Tom was the most popular boy in class. Everything he did was liked by the other kids, an entomologist’s collection of social welfare problems hidden under exoskeletons of middle class affluence. So when Tom invited Brandon home for dessert, there was no way Brandon could turn him down.
Tom’s mother served sweet crêpes with nervousness and orange juice that tasted of the plastic container it came from. Tom ladled his crêpe with syrup and stretched across the kitchen table for a yellow and white can. He sprayed a large mound of whipped cream on the golden, pockmarked surface. When he lifted the rolled-up, glorified pancake, the syrup and cream dripped down on his plate in long gobs.
Brandon, embarrassed by Tom’s open display of desire for the food, ate his own crêpe calmly. Then Tom let him explore the house as he liked. Brandon peeked inside the closets (infested with Tineola bisselliella moths), the medicine cabinet in the bathrooms (valium and nyquil) and the master bedroom drawers (dirty polaroids of Tom’s parents).
“Do you bite the glass when you drink?” Tom asked when they were back in the kitchen. The room still smelled of fried batter and syrup.
“No, why would I do that?” Brandon said.
“Great, then we can drink together,” Tom said.
He ran to the living room and brought two glasses from the mahogany cupboard that displayed wine glasses and porcelain plates under small recessed lights. The bowl of the glass Tom handed him was small and blue, the stem green and narrow. The rim looked as thin as a fingernail. Brandon wondered what it would feel like to crush it between his teeth.
“Mom says I’m not allowed to drink from these, but if you don’t bite, we’ll be fine,” Tom said.
“I won’t,” Brandon said.
Tom filled the glasses with water from the kitchen tap. The sink was dull from the fat of past dinners, and smelled warmly of onions and brown sauce.
They toasted and drank. The water was temperate with a tender note of copper from the pipes. Brandon yearned to bite the rim, but kept his promise and refrained. Instead, he felt the edge with the tip of his tongue, pulled it slowly over the smooth glass to catch the flavour of dust and dishwasher soap. Tom laughed.
Tom’s grandmother came home. She sat down at the dining table in the living room and peeled an orange, split the fruit into golden wedges in the dimpled, aromatic shell. When Tom reached for the first piece, his grandmother said:
“In the new kingdom, the first shall be the last and the last be the first.”
“Oh, grandma,” Tom sighed.
Brandon smiled. He wanted to tell them he already lived in that place.
Long after adolescence, long after Tom, Brandon met Patricia at work. She was a brittle middle manager, with not enough serotonin and too much dopamine in her central nervous system. She painted on the side because she had wanted to do an art degree, but chose the sensible and went to business school instead. She had never really gotten over that.
“You’re so damn emotionally distant,” Patricia shouted one night after physically satisfying, but still crappy sex, her voice vibrato with tears.
“What do you mean?” Brandon said. “I’m here and I have lots of emotions.”
“You don’t care about me.”
“That’s not true,” he said.
“I can’t lean on you,” she said. “Not depend on you.”
Brandon sighed. She wanted a pack leader, but didn’t like alpha males.
“Is that what you need?” he asked. “A crutch? A walker?”
She slapped him.
“Don’t look at me to revive the corpse of self-worth that your egocentric mother buried in your childhood,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of power.” It sounded like the beginning of a fantasy story.
She screamed at him.
He wondered how much more it would take before she ran to the kitchen for a knife.
“You only have neediness to offer,” he said. “And that’s not what I want.”
She shrieked. He left.
Adam, the curly-haired theology student, got an erection thirty seconds into their conversation. He slowly pulled his suit jacket over his lap. Brandon chose to ignore it. Erections were controlled by the primitive hindbrain and the lax parasympathetic nervous system. He regarded himself as a visual cortex, sympathetic nervous system kind of guy.
“You’re a good person, I know it,” Adam said.
“Not as good as you think,” Brandon said. Adam needed a confessional, not a date.
“I’ve fallen for you, but you obviously don’t feel the same…,” Adam said, trace amounts of hope in his voice.
Brandon thought it best to be honest, to avoid another Patricia-meltdown.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I’ve only fallen for someone once, and I don’t expect it to happen again.”
Adam looked crushed.
He still got text messages from Adam.
“I love you,” they said. “I hope you are well.” How could Adam love someone he didn’t really know? Adam had fallen for his own interpretations and expectations of another. Was that the anatomy of infatuation?
Brandon’s fall took place at a party with some colleagues and their friends. He knew it would happen eventually, but he hadn’t expected it so early in his adult life, and not so suddenly.
There was a tug in his chest, like a tiny arterial blockage loosening into the bloodstream, or the string of an instrument being plucked. A tall man who resembled Michael a little stared at him in open adoration. When Brandon met his eyes, the stranger looked down for a moment, then reconnected with his gaze, without shame, expecting to be loved in return.
That expectation was so strong, and so attractive, that Brandon tumbled into love, in slow, deliberate motion, like a shipwrecked finally letting go of the overturned hull and plunging into the deep. He looked at the man with gratitude. He had given him a choice, although with the gravitational pull of a black hole. It was impossible to resist.
The man’s name was Christoph. He was kind but straightforward. They talked the whole evening. About what, Brandon couldn’t remember. Afterwards Carla, his boss, complained that he had ignored her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
The morning after, Christoph gave Brandon his phone number, but he never called. Christoph was getting married in the spring. Brandon couldn’t find a reason, however theoretical, to wreck it all.
Michael, weary and blond, a soldier retrained as a nurse, wanted Brandon to be helpless.
Michael took him out for an impressive five-course dinner and a show at the planetarium. The planetarium foyer was dedicated to spreading the beauty of science. Kids played with the interactive displays; a tornado in a pipe, a hydroelectric model, a brain wave game, a solar system map, and more. In the corner for sound and vibration, Brandon hit a xylophone with soft, fuzzy mallets, tried to follow the numbers of the melody painted on the dark wooden bars, and failed. Michael laughed.
The planetarium projector showed the night sky of a million years into the future. Brandon loved astrophysics and its older brother, cosmology. He felt every single star, even at the distance of a million years to come.
Looking out at the universe was like gazing back in time because of the enormous distances involved and the time light required to cross that vastness. But what would the cosmos reveal if he could see the distant reaches of the universe right now, instead of having to wait a million years for the light to catch up? Would he see the edges of the universe quiver and merge with the wall of another like itself, two bubbles in the process of becoming one, as per the cosmological theory of dark flow? What did the universe look like in quantum real-time?
The PC that controlled the star projector crashed and the stars became rotating streaks above them.
“I’m dizzy,” Michael said and looked down.
“Keep your eyes on the Pole star,” Brandon said and watched the still point in the swirling sky. Michael kept his eyes on him. Then there was a film about the aurora borealis and bands of yellow, purple, green and blue light. In the seat next to Brandon, Michael snored softly.
Michael liked it best when Brandon was sick and bedridden, and full of harmless, but quickly replicating viruses. Michael took good care of him; bought cough medicine and paper tissues, laundered used handkerchiefs, aired out the bedroom, changed sheets, while Brandon ate soup inside a fleece blanket in the living room and watched science shows on TV.
Since Brandon didn’t get colds often, he started wearing thin clothes, worked out in the climbing wall for hours to exhaust himself, and visited friends with bug-ridden kids. If he was really lucky, he got the flu or bronchitis, but that was rare.
When he didn’t get sick, he faked it with hypothermia from cold showers. He shivered in bed, heart fluttering from the physiological strain of keeping his core temperature up, while Michael dried his hair with a towel and warmed him with his own body. It was a little pathological, but he was content. Michael was happy. They were anatomically correct.