From the airport, we went straight to the welcome reception. Odd, the similarities between a mite conference and a casino: windowless rooms, burgundy carpet, too much or not enough oxygen. Folding walls. Unnatural refreshments. Desperate, aging, middle-class white men.
My first conference.
The Florida Entomological Society invited Davy to present a paper I’d helped him with, so he thought it would be good for me to come, too. He made a deal with our university—he’d stay somewhere for free if they’d buy two flights instead of one—and they agreed as long as the total was less than or equal to blah, blah.
I’d geo-referenced the specimens: reading tiny, yellowed cards stuck through the center with the same pin impaling the bee, then looking up the latitude and longitude of the capture site. I’d taken the mites off the bees and mounted them onto slides with tiny instruments Davy made himself. I’d washed and prepared DNA for his analysis. I’d double-checked his labeling, thank god. I’d cleaned the office while he wrote, and sent him links to read or watch or listen to while I copyedited.
Though he was not the greatest entomologist—even I knew that—Davy was the prom king, compulsively likable, comparatively young. You can get a lot of places by just not being an asshole. And Davy could hang, always outlasting even the Russians and Spaniards when we had guests at school.
Davy’s charm came from his genuine love of people. I’ve never seen anyone so content to stand and talk to the same sixty-year-old Eastern European population dynamics guy for four hours, never looking away. When the guy finally bows out, Davy says, “Is that it?” Many of these guys—and one woman—are people he’d invited to speak at our university, convincing the administration to pay them, taking them out. He’d throw parties at his house in their honor, and seventy people would show up, more people than the honored guest knew in their lifetime. And he was always collecting new people. Rosie, the bartender at the U Club with a neck tattoo of her own name; Chris, the guy who raids estate sales and sells used books on the street. They’d come blow it out with the scientists, and no one could ever remember when they’d had a better time. Davy never rushed. He was slow and generous, always putting another log on the fire, always offering to meet with people and read their papers, buy their drinks, watch their dogs.
While the host at the mite conference was telling us where to get our name tags and how accomplished we all certainly were to be there, I stood at Davy’s elbow, looking at our bags piled by the trash can and the cucumber water, wondering if it’d been my job to arrange transportation between the conference center and wherever his friend lived—where we’d be staying.
It hadn’t been. Davy had a plan, which was to stay at the reception till we were the last ones there, forget Charles’s address, forget to tell Charles when we were arriving until he called to ask for the address, and pay $88 to take a cab thirty miles to the other side of the nature preserve. I wondered if I should be more proactive as his assistant.
Charles’s wife received us—a small, outdoor-sports type named Leah. Her black hair was pulled back tight for speed. While not unkind, she wasn’t interested in my emotive pleasantries. She nodded when I thanked her so much for letting us stay, looked at Davy when I exclaimed how beautiful their normal house was. I felt big and sloppy, loud and simple.
“Charles is in the bath,” she said to the space between Davy and me. “He’ll be down any time.” She gave us some water. When Davy asked about her work, she described her current project the way one describes something specialized to outsiders, the way a doctor talks to a patient: not unkindly, but efficiently. She was an engineer—bless her heart—not an entomologist.
If I had to describe the vibe in that house, I’d say Insular Routine, the kind where two people are so content with each other they never think to have kids.
I was imagining what my hair must look like after the flight and the waiting around for-seemingly-ever—greasy and frizzy at once, limp red strands stuck flat against my head and yet flying around after any charge in the air—when Charles appeared in the doorway, freshly bathed, figuratively dripping.
When we looked at each other, I thought, “Oh, it’s you.” It was a sensation I’d never felt before when meeting a stranger: an unmistakable recognition, an openness felt in the body before the mind can catch up. I thought I saw the same reaction in his eyes, though what I saw could have been surprise that I was a girl. Davy must have told him he was bringing his student, Charlie. My full name is Charlene.
We hugged, Charles and I, which, looking back, was a weird move. I don’t think we’d been introduced yet, and his hair was wrapped in a towel.
Long and pale and smooth as water, Charles had this musical laugh when he greeted Davy, clapping him on the back. The two of them looked funny together—the one as big as an orchestra, the other like a guy with cymbals strapped to his knees and a harmonica hung around his neck. And they loved each other. You could see it.
Davy gave me the guestroom and took the couch like a gentleman, since he was going to stay up all night drinking with Charles anyway. I wanted to stay up, too. Suddenly I was the little sister again, trying to stay still, to become invisible so I could watch my brother and his friends play Golden Eye and listen to them talk. In love with them all, I always hoped they’d talk about girls, but they always only talked about Golden Eye. And then they’d realize I was there and sometimes kick me out and sometimes let me stay. It was the unpredictability, the danger of banishment and a broken heart, that made me want to be with them so badly.
So it was familiar to me that Davy and Charles only had eyes for each other. They shared some nebulous past from the no man’s land between high school and college; they’d followed each other from one third-shift warehouse job to another. I was so tired that I had one glass of bourbon and blacked out. I came to at 3 a.m. in the guest bed, with the distinct impression I’d gotten myself there, perhaps abruptly, but with dignity.
That morning I showered and dressed and found Davy still asleep on the couch, face tucked into his armpit. I loved him. There are a lot of ways to love.
Crouching beside him, I could feel his heat, smell bourbon radiating from his pores. I was reaching for him when Leah came in and said at a normal volume that we could take Charles’ car, since he’d been up all night with Davy and, besides, he didn’t have a job. She said it the way you say things you don’t mean, to show others you’re aware of what they may be thinking. But of course Davy and I knew as well as she did that being a poet, trying to live in the world with everyone else, was a full-time job. You know a poet when you see one.
I stood and thanked her. Davy inhaled like he’d been underwater for several minutes.
“Oh, no,” he said.
“We have time,” I said.
Davy’s presentation, What We Can Learn From Ancient Asexuals, didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. It’s tough when you’re so well-liked—you never know exactly how bad you are, just that you’re worse than folks are letting on. I flinched at the slide about advantages and disadvantages of sexual reproduction. It was followed by many slides outlining the advantages of being asexual: asexuals are able to reproduce faster. They’re better colonizers. They have no sexual selection to contend with, no wasting resources searching for a mate. Sexually antagonistic alleles are purged from the genome of asexuals. These points were illustrated with photos of humans trying and failing at sexual reproduction. A man holding a bouquet of wilted flowers and watching a woman link arms with his competitor. A man trying to locate and lure a mate by playing what looked like a lute.
He did get to the point, eventually, about his own research and conclusions from the bee mites, that ancient asexuals could possibly explain why anisogamous sexual reproduction is so prevalent in eukaryotes, what mechanisms enable it, what features are present in the genomic signatures of ancient asexuals. But he spent so long hamming it up that the point was rushed, maybe well-supported but not explained well enough to be sure.
Even I knew enough to recognize the softballs they were lobbing in the Q&A—which, in a way, was its own victory. You don’t often see a group of former D&D kids exercise kindness over the pursuit of truth, fairness, and rule-following. They loved him. They loved him enough not to rake his shitty presentation over the coals they’d so excitedly been heating up for one another.
Davy made a joke that didn’t land with me, but the room filled with laughter and relief. And then it was over.
I stress-ate a thousand shrimp cocktails next to Davy while he received his peers. They congratulated him carefully, not saying anything untrue. They said their interest was piqued, they’d like to hear more, great joke at the end. They thanked him, and they meant it. I could see Davy was embarrassed from the way he wouldn’t leave his beard alone, rubbing it, pulling at it. But nothing could make him cut short a conversation. Davy introduced me to some Russian men, some Chinese men, a South African woman. I wiped my hands and shook theirs. If I’d wanted to be an entomologist, it would have been invaluable. What I’d learned from being Davy’s assistant was I didn’t want to be an entomologist, but I’d follow him anywhere.
Everyone who ate the shrimp cocktail got food poisoning. I spent the night throwing up in Charles and Leah’s guest bathroom, and panicking. Surely this was the end. I’d stop throwing up only in death, and they’d find me cold in the morning, creating an emergency for everyone. But of course, I made it, as we usually do.
Allergic to shellfish, Davy was both unaffected and visibly disappointed when I couldn’t go with him the next day to wade around in a swamp and collect hermit crabs. He was starting a crab-mite project.
“I wish I could,” I said through my cracked guestroom door in the morning. I really did. I wanted to do what he wanted me to do.
Feeling a little better, I was definitely done throwing up. But I was weak, and had that light euphoria you get after vomiting, when you’re empty and you feel like you don’t need anything, food or water, to survive—why do we ever need anything? I felt oddly energized. I was standing in the middle of the room thinking about it when I heard a soft knocking. I opened the door too quickly, already halfway there, onto a tall Charles in a brown terrycloth shirt with holes at the seams of the cuffs and neck.
“Can I do anything for you?” he asked with startling and very welcome familiarity. Maybe it was the level of his voice—soft—or our proximity to each other—close—or that we were alone in the house—Leah had gone to work and Davy was in a swamp somewhere—but I burst into flames. Could barely string together the words, “No, thanks.”
“Help yourself to whatever you need,” he said. And then he said, “I’ll be home today. You can come talk to me.”
“Okay,” I said, and watched him float back down the hall. He ran his fingertips over the walls as he passed, as if it were a new wall to him and he wanted to learn about it, as if it kept him attached to earth, as if he might otherwise lift up slowly and never land again.
I took a shower, a cool one so I wouldn’t pass out, and washed the vomit out of my hair. In the mirror, my hair was redder, my skin almost see-through. It looked like I’d really been through something.
I followed the sound of things being moved around, to a study where Charles was half-inside a closet, hands on hips.
“Is it okay if I make some toast?” I said. “Do you want some?”
“That would be lovely.” He didn’t turn away from what he was doing, which was staring at the top shelf.
In the kitchen I was hesitant. I didn’t want to misplace anything or make a mess. I opened cupboards and moved myself around to see behind things rather than moving the things themselves. I set off the smoke alarm burning the second round of toast, opened the windows, fanned at the piercing blasts till they stopped. Charles never came down.
With a plate in each hand, I climbed the stairs, feeling nervous, a bit like the way I felt as a kid if I was the last one up and had to turn out all the lights and run up the stairs before whatever lay dormant in the light came alive in the dark and got me. I found Charles sitting on the floor surrounded by boxes and papers.
I handed him the less-burnt toast and sat on the other side of his moat.
“What were you looking for?” I pointed to the closet.
“Well, I don’t remember. I started looking for a scarf, but then I found these old teaching materials. And then some photos. Listen to this.”
He read aloud a poem. I tried to listen for things I could comment on after so he’d be surprised at the potentiality of a connection between us. But his brow flickered when he got to certain words and drove me to distraction, to the point where, when he finished, the only safe thing to say was, “Wow.”
It was the right thing.
He nodded. “Incredible,” he said.
Charles asked if I was up for a walk. I was up for anything. I had a kind of emergency strength.
Charles and Leah lived on the edge of the nature preserve Davy and I had cabbed around the night we arrived. It felt good to be outside, though the toast was, admittedly, landing a little hard in my stomach. The warm air held an October edge. Leaves blazed orange and yellow, giving death the middle finger. Charles’ hand brushed mine and I reflexively snatched it away. I was afraid he’d think I’d brushed his hand on purpose, inappropriately. But then it occurred to me he’d brushed mine on purpose and I’d ruined everything. I’d have to do something, some gesture, to show him the hand-snatching was a mistake.
He’d been saying something and I’d missed the first part. We stopped walking. He held a branch with some leaves and berries on it. Late afternoon light fell all over him, landing on his shoulders, on the hairs on his neck, flying off his fingertips. He popped one of the berries in his mouth. His dry lips moved clumsily as he chewed, and he held the branch out to me.
“Really?” I said, though he was high on the list of people from whose hand I would eat a mystery berry. He was the list.
When I took the branch from him, I touched his hand way, way more than necessary.
“It’s lovely,” he said and watched me inspect it, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
The berry was small, oblong, with a grape-like skin flecked with silver.
“Silvery,” I said.
He nodded, happy I’d noticed.
I put it in my mouth and bit down. Indeed, it was lovely—tasted like a grape with tougher skin.
“Like a grape,” I said. The juice and flesh were gone quickly, but the skin remained a long time, didn’t want to go down.
I watched his profile as we walked. He seemed happy to be looked at, keeping his eyes on the trail just ahead of his feet.
“I like walking with you,” he said.
“I like it, too,” I said, out of breath, a little weak.
He walked quickly, tearing leaves off of things and chewing them a little before dropping them. His fingers moved by his sides, feeling the air.
This time of year reminded him of being sixteen, he said, and going to a particularly sad strip club that let sixteen-year-olds in during the day. He said when a new customer came in, the strippers, who were talking at a table in the corner, would argue over who had to get up and dance. At last, one of them would concede, do a dreary five minutes on the pole, and sit back down.
I told him this time of year reminded me of the first time fear overwhelmed me so much my limbs went numb. It wasn’t a fear of something addressable, like bridges or small spaces, but of the whole setup: that we could all die at any moment and had to live our lives as if we didn’t know that was true. We had to make plans and love people as if we weren’t all maybe going to die every day. And sometimes I could do it, push that knowledge out and walk across streets and commit to meeting someone for a drink the next night. And sometimes my body would feel the fear before I knew what it was, and I’d get cold and disoriented and everything would seem like a nightmare. When it happened, it didn’t feel temporary. And then, as quickly as it came on, it would leave.
My god, I thought, stop talking.
“Is there anything that makes the fear go away?” Charles asked.
“Davy.” I surprised us both. I hadn’t realized I thought that until just then. “I wonder if other people feel that way, if that’s why people are so drawn to him.”
Looking all over my face, Charles smiled a little. His eyes were gray.
Davy had driven Charles’s car into a swamp. Both man and car had mud to the tops of them. In the kitchen, I handed Davy beers while he recounted seeing a dam a ways off. Thinking it might be a good place to find crabs, he pulled over onto what looked like a patch of grass. It was, of course, duckweed on water, and the front end of the car sank—first the right side, then the left. Trying to get it out, Davy went down in the duckweed himself. No cell service in a swamp. He waited for cars to pass—few did—and of those cars, for someone to stop—fewer—and of those who stopped, for someone with a chain to tow him out. One stopped, at last. In the downtime he did find some crabs, four of them, and put them in a cylindrical mesh-sided carrier with some sticks and leaves.
For a moment I feared Charles would be mad—people can get ugly about cars, and I wouldn’t be able to stand anyone being mad at Davy—but he had a low-key kindness about him that didn’t forgive as much as completely dismiss. It was less like, “That’s okay,” and more like, “What car?” Not in an overly gracious way that would embarrass the wrongdoer, but in a way that made me wonder whether or not Charles knew he had a car.
“You look like you’re feeling better,” Davy said to me. He had wilderness in his hair. I couldn’t tell if he was saying it to comment on my going for a walk with Charles after being too sick to go to a swamp with him, or if that’s just what I was afraid he was thinking.
“I think it’s passed,” I said.
Home from work, Leah came in, and Charles instinctively raised his arm. She slipped into the space he made and he lowered his arm around her shoulders—so long, it was, that it hung down almost to where her own hands hung. It all looked so second-nature that I wondered if they stood that way, side by side in their kitchen, when it was just the two of them.
On his third beer, Davy started calling us Chaz or Chuck, and Charles and I looked at each other to negotiate context, silently decide which one of us he meant. He’d say something and then say, “Right, Chaz?” or, “Chuck knows,” and I’d wonder, did I know? Or was it Charles who knew? I couldn’t tell if it was endearing or hostile, but it served to arrange Charles and me on a side together, which I liked.
But I was growing more and more disheartened watching Charles and Leah live their lives entwined. They seemed more married than necessary. He’d bring her hand to his lips and hold it there a while; she would smile almost unnoticeably and use her other hand for whatever. And I would realize I’d made up any connection I thought we’d had on our walk. I’m using a habitual “would” because it happened twice, the hand-kissing and the realizing. I learned and forgot and learned again. Sometimes it went on for many rounds.
Feeling embarrassed, I was also concerned about my morality. Earlier in the day I’d put Leah out of my mind entirely—didn’t even have to try, as if I’d never heard of her. How quickly things change! That light, post-vomit, in-love euphoria propelling me had turned sinister. Now half-dead, I was ready to close the book on the whole thing—goodnight, world—and start over in the morning, when Davy and I would get on a plane back to Michigan and go back to normal.
And that’s what we did. Leah offered to drive us to the airport before work. It seemed Charles typically slept late. Admittedly, I was disappointed not to see him, hurt that he wouldn’t want to say goodbye. We were still two humans who’d shared some time and berries. But then he appeared, hair standing all over the place, gray eyes charged up as if he’d been awake for some time. Leah sat in the car, ready to go. I was coming out of the bathroom and Davy was coming in to get the last of our bags. Charles and Davy hugged, each saying, “Alright,” a couple of times. Davy headed back to the car with the luggage and I moved after him hesitantly, wanting also to hug Charles, but wanting, too, to be cool.
“It was so nice to meet you,” I said, and stepped forward and then back again.
Charles closed the gap between us quickly, as if dashing in from the rain. While we were hugging he said, behind my head, “I love you.”
I would have thought I misheard, except he said it as if he were surprised. And part of me, the part I don’t know anything about, the part that knows the Truth and doesn’t care about the truth, already knew. There’s a feeling like wonder, like exhilarating peace, that happens when the Truth and the truth overlap, when you realize you knew something you would never let yourself believe, and suddenly it’s all there at the same time in the sunlight. It’s what I imagine people are trying to describe who’ve died and come back not worried about anything. Because they saw the Truth and the truth at once.
“I love you, too,” I said so easily, both not believing and believing the whole thing.
We stood and smiled at each other for a minute. What it meant or what would happen next didn’t cross my mind. I was suspended.
I walked to the car, rode to the airport, filed through security, listened to Davy explain the crabs to TSA, found our seats, held the crabs on my lap, all smiling. Part of my brain was responding to Davy, signaling to my voice when to make listening noises. Part of it was off glowing somewhere secret.
It’s been a year. Now, Charles, Davy, and I are standing in Davy’s bedroom. For a year, Charles and I have written to each other, never mentioning the morning in his doorway or whether or not we’d ever see each other again, but just talking, a yearlong conversation about our days, like keeping a journal. He doesn’t mention Leah much, and I never mention the dates I go on, or that I see his face when I look at my dates’ faces, imagine his hands when they touch me.
And now here we are: him with a new book of poems, visiting on the university’s dime to do a reading—bless Davy’s heart—and me not knowing where to put my hands. I’m trying my back pockets, hooking my thumbs through my belt loops. I can see myself from the outside; I look like I’m giving a tour at a petting zoo.
Davy is showing us footage from his security camera of him scaring trick-or-treaters within an inch of their lives. This is the security camera’s sole purpose—he un- and reinstalls it each year, points it at the porch swing where he sits wearing a pumpkin head, clothes stuffed with hay, a bowl of candy in his lap. We watch wave after wave of trick-or-treaters approach the porch with caution, look at each other to confirm how to proceed. They decide they are, indeed, meant to take candy from the bowl in the dummy’s lap. And in the video, each time a small, trembling hand reaches the bowl, Davy stands up.
Elegant in its simplicity, the move has a one-hundred-percent success rate: kids running around in circles screaming, pushing each other over to get away, falling down the stairs.
Charles, though I know him like my own mind after reading and re-reading his emails, is a physical stranger to me. I’ve filled every quiet moment with him, reading his words on the bus, on the toilet, before falling asleep, at work while Davy talks to the maintenance lady in the hall for an hour and a half. If I don’t have a new email from Charles, I read an old one.
Now he’s standing next to me, and I know what he eats every day, that in his dreams he’s always blind and having to drive somewhere urgently. But his voice is unfamiliar; I’m relearning how his face moves when he speaks.
“The next one is my favorite,” Davy says. “This guy goes right over the railing.”
Charles sits on the edge of the bed and leans forward to watch. I stay standing, notice Davy start typing quickly on his phone.
“Oh, shit,” Davy says, then more typing. “I forgot I have to pick up my neighbor from the train.”
I look at Charles, who’s looking at Davy.
“I’ll just run out. Won’t take more than thirty minutes,” Davy says.
“Are you sure?” I say. No one knows what I mean. I mean, don’t leave Charles and me alone.
Alone together, Charles sitting on the bed, me standing in the middle of the room. We look at each other. I feel like I might die. My limbs are tingling.
“Charlie,” he says.
I go and sit beside him, turn toward him.
“I can’t do what I want,” he says.
I nod. “I don’t want you to.” And then I say, “I mean, I want you to, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Or everyone else.” I’m going on. “I can’t do what I want either, I mean.” I want to stop talking.
“What do you want?”
I bring my mouth close to his mouth and he holds up his hand.
“Tell me,” he says.
I wish I hadn’t just tried to do something he didn’t want, after I’d just said I didn’t want it, either. I think of the words I’ll have to say if I do what he asks. The stakes are high for misunderstanding what we’re doing. I say, lamely, I want to kiss him.
He nods, closes his eyes. “How would you kiss me?”
I get it. I tell him how and where and he lies back and rubs the inside of his left thigh.
“Can I touch you?” I ask, and he shakes his head the way you do when there’s no time and says, “Talk to me.”
I lie next to him on my side, murmuring in his ear, watching. He pulls himself out of his pants and when I see his dick I feel calm. His body looks instantly familiar. I was always going to see him. I pull up his shirt for him, not knowing where he’ll come.
His hand moves faster and faster. His hands are beautiful, expert on himself. I love watching someone do something well.
I watch. I say, “Almost, almost.”
His breathing changes and I go for my bag, grabbing the tissues that collect in the bottom over time—unused, but certainly not clean. The only time I touch him is clinically, through tissues that smell like stale mint and pencil lead.
We laugh and kiss for the first time without thinking—not adulterously, but the way you do after someone has a baby, like, I can’t believe I just got to see you do that. I touch his arm like he’s a dear friend who’s run one hell of a race. We’ve gone through something.
“Now you,” he says, and I shake my head, knowing I will and still dreading it. I’m always the last one in the pool, seeing everyone wet and living. I’m dry and worrying, torturing myself over the jump.
“Yes,” he says. “Of course, yes.”
I lie down, aware of how I look, wondering how to masturbate beautifully. Charles looked like he was used to the world watching.
He’s more practiced than I was, verbally running his hands over my ribs, turning me over, going slow. I ask him to go faster and he slows to a stop, describing how still he can stay. It’s working marvelously. I can’t believe how well.
“Charlie, Charlie,” he says, and I love hearing it. I wonder if he’s saying my name or his.
And then he says, “Charlie, open your eyes.”
I look into his eyes. With both of us fully clothed, and my hand down my own pants, it’s more personal than anything.
“Davy just pulled in,” he says. “I need you to come right now.”
“What?” My brain won’t work.
“Come for me,” he says, but now I’m thinking about Davy finding this mess, Davy seeing me in a new way. And I’m up and running around, zipping my pants, washing my hands in the bathroom.
The Halloween footage is still running when I sit back down next to Charles. I hold his hand in my lap, study the way it looks and feels while the sound of Davy carrying beers upstairs gets louder, until he’s coming in laughing and I have to let go.
At the airport, Davy parks instead of dropping Charles at the curb. We go in, stand back while Charles floats over to the kiosk, crouches down to see the screen. We walk him to security. People shove by us while Charles and Davy clap each other on the back and say, “Alright,” as usual. Seeing something twice can feel like a routine, like home. When we hug, I allow myself intimacies I hope are invisible: I ball his shirt in my fists, I smell his neck. I don’t know if we’ll write after this. I don’t know if things have changed. In the time he’s been here, we’ve talked less than when he was in Florida. In the time he’s been here, I’ve missed him. I’ve checked my phone for emails from him while he’s sitting across from me.
Davy and I watch him snake through the ropes, wave when he’s facing us. Charles smiles open-mouthed, head like a cathedral, gray eyes waving back because his hands are full. I feel my organs loving him.
“We’ve got to get some bigger shells for the crabs today,” Davy says. He’s right. They barely fit in their current shells, have probably been dying for a move. “And then I was thinking you could help me hang some stuff. I mean, I’ll hang it, but I need someone to tell me if it’s straight or not. The human eye does things a level can’t.”
I follow Davy back to the car, my chest torn open and everything inside wrung out. It’s warm and orange out, and I like the sound of Davy’s voice.