Read the introduction by guest editor Roxane Gay.
The Larger World
In August, he begged off from the trip to the lake with his partner Gerald and their towheaded children Molly and Max. There was too much to do, he said, motioning to the lawn and the windows and the garage. There was also the matter of his work as an embryologist in a small fertility clinic in town. He couldn’t just leave his patients, and besides, he hated the lake house and wouldn’t be fun for anyone to have around. Gerald looked at him with calm, hazel eyes and sighed. It was not the first time that he had made some excuse to get out of going to the lake house, and Gerald didn’t have it in him to fight about it anymore.
The kids were going stir-crazy in the house.
They were five and seven, lanky but surprisingly sturdy in the way that children can be. Molly was quite hardy. She often caught the edges of things with her body, absorbing the shock of impact without stopping, without noticing at all until some hours later when the bruise bloomed on her cheek or her arm, some dark splotch, blood collecting beneath the skin. They had received many notes from her teachers—Molly plays roughly with other children; Molly climbed onto her desk and threw her pencils today; Molly scraped her entire body on the playground, but she seemed fine. Max was delicate and finely hewn, with Gerald’s hazel eyes, but he threw himself at the world with the kind of aggressive naivety of someone who expects to be caught or cradled. He flailed and flung himself down in aisles at the store or on the playground, flat on his back, arms and legs kicking, laughing as loud as he could, laughing because wasn’t it funny that nothing had stopped him on the way down. He resembled in some way Gerald’s older brother, Michael, who had died a few years ago from complications of pneumonia after a protracted illness. They had almost named him Michael, but at the last moment, Michael had asked that they name the boy after someone else. He didn’t want to curse the kid, he said, laughing. That had been his way. Always laughing.
“If you don’t want to come with us,” Gerald said, “that’s fine. I won’t make you. I couldn’t make you anyway.”
They had been in the kitchen, talking as quietly as they could. It was the therapist’s idea: talk in low, neutral tones. Do not get emotional. Say what you mean. Try to hear the other person. What he heard in Gerald’s voice was resentment, the kind of tinny melancholy that collects under the voice like gravel in a creek bed.
“It’s fine, like I said, but I think that you should. How many summers are we going to get with the kids this way?”
“You know I can’t,” he said. “I want to, but I can’t. There’s just too much to do here.”
“Conny, please,” Gerald said. “That’s ridiculous, and you know it. There’s nothing that needs to be done now that you can’t do later.”
“Then why can’t we just go to the lake house later, then? Why does it have to be this weekend? This week? This moment? Why?”
Gerald had gripped the edge of the counter as if trying to steady himself, as if the world were sliding from beneath his feet. He was looking out the window at the backyard, its wide, dark green expanse, the pool lying dormant and almost silver beneath its mesh screen. Above them, the smooth, gray carapace of the sky stretched all the way to the end of their property where it dipped behind the fringe of the trees. He wet his lips. Water dripped from the faucet into a tin pan, where it collected and then slid into the sink when its weight became too much to bear.
“Forget it, Conny. I’ll take them myself. It’s fine. You stay. Work.”
Conny was at the stove, putting the remnants of their dinner into plastic containers. Gerald rinsed his hands in the sink and went out into the evening air through the backdoor, which clacked shut behind him. He went along the edge of the porch, then down onto the patio and out to stand beside the pool. There were automated lights in the bottom of the pool, which cast a slanting glow upward. Gerald, tall, leanly muscled, looked for a moment like a nymph or a sprite on the verge of some strange magic trick, but finding himself under surveillance, turned back to stone, mundane.
They were not happy, but most people were not happy. Happiness seemed like the sort of thing that one achieves by luck or by the intervention in one’s life by some minor, lesser God—money, success, fame. Happiness seemed beyond their grasp, but no one had been promised happiness, and could you really mourn the loss of something that had never truly been yours? They had come to be together by accident and then by the accumulation of something akin to happiness—affection, fondness, love. He loved Gerald and Molly and Max. He loved them because they were part of his life, and he shared every day with them. He loved them because of inertia. He loved them because to stop loving them would destroy him and them. And so, it was enough to love them. What right did he have to think of happiness too?
In the morning, Gerald got out of bed without saying anything to him. The air in the house was cool with morning, and there was such brightness in the curtains that they seemed slippery and iridescent like a moth’s wings fresh from the pupa. He lay on his back in the bed watching Gerald collect some clothes for the coming week, putting them in the canvas bag that they used to use for trips to the lake house. He then went out into the hall to tap gently at Molly’s door, quietly urging her to get up. And then to get Max ready. Conny thought that it might have been nice to make them breakfast, that this was as much as he could do for them, to smooth the shape of their leave-taking, to kiss away the hurt of it, to make it bearable. But he didn’t move from the covers. He lay there like a stone. He had dreamed of fires again. That summer, he dreamed of fires everywhere: fire clinging to the outside of the house like moss, fire scaling all the trees in the forest on the edge of their property, fire falling from the sky like hail, fire sloshing in the pool out back, as if drawing strength from the chlorine in the water. Fire everywhere, consuming everything.
“Will you take the statues?” he said at last, and Gerald looked up from the dresser where he was judging which pairs of socks to take. There was a look of mild annoyance, confused misdirection, before his mind tracked back to where Conny’s stood. The statues out in the garage, which they had brought back with them the previous year, in fall, after a trip to Peru. Some cheap, wooden carvings of a bear and a snake and a bird, which they had been meaning to relocate to the lake house since they had brought them, but had forgotten because winter had come and they had lost track of things.
“Are they still in the garage?” Gerald asked. “I haven’t thought about them in a long time.”
“They’re there. I checked last night,” Conny said.
“You didn’t say anything.”
“You had gone to bed. What was there to say?”
Gerald hummed, and Conny knew that he was trying to avoid saying something true about how he really felt. He was lowering the register of his anger so that the children didn’t hear it. But children were like animals. They could feel it through the vibrations in the air or underfoot. Children were like small little seismographs, their hearts registering every shift and change in Conny and Gerald’s relationship. Their lives were the spools of white tape that hold the records of such minor seismic events.
“Alright,” Gerald said, and he went away to collect Molly and Max. Conny joined them in the kitchen, and kissed the tops of their heads. Their hair smelled sour from sleep and sweat, but also like fresh milk.
“Papa, are you coming too?” Molly asked, a bird’s voice. Her dark eyes were upon him, and he thought how terrible children’s eyes could be in their infinite scope, how there was nowhere to hide from them, all that seeing.
“Yes, Papa, are you coming too?” Max this time was regarding him over the ridge of his toast. Those eyes like Gerald’s, their placid judgement.
“No, baby, I can’t. Papa has to stay here. But Daddy will take good care of you.”
Molly shrugged at this. The question had not been a sincere one. They would go on without him just fine. What use did children really have for their parents if not simply the act of providing them with food? But then, Conny had been brought up sternly, by remote parents whose love had fallen all around him like a fine mist, so cool and sparse that one did not know if it was real or imagined. What did he have to offer these blond babies, their heads so large on their necks, lolling as they ate their breakfast. Gerald was at the stove making eggs for him, and then he was gone again, this time tracking back through the house, upstairs, to finish packing.
The eggs were unremarkable in their texture—a little dry, scrambled, which was how he preferred them. He leaned against the back of his chair and watched Max shove an entire piece of toast into his mouth. Molly was calmly, gently dissecting off the edges of her toast with a butter knife, proudly showing off her fine motor skills which had come in suddenly, offering a sharpness, a clarity to her world that was like putting on glasses for the first time. And yet, she still attracted calamity, violence. All the banging into things, not watching where she was going, as if she were so enamored with the microcosmic that she had lost all sense of proportion, and the larger world had fallen off away from her. To Conny, the large world, the macroscale dominated his consciousness. He was aware always of the pressure of the air, the moisture hanging all around them, ever turn and corner and oblique angle obvious to him. He felt surrounded, closed-in, like he was drowning in a world that was ever encroaching. There was too much of the world at the edges of his body. Too much of the world pressing closer, trying to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, like he was a pane of glass and the world was a face in the dark.
“Papa, do you know how to swim?” Max asked, toast hanging from his open mouth.
“Of course,” Conny said, smiling, though his throat felt dry and his mouth felt hot. “I do. We swim all the time.”
“Oh,” Max said. “Oh. I forgot,” and he laughed stupidly, that terrific laugh of his. “Papa, am I forgetful?”
“Yes, Max. You are forgetful,” Conny said, and he reached over to ruffle his hair, fuzzy and soft like the bristles of a dandelion. Max giggled and leaned into the touch, his whole body vibrating. Molly was putting eggs between the pieces of toast, making something. Always constructing, layering, things upon things.
“If you can swim, why aren’t you coming?” Max asked.
“I told you—Papa has to work.”
“But you can work at the lake!” Max grinned, having stumbled upon what to him must have seemed like a novel idea.
“Yes, but there are things Papa has to do here, Max. I’m sorry. Next time.”
“When is next time?” Max asked, keenly. “When are you coming?”
“Let’s wait and see.”
“When?” Max pressed. His eyes widened, and his mouth opened expectantly, as if the answer to his question were food or water, something necessary, nutrient exchange. Conny felt himself contract. He tapped his fingers on the table and tried to appear as though he were calculating something.
“Let’s just wait. How’s that?”
“Okay, Papa,” Max said. “Okay.”
Conny escaped the children at the table and found Gerald folding towels and putting them into a large tote bag. They were alone upstairs, just down the hall from their bedroom. Gerald looked tired, his eyes glossy with sublimated rage. Conny kissed his cheek as he passed, and Gerald grabbed his wrist to stop him.
“Come with us,” he said. “There’s nothing here that can’t wait.”
“I can’t,” Conny said. “I wish I could. I wish. But I can’t.”
“Why, Conny?” Gerald folded the towel over his arms and propped a hip against the washing machine. Its cool exterior white shell was smeared by the hall light, and Conny stared at Gerald’s shadow.
“There’s work to be done. I just can’t leave right now.”
“That’s not a reason to abandon your family.”
“I’m not abandoning anyone. I just can’t go to the lake house right now.”
“Because you have to mow the lawn and arrange the garage?” Gerald sighed again, and Conny knew that he would win this fight, another skirmish decided in his favor because there was no way to have this argument that didn’t involve the children overhearing them.
“Someone has to do it.”
“We can hire someone.”
“I’d rather do it myself. You know that.”
“Sure. But what I don’t know is why you don’t want to be a part of this family, Conny. We’re too old for this. We have children.”
“There’s nothing happening, Gerald. You picked a lousy time. That’s it. That’s all.”
“Alright,” Gerald said, nodding. “Alright. It’s my fault, you’re right.”
“Come on. Don’t do this.”
“I’m not doing anything, Conny. I’m not doing anything at all.”
Conny kissed Gerald’s cheek again—his skin was warm, bristly with dark hair. He tensed as Conny kissed him, and Conny was sad to think that there had been a time when Gerald would have relaxed after tensing, would have leaned into the gesture. It seemed to him that they were beyond something then, beyond the stage of pretending that they were not where they were.
Just around noon, with Gerald and the kids gone, Conny was sitting beside the pool. The house had been old when they bought it, and the pool was a deep, gray stone basin. All around him, there were birds in the pine trees, making noise. He was drinking a gin and tonic, his face turned up to the sky. The water was cool and clear, and he was submerged in it up to his knees. The ice was melting in the glass. The air smelled like pine sap, like gin, like the mineral scent of pool water. The breeze dragged across the tips of the trees, and it was quiet, empty.
It was too hot to do any of the things that he promised Gerald he would do to justify his staying. He unbuttoned his soft, white shirt and plunged his whole body into the pool. A foam of white bubbles issued up from his descent, and he slowly oriented to the twilight that was the inverted world beneath the water’s surface. He let himself sink down and down to the pool’s bottom, and then began to draw himself forward with long, even strokes.
In another life, in another time, Conny had been a championship swimmer in his small Chicago suburb. Not nationally ranked, but he had done well at the state championships. His first swimming teacher had emphasized technique, a mastery of the basics so that swimming felt as effortless as walking, or breathing. His body had been coaxed by her instruction into a shape that was ideally suited for swimming: long, smooth, aerodynamic. He had the natural affect of a swimmer too, awkward out of the water, his body accustomed to more weight, more gravity, everything slower somehow underwater, but in the air, everything too fast, too sudden. A swimmer should be like an arrow shot from a bow, with one destination, one place to land.
He emerged on the other side of the pool and shook the water from his hair and eyes. The sky overhead was clear and blue, no clouds.
After he finished swimming, he blotted himself off with a warm, white towel, and sat on a chair beneath the pine trees. He opened a book and rested his gin and tonic on his stomach. The glass was cold and slick with sweat, but it was a pleasant discomfort. Mosquitos swarmed nearby, a small cloud of dark bodies undulating, occasionally skewered by a beam of light. The pages were yellow, dyed red on their edges, though at this point, they were more orange than red. He occasionally dipped his finger into the gin and tonic and pressed his finger to his lips and to his tongue. The ice was almost gone now, so he began to drink from it in earnest, letting the mint leaf press between his teeth as he drank it all down.
Above him, he spotted a blue bird of some kind hopping along one of the low branches of the nearest pine tree. He watched it for several minutes as it moved farther and farther out until eventually, it threw itself into the air and opened its black-banded wings, catching some breeze, and flew away to the other side of the woods. He put on his sandals and walked to the edge of the pool where he stooped and put the towel into the water. He wrung it out a just a little bit and draped it over the back of his neck, and then he went out among the trees.
The towel cooled him. The sun was like wool scratching at his skin. Sticks snapped under his feet. He walked over a ridge of clay dirt, almost slipping down into a gorge. The air was cool but full of the sound of insects, their husks vibrating with life. The sun had drifted from the center of the sky and cast diagonal slats of light down through the pine trees, shadow and light speckled like the back of an enormous wild cat. He still smelled of chlorine from the pool. By now Gerald and the kids would be reaching the lake house, getting out of the car and crunching over the soft gravel driveway to the gently sloping stone stairs in front. By now, they would be unpacking the car and settling in for the week, their thoughts already falling away from him, turning to more practical, local matters like the temperature of the lake and the cant of the sky—was there rain coming?
Overhead, a black bird circled the top of a pine tree. The scent in the air was damp and vegetative, carrying in the smell of rain from far off.
Conny ran his hand around the rough but fragile bark of one of the tree trunks and then leaned his weight against it. The towel was drying slowly, losing its coolness.
Was this it, he thought. Was this the shape his life was meant to take?
In his dreams about fire, everything went on as if there were no flames at all. Gerald went on making sandwiches for Molly and Max. The children went on playing with their toys on the floor, smashing them together with violent sounds in the made-up games that children invent which always seem to skew toward war and devastation. The neighbors from down the country road went on walking their dogs at dusk. The birds went on singing in the trees, cardinals and blue jays and mockingbirds leaping from branch to branch, flying higher then lower, then higher again. He could, if he tried hard enough, force himself out of the house and into the city, and there were people in cafes and on sidewalks, drinking coffee or having lunch, laughing and exchanging gossip, or else, crying, but for reasons unrelated to the fire. It reminded him of being underwater, the way everything hangs suspended, perfectly normal in its submerged state. Except they were all in a sea of fire, and nobody even noticed. No one except Conny as he ran from place to place, banging on doors, trying to raise an alarm as the fire grew and grew the way water rises and rises when you sink an equal weight into it. The world was a basin filled with fire, and every moment of his life was a stone causing the level of flame to inch higher and higher until it laid claim to everything: the sovereignty of a cleansing fire was absolute in the end.
He had tried to tell Gerald about the dreams at first, over dinner and over lunch, in the off-hand way he approached most matters that concerned him. When they were cutting carrots for the kids to take to their day camp, he nudged Gerald’s hip with his, and Gerald looked up at him with a quiet, pleased grin.
“Hey,” Gerald said.
“Hey,” Conny said, and there on the tip of his tongue was the truth about his dreams full of fitful tumult, full of the fear that they were drowning in fire, full of the terror he felt as he went from room to room in their house looking for them to rouse them from their beds and found them sitting together on the couch, laughing at television, perfectly at ease even as smoke and fire lashed the air, the house breaking apart, disintegrating all around them. He saw in Gerald’s eyes the same calm ease that he had seen in the dream, the way he went along cleaning the house even as the fire licked at his heels, and he knew that what belonged to the dreams belonged to the dreams and what was out here in the world belonged to the world. Just the thought of crossing that barrier brought the stinging scent of smoke to his nose and to his eyes—and in that moment, he began to cry. Gerald reached out to him, put a hand on his shoulder and made soft, soothing noises.
“Oh, baby, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
But Conny had just cried and cried, the knife in his hand getting looser and looser until it slipped from his fingers and broke in the sink with a terrible racket that made Max cry too.
Later, they had laughed about it in bed. That cheap knife, a gift from their friends Marcus and Lyle who lived on one of the neighboring plots. They had always known it was cheap despite Marcus trying to pass it off as a premium brand. Did premium knives even exist? They must have, but not here, not in this part of the country, unremarkable for its flatness and dense greenery. But even as they laughed, Conny saw in the space behind his eyes the gathering flames, the smoke like a thunderhead hanging over them, threatening catastrophe.
When he got back to the house, the sky had turned very dark, and his phone was ringing. He stood just inside the backdoor, the wind picking up, beginning to sing some mournful tune. It was Gerald.
“There’s probably a storm heading your way,” he said.
“Yeah, it just got here, I think. The wind is going nuts.”
“I just wanted to make sure I warned you. Please be sure to cover he pool and take in the chairs.”
“Yes, dear,” Conny said. He was pouring more gin into a glass, watching the clear level rise. He reached for the ice in the bucket nearby.
“Did you get all of your work done?”
“Yes,” Conny said. One ice cube. Two ice cubes. “It’s been very productive.”
“Alright. Max says please make sure Captain America is safe indoors. He thinks he left him outside.”
Conny looked through the window onto the back porch. There were no action figures out there. Thunder groaned in the sky.
“Safe and sound,” he said.
“Alright,” Gerald said, but there was something hanging on the edge of his voice, weighing it down. “Alright.”
“How are you?” Conny asked.
“Okay,” he said, and he drank some of the gin. It stung as it went down.
“Do you think you’ll make it up here this weekend?”
“We’ll see,” he said.
“That’s what you told Max.”
“It’s the truth.”
There was a loud bang from the other end of the phone. Gerald sighed.
“I have to go now. Please cover the pool.”
“You bet,” Conny said, but Gerald had already hung up. Conny watched the clouds coming in over the trees. More thunder, and the wind dragged across the screen in the window. “Full of sound and fury,” he said, drinking the gin down. He filled his glass.
Once, just after he had finished medical school, Conny had gone down to Virginia to spend some time in the hills. His family had originally come from that place, from hill country, and Conny had felt from the moment he arrived a curious sensation like returning home. It must have been how salmon felt after they had wriggled and writhed and thrust their bodies up waterfalls to reach their ancestral homes, where they spawned and then died and were swept back down river. In Virginia, he rented a small cabin on a hill that overlooked a river and flat fields. He had left everything he owned at home in Chicago, where his parents were waiting anxiously for him to emerge from whatever thing he had put himself into. They were waiting, he now knew, for him to get on with his life, to slide out of the coarse and bristling silence that had clung to him all through medical school like briars.
The cabin in Virginia was the first place in years that he’d been alone. There, for hours at a time, he would sit on the cot and stare out of the window into the trees. He grew a fantastic beard. He ate fish he caught from the river, cooked them over a fire that he assembled meticulously from dry wood, making sure to keep an eye on the sparks that leapt into the air and threatened, with sufficient coaxing, to burn the mountain. He had carefully studied the art of camping in books from the library. He knew, for example, how to properly build the fire pit so that the air was drawn in and circulated upward, keeping a good flow of oxygen. He knew not to crowd the flames with logs and thick limbs, but to build the fire in stages. He knew how to wait, and that patience was the most important part of building a fire.
He caught fish and cleaned them on flat black stones near the river. He pressed the tip of the knife into their bellies and slid it back until the warmth of their insides came spilling out. There was something about the intricate jewelry of the guts, the slick, membranous beauty of it. Heart and lungs, intestine and gonad—maroon and yellow, silvery white. He held them in his hands and considered their weight, that they were all that had kept the fish on this side of life. And the fish themselves, eyes so enormous, worlds of their own, dead on the rock as he regarded their hearts. Then he’d lob the guts back into the river and wash his hands in its spray.
In the morning, he’d stand out there among the rocks, his beard thick and dark, the sky smooth and white as the river passed in front of him, away and away. Out there in his thigh-highs and coveralls, neck already growing hot and damp with sweat. He held the rod perfectly still except when he needed to make the fly dance, to tempt the fish. He could absent himself from the task of it, let his body remain on Earth as he faded into the milky static of the sky, thinking of nothing at all. And when there was a shiver of motion on the end of the fly, he pulled, and flicked, and drew the fish out of the water into the air, and wondered if the fish, for a moment, lost in the transfer, considered the larger world into which it had emerged, if the fish were numbed by it.
In those days, coming out meant something else. You went about your life as you always had, this day into the next and into the next and into the next. And when you found someone like you, in the dark, on a running trail next to the medical library, you kept it to yourself.
He had been waiting for a letter to arrive—a letter from a boy he had been seeing at the time, a letter from Michael, and when it hadn’t arrived, he had known what it meant. He hadn’t wanted to say anything, but he had known.
In the fire, he cooked trout and he burned the pictures that he and Michael had taken on their trip to the lake. When a photograph burns, the fire takes it layer by layer, as if eating through time itself. Conny sat on a stump outside of the cabin and ate slowly as the pictures burned, a chemical scent issuing up from the yellow flame. In the dark that came over the mountain, he heard animals breeding, yipping, hunting—and there was, among the thousand voices that haunt the dark ocean of a mountain at night, something, as if from the edge of a vast continent of the past, the sound of their laughter, Conny and Michael in Michael’s dorm, their lips touching, their bodies touching, the warmth of their embrace as they slept. The window in that dorm had been narrow, but it permitted a view of the sky, a slash of night, riddled with stars like eyes gleaming. Michael’s soft, yellow curls as he moved away and then toward Conny in the bed, shy even though he was so beautiful that it hurt. His eyes, hazel, deeply set in his head, peering out with a gaze that was at once innocence itself and something else, something vaster. Michael. He had fallen asleep in the cabin and each night, he said Michael’s name, and wondered where he was in the world, though he knew. Michael had made no secret of his plans to up and out after graduation, and Conny, older yet younger in so many other ways, had been foolish enough to ask him to stay.
He would write, he said. He would send a letter.
The storm was mostly bluster, mostly wind and thunder. Conny had showered. He was wearing yellow sweater and swimming trunks. The air was cool and restless, whirring around. He had drawn the pool skin across the water, so it would be safe from the rain or whatever leaves blew against it. The furniture was dark and tasteful, weather-resistant. Gerald had picked it out. Gerald had decided most things about the house. Conny seldom sat on the porch alone. He sat either with Gerald or Molly and Max; or he was at work with patients, or something required the presence of other people. The world would not leave him alone.
He had switched to something softer than gin, mostly tonic water, with lemon, but he kept the same glass, so there was occasionally a familiar burn, the flavor reverting suddenly to something harsher.
His phone was ringing again, though this time he didn’t get up to answer it. On and on it went, like a baby crying upstairs or in the kitchen or somewhere nearby. He thought that it might be one of his clients or one of the nurses calling to see if he could take an emergency consultation despite it being his vacation, but it was almost nine in the evening. It was more likely that Gerald was calling him to see if the storm had done any damage.
The storm had done nothing except drive an unfledged bird from its nest to the lawn below, where its neck was broken on the impact. Conny had seen it from the kitchen window, the bird, on the edge of a low branch, its body trying desperately to find equilibrium before a gust of wind flung it from the tree to the ground. Was it a sparrow or a mockingbird or one of those many brown birds native to this part of the country, a race of indistinguishable brown and white feathers that ate nuts and berries and grew fat and built nests, one the same as another, not even remarkable in their deaths as they plunged from trees?
In medical school, Conny had watched from the window during lectures as the birds fluttered around the tip of the pine tree across the street. He had been struck by the way they moved through the air without hesitation or concern. What it must have been like to be a bird, without fears or worries. What it must have been like to regard the world from that vantage point which rendered everything that was large so small and flat, to for a moment possess the eyes of a God. How small human problems must seem when viewed from some vast distance.
He could smell the earth opening, the way does after a storm. The sky was dark, but not completely so. In the summer, light was remarkably persistent, and it seemed that the dark of the sky was really just blue turned on its back, and that there was some other, greater source of light beyond it, shining at them.
Eventually, he got up to answer the phone.
“Are you alright? Was the storm bad?” Gerald asked. Quiet enveloped his voice.
“I’m alright,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“About us—Con. I think. Well. I’ve been thinking.”
“Me too,” Conny said, wiping moisture from his brow. He had not been thinking, except about the past.
“Maybe we’re not doing enough. Maybe we need to try something else, something different.”
“What do you think?” There was plaintive edge to Gerald’s voice, something open-mouthed about it, needing. It was a question but it also contained an answer. He knew what Gerald wanted him to say—Conny could tell that much. He let the silence go on another beat. Wet his lips.
“Oh baby, I don’t know.”
“Tell me what you think. That’s it. Just tell me.”
“I think that we’re doing our best,” he said. “I think we’re doing all we can. And what will happen will happen.”
“What do you want to happen?”
“Tell me. What do you want this to be, Conny? Tell me.”
“I can’t answer that, Gerald. We can’t make things happen that aren’t supposed to happen.”
“You mean, I can’t make myself be Michael.”
“Gerald, that’s not fair.”
“It’s not? It’s not fair to you or to me?”
“It’s not fair to either of us, Gerald.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone, and if he couldn’t hear Gerald’s breathing, he would have thought he had hung up again.
“We have children, Conny.”
“I know that.”
“You can’t keep holding Michael against us.”
“I would never do that, Gerald.”
“But you are. You are holding him against us. You hold yourself back from us because we can’t be him. You wall yourself all from us.”
Conny sat in a chair in the dark and put his head in his hands. The world was blurry at its edges. He wanted to peel back the lines of the world and jump out.
“I’m not,” he said. “I don’t do that.”
“Do you not love us, Conny?”
“I love you,” Conny said, flatly, as if he were indicating the weather. “I love you.”
“If you love us, then come here, to us. Come.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“I can’t,” Conny said, and he hung up.
The pool water was not as cold as it might have been. He floated on his back. The dark edges of the trees were fluttering at the corner of his vision. Was he being unfair to Gerald and the kids? Was he withholding from them because of Michael? It seemed tawdry to put all of those things together that way, to link them in the ugly lines of cause and effect. As a doctor, he often thought of things in webs, the oblique, the indirect, the multiplication of effect. Rather, it was not because of Michael that he felt at a distance from Gerald and Molly and Max. No, it was not quite that simple.
In the long interim of Michael’s absence from his life, he had met Gerald. He was finishing his fellowship at Mass-Gen, and Gerald was attending Vassar, though he came to Boston a couple of times a month to meet friends, who Conny met almost by mistake. He had, of course, noticed a resemblance between the two, which was what had made him ask Gerald out. But almost immediately, he found Gerald different from Michael—steadier, more grounded. He was sharp and organized and direct in a way that Michael had never been. Conny let himself be in love with Gerald. With Michael, there had never been a choice. It had moved through him like a force of nature, like a God alighting upon him. But with Gerald, it had been easy to love him, to be loved by him. They went out to restaurants or else Gerald made him complicated dinners at home, which amazed him. He was so good at that, making things. He was studying to be an engineer, to build things. He was handsome, tall and lean, even then, made of this world.
It was only after they had been seeing each other several months that Conny discovered the truth. No, that made it seem like Gerald had concealed something from him. Conny discovered the connection between the two when he accompanied Gerald home for Christmas. They were having dinner when the door blew open and in walked Michael, his eyes aglow, his nose red, cheeks flushed. He was wearing a leather jacket over a yellow sweater, and ugly green corduroys. He shouted, “I’m home!” And Conny, his back to the door, froze. The voice, issuing out of the place beyond him, fell over him, and he thought for a moment that he had slipped out of this world into the next.
At first, he had not known what to say to Gerald about it. How to bring it up. He considered not speaking to Gerald anymore, vanishing from his life the way that Michael had vanished from his. He also thought that he wanted desperately, wildly to insinuate himself into back into Michael’s life. He was as beautiful as ever. That first night, they ate their dinner without saying anything to one another. Conny learned that Michael had been living in New York, where he was working odd jobs as a waiter or a courier, trying to make a living as a writer. Not journalism though, but real writing. His parents were displeased but cheerful to have him around. He gave Gerald a hard time, and occasionally, when their eyes met, he smiled slyly at Conny.
After dinner, he waited until Gerald was in the shower and he crept downstairs to find Michael smoking in the garage. He was sitting on an overturned bucket, which had formerly contained some sort of industrial grade spackle. His legs were crossed elegantly. He wore a red toboggan. The sweater was the color of dark mustard. His curls stuck out from the brim of the hat. He was wreathed in blue smoke.
“Conny,” he said in that voice of his, tinged in laughter. “What on Earth are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Conny said.
“What a small world—what a small, small world. Does he know?” Michael had one eye closed and was regarding Conny through the other, through the smoke, through the shadow near the door.
“No. No one does. I didn’t know myself until you came in earlier. You never said you had a brother.”
“You never asked. You never even asked my last name,” Michael said, pinching the cigarette away from his mouth and exhaling. “Oh besides, that was a million years ago.”
“But wasn’t it though?” The lines of his face hardened, and gone was the softness and the laughter. “Or am I just forgetful?”
“Conny,” Gerald said from the door, his voice tentative. “Are you coming in?”
“Yes,” Conny said, though he was still looking at Michael, even when he turned to leave and go up the stairs, he looked back one last time, and Michael was blowing smoke into the air, laughing quietly to himself.
He told Gerald a few weeks later over the phone, and Gerald was quiet for a long time but then he said, “I already love you though, and I can’t stop.”
Was love a compulsion, then? Could it not be stopped? Who could say. Conny swam for a little while longer, letting the water soak into the sweater, feeling it growing heavier and heavier around him. The water was in his ears, and each time he turned in the pool and entered that perfect, still twilight beneath the surface, he thought of how easy it would be to remain there, how time must change, how light must change when it moves into a different medium, into a different world. Down there, he could be perfectly content.
He sat on the edge of the pool and removed from a small wooden box a pack of cigarettes—a crushed red carton, the scent musky and heavy. He lit the last one and inhaled. It was rancid. He had taken them from the drawer at the lake house years ago, after they had taken Michael’s body from the room upstairs. He had slipped the cigarettes into his pockets as the medical technicians worked to dismantle the bed and the machinery that had been his lungs and his kidneys, thinking how unlike the elegant implements that adorn the insides of fish those machines were. And then he had walked down the stairs and out into the warm, summer light. The lake was filled with luminous water, and the trees on the other shore were moving, as if to a song.
The smoke was dank and bitter, and he blew it into the wind that carried it away. He flicked the cigarette, and there were embers and ashes dispersed into the wind, a wild gray dust, like the tears of stars.
After Michael died, he had left instructions for all his things to be burned. So, they took all his clothes and his journals and his letters and they burned them. There would be no posthumous discovery of the late writer Michael Flett. There would be no record of his life at all, which was what he had wanted. To be gone with no trace, to be effaced from the world. They burned everything, and the barrel in which they had burned it spat orange and yellow fire into the sky. Gerald clung to him, and he clung to Gerald. By then, they already had Molly and Max was on the way. Molly was baby sleeping in her grandmother’s arms in the house, untouched by the fire’s glow.
“I fucking hate this,” Gerald said. “I fucking hate it.”
“Me too,” Conny had said. Heat on his face, so close he thought he’d burn.
“Michael,” Conny said as he ashed the cigarette beside the pool. “Michael.” It was the last cigarette in the pack. Smoke hung all around him, and he breathed it as deeply as he could, held it for along as he could.
He had been a remarkable swimmer.
Brandon Taylor is the associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His work has received fellowships from Lambda Literary, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. His stories and essays have appeared or will appear in Gulf Coast, Joyland, Necessary Fiction, Little Fiction, Literary Hub, Catapult, Out Magazine Online, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.