In and Out
And I pointed at him and yelled, Don’t you dare tell me who I am when you don’t even know who the fuck you are, and he looked more hurt than usual, and he marched over to the counter and pulled a knife out of the cutlery block and dragged it across his throat. He stood there, half-smiling for a second, as if to say, Now this’ll hang over you for the rest of your life, you stinking piece of shit, but the pain and terror sank in quickly and he reached out to me, hands spasming and eyes blinking wildly, his throat red and sinewy and spraying matter all over the linoleum. Then his eyes glazed over and he fell on the floor and started rolling around in the puddle he’d rained, like he wanted to have one last bit of fun before everything evaporated.
* * *
People don’t believe me when I describe how it happened.
Really? they laugh, albeit nervously. He died like that?
I’ve fabricated a new story to shut them up. He was on the highway when a speeding sedan tried to cut him off and clipped the front of his car. The sedan careened a hard left into the divider and came bounding back into his lane like a flaming dumpster, and that was the end of it. Sometimes when I’m drunk enough, I add that a piece of the sedan’s shrapnel burst through the windshield and lopped his head clean off, and I almost snort because the thought is so ridiculous. Then, as they sit there gasping in shock and red-faced sympathy, I peer down into my glass and polish off whatever is left of my whiskey and pretend that lying doesn’t bother me.
* * *
We got married two weeks after the Supreme Court decision and a decade into our relationship. I wanted to wait until the homophobes in the state quieted a bit—some not-so-irrational fear of mine about getting gunned down as we exchanged vows—but he’d just about built himself on the concept of risk. When he was seven, he would climb the tallest, spiniest trees in his neighborhood and willingly fall from their branches; when he was ten, he would toss gasoline bombs into the street and ride his bike through the flames like some meth-addled stunt cyclist; when he was eighteen, he would shoot smack with fair-weather friends in the dank alleys of Little Rock and paint still lives of rotting food and hypodermic needles, thanking God he wasn’t working a soul-sucking desk job like his parents.
When we met—at the time, I was twenty-two and he was twenty-four—he was about to begin a cross-country road trip with a boy he was plotting to dump as soon as they got to Los Angeles. The plan was to drop the abusive fucker off at an In-N-Out Burger under the pretense that he needed to call his mother, so he would meet him inside in a few minutes, and then drive away while the boy was finding them a place to sit.
I asked why he had to carry out this elaborate plan in LA, which was a thousand miles away.
Because, he grinned, a guy like me won’t be alone there for long. And I can do my runway strut down Rodeo and vandalize the Hollywood sign and paint all those pretty people on Venice roasting alive in their tanning oil.
He bought me a whiskey sour and wrote his number down on a napkin while a twink with wavy black hair and wire-rimmed glasses glared at us from the other end of the bar.
A few weeks later, when I fished that forgotten napkin out of my pants pocket and called him, he told me his boy-toy had given him enough bruises that night to produce the first skin-printed Rorschach test. I apologized and told him that I wouldn’t have flirted back had I known we were being watched. But he chuckled and said that I shouldn’t worry. That it was almost as worth it as the look on the boy’s face when he sped out of the In-N-Out parking lot.
* * *
I just stood in the middle of the kitchen because I didn’t know what to do. And every moment I stood there not knowing what to do, he was lying there dying. My first coherent thought, which I now regret, was that he was being dramatic; he had either only minorly cut himself or was pulling a fucked-up prank on me. In a few seconds, he would get up, cackling, and tell me that he’d tied a blood pack to his throat. Just to see how you’d react, he’d say. And I would get even angrier and storm off to the bedroom, maybe pull one of his uglier watercolors off the wall and smash the frame to bits, and he’d knock on the door for so long that at some point I’d have to unlock it, and he would step up to me, cool and slick and sultry, and put one hand down my pants and one over my mouth and tell me to stay quiet and let him make all the amends.
It was only when he started emitting strange wheeze-gurgles that I knelt beside him. He was twitching. His blood was warm and sticky on my knees. I worked my arms under his back and lifted him and held him close. He cringed up at me, like he wanted to say, Well, this wasn’t one of my brightest ideas, was it?
What the fuck, Liam? I cried. What the fuck did you do?
He tried to choke something out, but it only made the blood pour faster, so I hushed him and just sat there sobbing. At some point, he looked glassily off to the side, and I thought that that was it, but I realized he was staring at the blade. It was one of the stainless-steel breadknives in the expensive six-piece set my sister had bought for my birthday two years before. He and I had used it to cut dozens of homemade sourdough and rye and pumpernickel loaves whose recipes his grandparents, both bakers, had passed down through the family.
He writhed a little and made a guttural squelch and then went very limp and very still. Like a mannequin in a retail store. I’ll never forget what that felt like.
* * *
He always thought that I was too shy, that, like a weary tortoise, I lived in a shell and retreated into it whenever I found myself in even a mildly uncomfortable situation. He was right about my tendency to withdraw, but the shell he spoke of was more like a quaint little cottage on a quiet riverbank. I had built it as a place of perfect refuge and rarely saw a reason to leave, as I was usually content sipping tea by the riverside window, watching the water flow along its stony bed, and toiling away at sculptures and poems and novels I didn’t have the talent or patience to complete in real life.
Being alone was something that came easily to me, though I admit that it wasn’t always enjoyable. Sometimes, I would spiral so deeply into negativity and isolation—usually when something distressing occurred in my life, like when my sister nearly died of pneumonia when she was eleven or when my father kicked me out of the house after finding out I’d been having sex with another man—that it would take days, sometimes weeks or months, to return to my emotional normal. So, I made sure that my cottage had enough space to host the occasional guest who could offset the calamity of my thoughts. Suffice to say, then, that when he and I began seeing each other, and when he would appear at my door nearly every day, talk to me for hours, and from time to time stay the night, I was grateful for, if not somewhat overwhelmed by, his presence.
Over the years, I explained and re-explained all of this to him, and for the most part he claimed to accept my bashfulness, but he would still get irritated whenever it proved more of a social inconvenience than an endearing quirk. Like when we’d go to dinner with friends and I would lean away from the table and let everyone else contribute to the discussion, or when at karaoke bars he would try to get me to sing but I would refuse, even if I was plastered, because the mere thought of drawing undue attention to myself made me want to jump off a bridge, or when we’d attend cocktail parties with all of his nouveau-riche poet and writer and painter friends, and I would never be the one to start a conversation or tell new acquaintances that we were a couple.
His frustration was noticeable enough—searing sidelong glances, theatrical whirls of his eyes, and before bed, drawn-out tirades about how embarrassing it was for him to be with someone who came off as a reclusive buzzkill. But nothing ruffled him quite as much as my reluctance to tell people that we were gay.
It was a result of my fucked up upbringing, he argued: the aggressive, tongue-babbling, anti-sodomitic fundamentalism of my parents; the football captain who beat the shit out of me for merely suspecting that I was a fag; the puny Southern town awash with racists and xenophobes and angry, balding, sweaty conservatives who gladly lynched “homosexuals” until the 1960s and would still be doing so if it weren’t easier to get caught nowadays. I strongly disagreed with him and offered passionate reasoning: I hated the way my purportedly Christian neighbors treated people who weren’t alabaster-white and arrow-straight and upper-middle-class, and I was happy to find out I was gay because that meant I wasn’t like them. So, I promised myself that I would remain proud of my identity, even if I was too timid to indiscriminately reveal my sexual orientation to others.
But loath as I am to admit it, I can see now that he had a point. Because lurking behind my triumphant talk was a fear of the desires I couldn’t control. I remember being twelve, thirteen years old and staring at my male classmates, the lean trim of their bodies and the smooth curvature of their legs, and every night begging God to annihilate the urges, but He never did, and whenever I masturbated to the thought of Russell Slater or David Broust or Henry Miller going down on me, I’d feel demonic, grubby, impure, and often I would sit in bed and cry, wondering why the Lord had cursed my parents with a son who was tainted beyond salvation.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when I began to shack up with Peter Regis, that I felt better about myself. I figured out that he was gay after catching him reading, rather boldly, a queer porn magazine in the men’s locker room. Striking up mutual interest was as easy as pulling him aside and asking if he wanted to suck my dick. He was a rare kind of dumb—word had it that his IQ floated around eighty—but he was funny and handsome enough and knew his way preternaturally well around a man’s body. We met at his place two or three times a week, as his folks worked until eight o’clock every night, and the mere thought of him coming anywhere near where my parents lived made me want to puke. Never before had I felt so confident inhabiting my own body, and I figured we might keep things consistent for a few months until, about a week after I told who I had thought was one of my closest friends, George Simmons, about my affair with Peter, my parents apprehended me and tied me to my bed with a length of rope, babbling and gesticulating and flicking my face with anointing oil that stunk of myrrh, trying to pray the gay demons out of me while my sister gawked on from the doorway, gnawing on her French braid. I writhed and howled and tried to bargain with them before I somehow shook myself free and bolted for the front door. Behind me, my mother wailed biblical phrases and my sister begged me to stay. My father proclaimed, If you don’t return to your room and let your mother and I finish our work, boy, you will never be allowed back in this house, and I turned with all of the hate in my body and said, Go fuck yourself, and left.
* * *
My sister was the only one in the family to call after I fled. And not just once; she would ring every other afternoon, at exactly five o’clock, with lists of updates: she had made the sophomore honor roll, and the junior and senior honor rolls, and she was making so many new friends, and she was having petty fights with those same friends, and she had finally found a boyfriend, and his name was Travis, and they loved each other so much, and he was a cheating bastard, and she was glad she broke up with him. I never wanted to talk about myself, but she’d go out of her way to ask how things were—fine—if I was still going to graduate high school—absolutely—if I was really planning to stay away from Mom and Dad for good—no doubt about it—what the new apartment was like—small, but functional—if there were any men in my life—not yet—and if I loved Liam—well, I wouldn’t be with him if I didn’t. We spoke the night of her prom, the morning our parents announced they were getting divorced, and the afternoon I packed the junker I’d bought with the cash I made selling snacks at the local movie theater and made my way to Boulder for college.
I’m not sure why she was so eager to reestablish contact with me. It wasn’t like we had ever been especially close. We loved each other—perhaps more out of obligation than anything—but practically speaking, we had little in common. Whereas she was outgoing and self-assured, passing most of her free time mall-hopping with her girlfriends, organizing school-wide fundraising events, and attending high-intensity ballet classes that culminated in well-attended recitals, I preferred to spend my days flipping through books, button-mashing video games, and listening to Miles Davis albums in my room. Only once in a while would she and I have what might be considered a meaningful conversation—which usually centered on how neither of us could understand why our parents hated so many kinds of people—and even less frequently would we show each other more physical affection than a high-five.
But she still reached out. And better that she did. Because I don’t know if I would have been able to live on knowing that I didn’t have anybody left to love, or to love me.
* * *
One night, early in our relationship, Liam and I snuck into an elderly couple’s private garden. On the way to one of his gallery shows, he’d stumbled upon a gorgeous white Tudor and noticed a gate next to its garage that led to a small backyard utopia. He scouted the place for the next few days to make sure the owners were never awake past midnight and then came to me with the idea to visit. I was hesitant until he bribed me with the promise that if I came, he would paint a portrait of me.
We had no difficulty getting in—he lifted the gate’s latch, and it swung open as though it had been expecting us—and I couldn’t stifle an anxious giggle as we drifted along the path. We were silent until about halfway to the garden; he said he heard a noise, snatched my hand, and pulled us to the ground. I hadn’t heard anything, but we stayed prone for over a minute, the grass tickling my nostrils, before he said the coast was clear and, knotting his fingers very deliberately through mine, guided us on to an old ivy-threaded archway. He studied it, then turned to me and took my other hand.
Shall we, dearest? he said with the strained voice of a very old man.
Well, my beloved, I forced in a decrepit wheeze, we have come this far.
As we stepped through to the garden, Liam flicked a switch that illuminated the golden lanterns around the perimeter. The area wasn’t big, but it was quiet and secluded enough to feel shielded from the rest of the world, enclosed by bushes glowing white and violet and azure, and interspersed with tall ceramic pots sprouting fluffy geraniums and dome-shaped hydrangeas and multicolored chrysanthemum bulbs. In the very center stood a pale-pink cherry tree whose blossoms hovered in the wind and wended their way to the ground. We sat on a bench a short walk away, and he gave an attention-seeking sigh as he put his arm around me.
How subtle, I joked.
Just trying to be a gentleman. It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?
Yeah. It really is.
He nodded, took a long breath, then said, because he probably wanted me to think he was some kind of badass, I’m glad they didn’t catch me in here all those other times. They did get close once or twice, but no cigar.
I squinted at him. You’ve been here before?
Didn’t I already tell you that?
You said you scouted the place. Not broke into it multiple times.
Oh, distinctions, distinctions, distinctions, he grumbled, waving a flippant hand. I should remind you that you’re an accomplice to this crime, so if I go down, so will you. A crooked smirk, and then he leaned toward me. His lips were softer than they looked. He pulled away, ran a hand through his hair, and sat there staring at me.
What? I blushed.
Nothing, he said. He looked around. Just thinking.
I had to give it to him—he’d charmed me, no matter how flighty and smug and unpredictable he was. In fact, he was captivating because of those traits. What did that say about me? That I was by comparison too reserved, too faint of heart? That I was self-conscious and dull and only attracted to him because I craved the presence of characteristics I lacked? I didn’t want any of that to be true—didn’t want to be so emotionally indebted to him—so I made what, for me, was the bold decision to take control of the conversation.
Is this what makes you happy? I asked. Doing dumb, dangerous shit all the time?
I was serious, but he laughed. Oh, yeah, he said, this is definitely what gives me true fulfillment. In fact, my overarching goal in life is to die doing the dodgiest thing you could possibly conceive of. He laughed some more, then suddenly became serious. No. I do this kind of stuff because it’s fun and kills time and makes my heart race. But it’s not what I live for.
So, what is?
He shrugged. That’s a whole different ballgame, my friend.
Well, let’s play.
He bit his lip, his eyes glittering in the blending light of the moon and the lanterns. To be close to people, he said. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted. Even when I was a kid. Wanted to make the most friends, have the best conversations, do the most exhilarating things so people would notice me. I think it’s why I started painting. I wanted people to see what’s really buried inside me. So they could understand. And so maybe they could understand what’s buried inside themselves. He looked at me. Satisfied?
I was, as much as I was surprised by his sudden openness and told him so. He grinned. What about you?
I was so pleased I’d gotten him to be sincere that I didn’t even realize he might turn the question on me. I considered saying something sarcastic to evade the question, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that inconsiderate of his feelings. So, I thought for a while, then said, This.
He narrowed his eyes. What?
Whatever… all of this is, I chuckled, making a wide sweeping gesture over my head. This makes me happy.
It was a nonsensical response. I don’t think I even knew what I was referring to. The garden? Our talk? Our adventure? That night? Him? The world? But he liked the answer. I could tell because he nodded and scooted closer and held me until I started to doze off against his neck.
The next day, as promised, he did my portrait. It was so faithful to my features that I was almost offended by it. But in the end, I fell in love with it and hung it up in my living room and didn’t take it down until we moved in together.
* * *
I wasn’t on the phone with the emergency operator—a woman with the soft, reassuring voice of a concerned grandmother—for long. I tried to explain what had happened, then answered some of her questions—like, What is your address? and What is your phone number? and Is he still breathing?—slowly and without much emotional inflection. At the end of the call, she told me to remain calm and stay exactly where I was while the paramedics made their way over. I had the urge to ask how anybody in my situation could be calm—even though to her I sounded like a portrait of composure—and what good a squad of paramedics could do to someone who had already bled to death, but I kept my mouth shut.
I sat at the kitchen table and stared at him. All of the blood was already starting to coagulate under a murky brown tint. His eyes were vacant and bulging, his mouth stuck half-open, his tongue soaking in a soup of gore. He didn’t look human anymore. I threw up the steak and peas we’d eaten for dinner, then laid back in my chair and stared at my nose and wondered why this time, out of all the other times he’d threatened to kill himself, he’d decided to go through with it.
Ten minutes later, they rang the doorbell. Like they were expected guests bearing casseroles and fruitcakes. I opened and five first responders entered the house. One of them wheeled in an annoyingly yellow stretcher. Three entered the kitchen. Another sat me down in the living room, asked a dozen questions, and copied my answers with a multicolored pen set to green. She gave her condolences and offered to call Liam’s family members, which I allowed, and then my own folks, which I didn’t.
An hour later, they were gone. So was he, and so was the knife. The blood and vomit were still there, though, left for a biohazard cleanup crew that would come in the morning.
The first thing I did as a widower was call my sister.
Hey, she answered. What’s up?
Hey, I said. Liam’s dead.
She was quiet for a while. Then she started crying. I wanted to, but I couldn’t anymore.
* * *
I sensed that he was troubled from the moment we met. It was his eyes—how they scanned the room, and every part of me, with an almost obsessive, fanatical intensity. But this didn’t so much deter as fascinate me. Maybe, I thought, he was just unique, and even if he had issues, he would be able to understand me, someone just as damaged, and we could help each other stitch the wounds we weren’t able to close on our own.
It turned out that I couldn’t have guessed the true extent of his problems. His parents, whom he remained surprisingly close with until his death, were bohemian musicians who, for the first few years of his life, lived in an anarchist enclave of fellow hippies who would eat only vegetables and walk around nude and smoke peyote from red clay pipes. He said he couldn’t remember much of his time there save an acid trip he had when he was four or five, which he described as being really funny and full of breathing colors. His parents packed their guitars and filthy tunics—the only things they owned—hitchhiked to Albuquerque and found ordinary jobs after discovering that one of the members of their commune had molested Liam. He said he couldn’t remember the incident but looked visibly uncomfortable the single time he told me about it.
The rest of his upbringing reads like a grim cliché—the disillusioned, alcoholic dad with his dead-end job and ever-clenched fists; the sour-faced mother who was always out fucking other guys; the bullies who, until he garnered some respect painting portraits of classmates, would empty his pockets and slam him into lockers and force him to bathe in the shit-filled school toilets. After he tried to hang himself at the beginning of high school, a psychiatrist prescribed him a cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines, which, even into adulthood, he never took consistently.
One of the most toxic products of so much tragedy was his anger. He needed, perhaps more than anything, to be understood and accepted, so when he felt like he wasn’t, he cracked. Take the time I told him he was overreacting about my platonic friendship with Elijah, a guy at work who also happened to be gay, and he accused me of being unfaithful, of not loving him anymore, and declared that he had never really trusted me. I tried to tell him that he was being irrational, but that only made him more furious, at which point his voice grew so loud it rattled the walls, and his rant devolved into blind insults like, You’re a gay Uncle Tom and You’re a passionless, self-absorbed prick who thinks he can do whatever the fuck he wants and If I’d never married you, I’d be the happiest son of a bitch in the world right now, which made me scream back things I didn’t even believe but knew would pierce deep, like Your parents never loved you and You’re so lost in your broken fucking feelings that you can’t even think about anyone but yourself and Why don’t you crawl back into the garage and make some more shitty paintings, you goddamn hack? We went back and forth for over an hour before the police knocked on our door and said that the neighbors had heard everything and were afraid that one of us was going to kill the other.
He never hit me, though, which is hard to understand. How could someone regularly devolve into such extreme rage and not once snap into physical violence? Maybe it was that he knew when he was approaching the point of eruption, because at the end of most arguments he would break off and charge into our room. Once I calmed down, I would go in there, and he’d be lying on the bed, staring at the cracks in the ceiling, his face blotched scarlet and his clothes soaked in sweat. I would sit next to him and say, I’m sorry. He would squeeze my hand and say, I didn’t mean any of what I said. And I would say, Me neither, and he would say, You know I love you, right? and I would say, Of course I do. And then we would go to sleep.
* * *
The most common question I get is how I’m doing.
Fine, I say, laughing the whiskey off my breath. They know I’m lying, but they act like I’m not, and that’s all I really want.
I’ve been selling some of his finest pieces. Not because I want to or particularly need the money, but because he did his best painting when his emotions flared out of control, transforming clean canvases into abstract meditations on torment, and it’s a special kind of hell to remember him in such a gloomy way. People are willing to pay a lot more now that he’s gone, which I find somewhat sickening, though my financial advisor can’t stop smiling about it.
I also sold our house a few months ago. It was becoming impossible to live in. I couldn’t be in the kitchen for more than five minutes without having a panic attack and I became fearful that one day I would either see his ghost working on another showpiece in the garage or I would be wrongfully charged with his murder even though his death was officially ruled a suicide. I stowed the rest of his paintings in a storage unit but have kept one, his old portrait of me, in the new bedroom. I stare at it when I can’t sleep.
I like the bar in this new town. It’s small and clean and the people are courteous and outgoing. I’ve gone out of my way to make friends with the regulars because nowadays, the more I’m alone, the more I notice his absence. I talk to them about him a lot, buy them drinks for putting up with my ramblings.
The most common question I get is how I’m doing.
Fine, I say, laughing the whiskey off my breath. They know I’m lying, but they act like I’m not, and that’s all I really want.
* * *
He’s in the living room sipping his morning coffee. Steaming black with a dollop of honey and an extra spoonful of sugar. The windows are dirty, the television is stuck on a grainy, muted sitcom, and the record player in the corner of the room is spinning noiselessly.
He sees me watching him through the archway. Morning, he says.
Morning, I say.
For a while, he stares at the television screen, drinking. Then he turns to me again. I was thinking we could make some banana bread today. And maybe later we could take a drive down to the lake. Watch the sunset. Climb some trees.
I smile. Yeah, I say. I’d like that.
Then I wake up.