Your face looks different every time I tell this story.
There’s the part where we’re in that coffee shop you used to work at. I didn’t really go there to read, but I think you figured that out. I still wonder why you never said anything. Why didn’t I? As I’m packing up my bag, you tell me to wait, so I wait. I look up and you’re already next to me.
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember your face here. You are too handsome; too close. I never thought about it until later – how you always wove your way in closer than everyone else; how I always wanted to ask you to come closer, but I never did.
“Your tag is out,” you say, and God, I want to die. But then you reach around me. Your knuckles brush my neck. I don’t point out that there are other ways you could have done this. There were so many other ways we could have done a lot of things. We never talked about that.
You brush against me again as you pull away; then you pat my chest and say, “Now you’re perfect.”
I never did ask you what that meant. It’s easy to make meaning out of the middle from all the way over here at the end, isn’t it?
You texted me once at eleven-something at night, out of nowhere. Just because.
Can I come over?
I know you knew the answer, but it was nice of you to ask.
Some things must have happened between your text and your knocking on my door, but I don’t remember them. I tend to forget the mundane things. I tell myself I’m saving room for what’s important. If that were true, I would remember what you sounded like when I opened the door and you said my name.
So we’re in my backyard. We’re catching up. From here, I can see your profile. Your nose; your stubble; your Adam’s apple bobboing up and down. At one point, your watch beeps. You glance down at it, then you look right back up at me and you smile. Joy gathers around your eyes, hinting at wrinkles to come. I didn’t say it, but I would have done anything to see that again. Start wars. Boil the oceans. Stay up past my bedtime.
“It’s my birthday!” you say. “Thanks for hanging out.”
“Is it rude to make a wish on someone else’s birthday?” I ask.
“Only if you don’t tell me what you wish for.”
I tell you I wished for another beer. Would it have made a difference if I told the truth? You already know how this ends.
There’s also the part where we’re in your studio. This is the one where most of your face comes from. We’re on your bed. You have a guitar. You’re singing. If I turn my head toward you at all, I can smell your cologne, so I don’t. You do these things like they’re okay, and I’m the one who lets you. I keep thinking about your hands. You make the transition from one chord to the next look so easy, and I’d take your version of Let It Be over Paul McCartney’s any day. You have your knees folded up under yourself. Your leg is touching my leg. My hand is on my thigh. Just a few centimeters to the left and I could touch you. I could. But I don’t. Anyway: your face.
I know what color your eyes are. I know that you smile with one half of your mouth; I know there are parentheses on either side. It’s a good joke – like anything here is optional. I know you had a bit of a beard in this part. I think about all of these things individually. I think about them all of the time, I promise I do, but I can’t put them together.
Did you know there are people who can’t picture faces at all?
I saw a man on YouTube talk about how he can only say what his coffee table looks like because he knows all the words that make up a coffee table – brown and oak and polished – but there’s no table in his head. It’s called “aphantasia”. An absence of fantasy. Imagine that: not being able to imagine.
I have a different problem, I guess. I can see just enough of your face to miss the rest. I can get all of those pieces together, but I couldn’t tell you where they go.
You don’t have to tell me, because I know: I know I am making myself the victim in this story. Boys like you don’t like boys like me. They don’t like boys at all. I signed that contract. I spent time with you anyway. I was never brave enough to ask you why, if we agreed to these rules, I was on your bed at midnight, letting you point your voice right at my heart.
You remember what happens next: you take me home; you thank me for hanging out; I thank you for playing for me. I know you smile at me, and I know it reaches your eyes, but I can’t think of these things at the same time. You see my problem?
Anyway, I have a better idea. You wanna hear?
Let’s say you’re telling me to let it be and let’s say I don’t. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I break our contract. I put my hand on your leg and I can feel your muscles under my palm. You put your hand on my hand and it is all the right things: warm and soft and gently calloused from how much you play.
You can imagine the rest for yourself. You can imagine that all I want is a version of this story where I learn to say it out loud. A version of the story where you kiss me, perhaps. You feel my beard; you laugh and pull away.
“It’s different,” you say. You say that every time. “But I like it.”
I keep telling this story because I don’t know what to do with the ending. I tell myself I can put the right words together to make a version I can live with, but what would that even look like? You’re dead, J. You can imagine that it’s not easy to make that into something narratively compelling. Where’s the theme in it? What’s the lesson?
You can imagine, I’m sure, that my problem is imagining too much.