Blowing a stream of smoke into the dry summer air, ashing all over myself, the book, and the carpet below, I pondered how a person might choose to spend their final day.
It’d been a hell of a time—like all the years before, I went into it telling Greta, “This is going to be the gayest week of your life!” Mostly, that went without saying, but she’d been a trooper through it all. She stood by as I made out with men in highly inconspicuous places like the middle of the park in broad daylight, or the entrance of a neon-lit gay bar. She made no fuss about how it took me two hours to “get ready” in her bathroom before going out that one night. She laughed when I got sick on the sidewalk after brunch and far too many grapefruit mimosas.
To her, I was the “Wild Child.” To me, she was the “Daddy.”
Reading through the carefully crafted, devastating lines of Dancer from the Dance, that’s when I first caught a hint of those sounds. My eyes fell back to the glass sliding door. There stood the cat, paw up, batting at the door. I stuck my tongue out at the cat and refocused—just to make sure I was hearing this correctly.
Yes, right from under me, it was the neighbors—the delicate (maybe not so delicate?) moaning of man and woman, going at it on a Tuesday morning like their life depended on it. I guess you could say I was humored, but also in the midst of feeling a lot of other things (it was clear they enjoyed each other’s company). I closed the book, lit another cigarette, and thumbed my phone on.
And that’s when I saw you on the Grid, faithful stranger.
As the woman climaxed and echoed out into the seemingly vacant neighborhood, I said to you, “Hello.”
At first, you had a lot of questions, which I welcomed because it made me feel at ease. On my final day, I could trust you, couldn’t I? We’d fall into something and then let the other go back to his life.
You said, “It’s a shame you’re not from here. It’d be nice to have something regular.”
Words, they were, but also words I wasn’t so used to. Thank you for being real with me.
You snuck off from work for me, taking an extended lunch break. I met you in the front lobby. Our eyes met as I closed in on the glass door to the building. To say I was wildly attracted to you would be an understatement, to say I could sense that you were nervous would also be an understatement. First instinct was to grab your tattooed arm and then hold the door.
Hello, Mr. You.
The cat scattered to the bedroom the moment she realized one unfamiliar man had now become two unfamiliar men. I sat on the bed Greta had set up in the living room—the one she planned to discard after my visit—probably for the better.
You told me about your life before moving here (fellow Midwesterner—many times, you’d visited the city where I lived). You told me about your Pride weekend. I told you about mine. We sat with the space between our conversation. I could have said it, something about the tingle running through my fired-up body—it was hard to play pretend with you.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I knew it was going to happen, but something in me sensed that it was going to happen before it actually did. It might have been when I started digging my hand harder and harder into your bicep, when your breath against my skin began beating heavier and heavier. Or maybe it was that point toward the end when we kept each other’s gaze for what felt like an hour, staring into it like a bottomless hole.
This will end and both men will go back to their lives.
We finished together. For me, it was the first time that had ever happened—it was like pushing a button and seeing the light at the same time. And maybe that’s why I found it so hard to let go of you afterwards—even though you really seriously were expected back at work.
After we dressed, you walked around the apartment in small little circles. You told me more about your life outside. You made a comment about the picture of me and Greta on the wall (“You were younger then.”). We made no mention about what we’d just experienced, but something in the room had changed. It’d be cliché to call it a familiarity that I sensed in you. But it’s safe to say my molecules had been changed. The whole year leading up to this, in a way, it was now validated.
I kissed you at the door. And then I kissed you again. And then, wait, one more. There were no promises made to meet again the next time I found myself in town or to keep in touch after my return home. Perhaps, it was because this all had been exactly perfect, and we both had, with experience, become well-aware of the fact that things typically become less perfect as more time is spent together, as two people become less and less of a mystery to each other.
By not making any promises, we could put insurance on our perfection.
After you left, I drank vodka-waters on the balcony and every once in a while, glanced back just to confirm that the cat was still there, paw up, batting at the glass door.
When Greta returned home, I was mid-nap and a bit tipsy. The word I had for her was, “Legendary.”
The words she had for me were, “You will never do that in my condo again, you asshole.”
Yes, I was a bad boy, but I couldn’t feel sorry (not today)—just this time, I couldn’t feel sorry. Instead, what I could do was listen as she lectured me on the drive to the airport. Something about you being a stranger. Something else about you being inside of me in her condo.
Outside the car with the orange suitcase in tow (the one I kept stationed in one exact location of my apartment for months after returning home—just to remind myself), I hugged her goodbye and told her it would never happen again (tehehehe).
The plane wasn’t filled to capacity. There was an empty seat between me and an elderly woman. As the sun continued to fall on me, I stared out at the pretty mountains, at everything behind them. I was headed back to my life and a lot of parts of me dreaded it. I feared that maybe one day I’d lose what I was feeling in the pit of my stomach for you.
But now—as it’s come to be true for me, these things don’t ever really need to leave. Sure, they can fade and lose some of the initial sheen. But they can stay as long as you choose to let them. And, I guess, this serves to say that over many occasions now, I’ve chosen to let them stay.
As the plane taxied and began to hurry faster, faster, faster down the runway, I listened closely as Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times” blew through my ears, growing into that huge climax with the violent guitars and banging orchestra. It was at take-off, as me and the plane shot into the gorgeous sky, that those two little tears made their way down my face.