A Lawless Place
Sandy K. Hereld
It’s like he doesn’t even notice me. Like he’s already left.
I’m fiddling with the doorknob, laundry basket on my knee and the soap carton about to fall—he’s completely oblivious—when I hear the phone ring. I pause clumsily, half in, half out, but he picks up and starts chatting immediately, so I shrug and head downstairs, trying not to lose socks off the top of the mound of clothes. Five minutes later, I can tell he’s still on the line as I make my way back up the steps, and trust me, I don’t need sentinel hearing for this one.
“Damn it, I need that book! I told you, I need to verify that cite.” Now I’m close enough that I can hear the other side of the conversation, faint and tinny-sounding. “We can call the U of W library, or Washington State, Blair; it’s not the end of the world.…”
I’ve still got the empty basket and the soap, and it’s a little awkward getting the door open, but I don’t bother knocking. I miss a few words, but I think I get the gist.
“...could be the end of my dissertation!” The slam of the handset rings through the loft, the high harmonics echoing in the peak of the ceiling. He storms back to his room without meeting my eyes.
I’m hungry, I decide, carefully not thinking anything else. I crash some pans around in the kitchen for a while, waiting for him to wander back out to his leaning pile of papers on the kitchen table.
He makes me wait for it, but twenty minutes later, carefully, out he comes. I grab us both beers and hand him one. “I made pasta. You hungry?” I know what the answer will be, but I have to ask.
“No, not really. Thanks.” We’re painfully polite to each other right now. To anyone else, he’s all “leave me alone,” if not “leave me the fuck alone.” Anyone can see he is a walking bundle of nerves, but I’m hiding my strain a bit more carefully. Helps that no one is looking at me. Not even him. He’s got a hair trigger these days, but despite nagging the hell out of him, I haven’t been caught in his line of fire. I wonder why I’m so lucky, but I don’t complain.
I watch him walk back into the living room and sigh. It’s only three weeks now until his dissertation defense—he can barely eat, and I don’t think he’s sleeping through the night any more. His hair is shaggy and longer than I’ve ever seen it, his eyes are shadowed and red, and he’s as thin as he was when I first met him, over four years ago.
And somehow, he’s never looked better.
Every time I see the knife-edge of his hipbone cutting through the soft denim of his 501s, or notice the hollow of his collarbone above his ratty t-shirts, I feel my breath catch in my throat. This thinness, this rattiness. It’s like all the baggage he’s added over the last four years has been pared away, leaving only the pure core of him—untouchable, but so desirable to me.
And I don’t know why. Why now?
In the past four years, I’ve mastered—doctorated?—the skill of ignoring Blair as a sexual being. Against all the odds, I’ve learned to say things like “I love you, Chief” without a single twinge. Month after month I endured, until the pain of not having became something sweet, like nostalgia for something that I’ve never done. I think there’s a word in German for that. Blair would know what it is.
I won’t deny that once in a while I still put myself to sleep by imagining Blair held against me—the frontier of sleep is a lawless place—but otherwise, I’ve let the dream go, and I don’t regret it. The door is closed. If it were going to happen, it would have, long ago. And that’s okay.
He’s pacing back and forth, muttering incomprehensibilities. I used to think, “Hey, if it’s about me, shouldn’t I understand what the fuck you’re talking about?” but I’ve let that go too. The only thing worse than not understanding stuff about me is having Blair explain stuff about me. Occasionally he stops long enough to scribble indecipherabilities onto random three-by-five cards.
I want to distract him. He desperately needs a break, whether he knows it or not, but I don’t have much to offer. It’s the off season, and he’s not a NASCAR fan, but I try, scanning ESPN 1, 2, and 3 for possible distractions. Nothing. I remember when he used to threaten me with Relaxation for Dummies, or Yoga in a Hurry; now I wish they actually existed. I cross his path with care and walk toward the kitchen, goaded into saying, “I can’t believe you’re so nervous!”
He stops, briefly. “When you’ve successfully defended your dissertation on a topic that half of your committee thinks is a myth—and the other half thinks is an out-and-out fraud—you can talk. Until then....”
I lob him a pear, smiling as he snags it. “Suicide by starvation as a way of avoiding your defense is not acceptable.”
He smiles back and takes a big bite. I watch his Adam’s apple move—defined and appearing larger than usual, light against the three-day-old stubble of his chin. He puts the pear down, and I frown, knowing that he won’t pick it back up again. But I’m not his mom. I’m not even his advisor.
I just worry and nag and... and... lust.
And feel shallow and stupid. I look at him, so tired and stressed and skinny—why is my first thought “hubba hubba”?
I’ve never thought of myself as caring that much about his appearance. The few times I’ve, ah, been with a guy, they were guys who looked a lot like me: tall, muscled. Buzz cuts, or close to it. It was the army, for Christ’s sake.
I’ve never expected him to start spending more time at the gym. He’s always had a sort of stocky strength to him that I’ve liked. He’s certainly athletic enough, especially compared to a lot of his friends at the U.
Without thinking about it, I stop and pat his shoulder on my way back to the couch. His collarbone is a sharp ridge against my hand through the worn cotton plaid. I want to trace it back to his neck, his throat, wrap my hands in his hair... I point to the stack of printouts next to the laptop and say, “Well, it looks impressive.” He makes a shooing motion, which I obey, awkwardly.
I know he thinks I’m not taking his stress seriously. I could kick myself for saying things like “It’ll be okay, you know,” or “So what if they don’t like it?” They sound patronizing, diminishing. But I say them anyway, more for me than for him, apparently.
And isn’t that the way so much of his life is? More for me than for him?
Frankly, I worry that his defense means more to him because it will prove something to me than because it’s his research. He thinks... well, he thinks some asinine things. He knows I don’t want to go public. But he’s sure that if people know such things as sentinels exist, it will make it easier for me. He wants sentinel powers validated, so I can never again wonder if I’ve really just lost my fucking mind.
And so that I’ll have something to show my father—see, it’s okay, I’m not a freak.
He doesn’t know how hopeless that fight is, but I have to love him for trying.
He once said, “Sentinel powers aren’t something you have; they’re something you are.” At the time, I was too mad to listen, but I have sentinel memory now, and nothing quite disappears anymore.
Loving Blair isn’t something I do, it’s something I am. I can no longer remember it being any other way.
v v v v v v
Rolling over in bed, I recognize vaguely that it’s very late. He’s been typing in the living room since before I went to bed. I’ve been restless tonight, and I can tell all of my dreams have been attempts by my Sandburg-abused brain to make sense of the erratic clicking noises: images of wind-blown branches in a forest tearing at my empty tent; rats on a ship chittering and scurrying as they try to leave; bombs ticking as they run down to zero. In this dream, I’m lucid enough to think, ‘now it sounds more like talking,’ and I slowly wake and realize he is talking. He’s on the phone at—I lift the newspaper from where it’s fallen onto the clock radio—three twenty-seven a.m. And from the half of the conversation I let myself listen to, he’s talking to a librarian somewhere in Australia.
After some profuse-sounding thanks, he hangs up the phone and sits back down at his laptop. “Why can’t you be like a normal roommate and call sex lines?” I call down to him.
He just laughs and says, “Go back to sleep. I promise I’ll be quieter.”
I don’t want him to be quieter. I had a dream a couple of nights ago that he kept losing weight until he disappeared entirely. And the smaller he got, the tighter I clutched, until I made one great lunge for him, and he slipped through my hands and disappeared altogether.
I haven’t read this latest version of the dissertation—he hasn’t offered it. As much as possible, we don’t talk about it—it’s our own personal elephant in the living room. I don’t think there’s a section on my dreams, though.
With him on the couch just beneath me, it’s a bad night for my before-sleep Sandburg indulgence, so I toss and turn a little. Next thing I know, I’m younger too, and I’m on a blown-up bridge, full of cars and emergency vehicles and smoke, but the sky is blue, bright blue—all the colors are very vivid, and Blair’s there—of course he’s there in ragged jeans and I’m walking away from him, and he’s staring at me and gesturing and he finally gives in and runs to me. And even in my sleep, I think it’s a memory but I can’t be sure, and when the alarm goes off, my face is wet and I have no idea why.
v v v v v v
After that, the morning’s a bitch. I’m getting ready for work, but I’m not hungry, and for once I realize I can quietly leave without grabbing anything. For four years, breakfast hasn’t really been optional. He makes his vile shake (on school days), or dirties half the kitchen making pancakes (on weekends), all the while nagging me about the virtues of a good start to the day. But the kitchen’s been a very quiet place recently. I hear him muttering in his room, something about “status hierarchies” and “the self-versus-other problem for a sentinel,” but I tune out everything except the timbre and rhythm of his voice, and sit down on the couch for a minute. I’m dressed. I’m ready to go, but I’ve saved five minutes by not eating, and I’m sitting here, and I’m remembering thinking, “If it were going to happen, it would have, long ago,” and I’m thinking, what the fuck did I mean by that?
How did I think it would just happen? Magic, maybe? I stretch my arms across the back of the couch in faux TV-watching mode, ignoring the ticking of the clock. Did I think he’d make all the moves? Why?
I’ve dated I don’t know how many women in the last four years, and I pretty much made the first move in every case—okay, sure, maybe they made it clear they wanted me to make that move. Was I waiting for him to make that move, or the move? It’s 7:12 in the morning, he’s less than ten feet away from me, and I’m reviewing every date I’ve made in the last year for subtleties I have never understood in the first place. I snag my gun off the coffee table and head out, calling, “See you tonight.” He grunts back something even sentinel hearing can’t decipher, but I listen to him mutter to himself until I’m half a mile down the road.
v v v v v v
Today, I’m at work for eleven hours, and I come home and he’s sitting on the identical place on his bed, wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Laura—an old friend of his who was ABD even longer than Blair has been—told me yesterday, “You think this is bad. Wait until after the defense. They’ve even got a name for it—‘postpartum.’ You’ve birthed something, and you have to recover.”
She says—get this—there are even students who have written their dissertations on what it’s like to finish your dissertation. Sounds like virgins writing about sex, to me, but nothing about grad school makes sense; least of all why people put themselves through it.
I’m standing here staring at him—again—and thinking it’s been a long difficult birth, and if I extend the metaphor to the breaking point, the real question now is—does he keep the baby, or put it up for adoption? Okay, that’s ridiculous, and I start to laugh, and he looks up and smiles at me, just for a second, and I stop laughing and just breathe and I’m still staring at him and he’s long since gone back to his typing while I just breathe in and out until I’m over the urge to walk over there and throw the laptop to the floor and do everything I’ve ever thought of doing to him. Breathe.
He gives me a funny look and gets up off his bed. I’m wondering shower, hoping kitchen, but he just starts fiddling with the printer—new cartridge or some such.
I start cooking—gotta keep trying to guilt him into some calories—but I can’t help keeping an eye on him. It could be as simple as fear. That this is the last chance. That once the dissertatiký‡is finally finished, whoosh, he’s gone. Four years of pent-up urges to fly away and be free suddenly surrendered to. I know he says that this is about friendship. I believe him. I’m not saying all I am to him is a research subject—even I finally get that, but….
v v v v v v
He’s rubbing the end of his pencil back and forth over his lower lip. He’s been doing it off and on since dinner. I’m supposedly watching an old western, but I’m finding him more interesting.
He puts the pen down and looks up. “How much can you bench-press?”
“What?” I heard him. It’s a perfectly innocuous question. But he’s got the dissertation draft in front of him, and I can’t help thinking of all the people who will read it.
“You heard me.”
My chest tightens. I don’t want to fight. We’ve been so careful to only fight with other people. But this is not an innocent question. If he’s taught me anything in the last four years, it’s that context is everything. “You don’t want to know my G.P.A. in college? Bet it was higher than yours.” Wow, I’ve never said that before, and I’m feeling about fourteen, but suddenly I’m sure I’m right. Blair’s as erratic as he is brilliant, and god knows he bores easily. And how much do you want to bet he’s never even considered the possibility?
“It’s just to flesh out the description in the beginning,” he says, punching the word ‘flesh,’ trying to lighten things up.
“Heh, heh.” I don’t so much laugh as validate his pun. “You let me read what you’ve got in that section—it’s just description, right?—and I’ll tell you.”
Prove you trust me enough not to need to look goes head to head with Prove you care about me more than it. Back in the ring, together again for the first time. He’s breathing hard, his fingers clenched into the edge of the sofa pillow. I’m staring at the television as if I’m watching, but I wouldn’t fool a blind man.
But neither of us have raised our voices. We’ve been down this road—nearly crashed on it. We know how steep the drop-off is, how sharp the curves are.
“I guess I don’t really need it—don’t want them thinking of you as a hulking mountain of man-meat.” Blair fakes a punch and I block it absently. “I’m more drawing you as just a guy with a gift.”
“Three hundred and five pounds, at the moment,” I say, thinking “just a guy,” and start flipping channels. I don’t say anything more as he scribbles it down, and I try not to consider who won or who lost.
I also try not to think about fear-based decision making. It feels like I’m not making any sort of decisions at all here.
v v v v v v
He’s gone to bed, and his light’s off, but his breath is getting less even, not more so. If he follows his recent pattern, he’s about to turn on the light and scribble whatever thought just occurred to him. I asked him once if these ideas still made sense in the morning, and he stared at me incredulously as he said, “Well, yeah!”
Nope, I’m wrong, his breath is getting heavier, with that little hitch to it that says he’s falling asleep.
If I wanted to, I could piggyback my sight onto my hearing and watch him. It’s dark, but not too much for sentinel sight. His room at night is no mystery to me now—dim but clear, lit as if from within. And from a floor above, and around several corners, I can lie here in bed and look at him. A miracle, some might say, and I might agree.
As long as I concentrate on the sound of his breath, I can see him; he looks almost close enough to touch. I close my eyes, but I’ve dialed up and his breath is loud in my ears, like every night, like he’s in bed next to me, like I should be able to roll over and touch him. I open my eyes again and trace his cheekbones, partially obscured by his hair and the pillow, and wonder, does he know I do this? I swallow hard and stop piggybacking my sight. In the aftermath I’m blind for a moment, and I can’t help thinking Blair would think that was a metaphor or something.
What good are sentinel senses, with no additional gray matter to interpret them?
In the dark I stare at the stains on the ceiling, but I still see Blair sleeping, like he’s been burned on my retina. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the thinness, the wildness makes Blair look so much more like he did four years ago. Maybe my heart somehow thinks a reset button has been pushed, that somehow I’ve been offered another chance?
His breath catches and he rolls over and turns the light back on. Wrong again, Ellison. I could hear the pen scratching on his notepad if I dialed up enough. Must have been a short thought; the light’s already off again.
I guess he hears me punch the pillow trying to get comfortable. He calls up, “You okay up there?”
I swallow hard over the lump in my throat, and blow him a raspberry.
He laughs. “Am I going to have to come up there and tuck you in?”
With a silly thump of hope, my stupid heart races. I could say “yes,” and I almost do. The covers suddenly seem too warm, and I push them down a little bit. “Go to sleep, John-boy,” I say, and wait nervously until his breath evens out again. Without meaning to, I gradually dial up until his breath sounds like he’s right here, next to me in the bed. The street noises are louder too, but all of his work is paying off; I can filter most of them out and just concentrate on him—small murmurs, belly rumbles, and all.
I hold the connection to him tight as I burrow down and get ready for sleep. But when I close my eyes, even with the sound of his beating heart next to me, I can’t fool myself—I know he’s as far away as he’s ever been. I squeeze my eyes tight, and will sleep to come. I need that lawless place, where there’s more of him next to me than his voice, where I can reach out and touch, and he’s there. Where he looks up… and he really sees….
Jim and I yearn for... feedback