Originally published in Prismatica Magazine, May 2020.
He opens the door before she can knock. Their eyes meet, and she allows him a moment to stare. Brown eyes widen behind slim black glasses; slowly traveling up her body, his mouth opening and closing rapidly, an attempt at speech he never quite manages.
“Do I… know you?” he says at last.
“Not yet,” she answers. Even from this distance, she can feel his words thrumming against her skin and tingling all the way down to her toes, dormant thoughts and ideas lit on fire. She shivers. It’s not enough, never enough, but she is patient and he has more to give.
His stance is defensive, taking up as much of the doorway as he can, but he relaxes slightly at her words. “Oh, are you the one interested in the apartment? I’ve been emailing you,” he says.
She smiles and shrugs. She simply follows where the words take her, and the rest always sorts itself out. She recalls passing someone in the hall, a nervous man in a beanie, but a glance from her had sent him on his way.
“Are you going to let me in?” she asks.
He regards her for a long moment. His shoulders tense, teeth sinking into his lower lip, and against what he knows to be his better judgment, he opens the door wider.
She walks into his apartment, making a point of brushing against him as she passes, and his fingers tighten on the doorframe.
Hook, line, sinker.
There is a mirror in the hallway, and her attention shifts when she glimpses herself and discovers that she has changed again. Her long blonde hair is cropped into short curls. Her clinging blue dress and feminine curves transforming to baggy jeans, flat planes and lean muscle. She—or rather he—is briefly taken aback by the new look before shrugging and turning into the kitchen. Inspiration comes in infinite variations, and by now, he knows better than to be surprised by them.
“Sorry,” his host says, “living this close to downtown, I’ve been keeping track of a lot of applicants. Who are you?”
“The better question to ask is: Who are you?”
His host stares at him for a moment, mouth pinched in a frown. “I’m Luke. Luke Hawks. That should’ve been on the listing.”
Laughter spills from his mouth, head tilting back and eyes closing briefly in a way that makes Luke swallow. “I didn’t ask your name; I asked who you are. But I suppose if you knew that, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Cut the cryptic bullshit and just tell me your name,” Luke says.
It takes a moment to consider his answer. “Cal,” he decides, hoisting himself onto the kitchen counter.
“What kind of name is that?” Luke asks.
“The only one you’re getting.” Cal starts to cross his legs but stops himself when he remembers that he is no longer wearing a dress. “Does it really matter?”
“It matters if you’re going to stay. Otherwise, why are you even here?”
Cal tilts his head to the side. “You let me in, remember?”
“Yes, I did.” Luke furrows his brows, voice coming out in a soft mutter. “And I’m starting to regret it.”
“No, you’re not,” Cal says. He hoists himself off the counter and walks forward, catching his fingers on Luke’s shirt and kissing him on the lips.
This connection is electric.
Cal can almost taste Luke’s words, all smoke and spice, could draw them out of him as easy as breath. He gives Luke a little parting kiss before pulling away. “I think you know why I’m here.”
Luke flushes, splutters like a drowning man, but his eyes are dilated, and he doesn’t move away. “But, I—why—”
“You’re very concerned with those questions, aren’t you. Whys and whats and who are yous.”
“And you’re not?” Luke asks.
“I prefer to focus on the here and now, rather than fixate on details,” Cal says. “But if you must have an answer, I kissed you because I wanted to. I need no other reason.”
“You’re insane,” Luke says, but Cal can see the corner of his mouth twitching.
“You let me in,” Cal reminds him. “Maybe you need a little more insanity in your life.”
Cal lets his hands linger, moving from Luke’s chest to wander up and down his arm. Luke shivers, goosebumps rising on his skin as he begins to lean in. And Cal wants to let him, wants to draw Luke in, to take everything he is and everything he will be. But these are dangerous thoughts, especially so early in the game, so he only allows another brief brush of the lips before pulling away and smiling. “Would you like some dinner?”
Cal peers into the fridge. Energy drinks, a few single slices of cheese, a bag of something greasy that smelled strongly of onions. The cabinets are no better: coffee, half a jar of peanut butter, and a single can of corn. Cal glances at Luke. “Do you live entirely off air and caffeine?”
Luke shrugs. “I haven’t been shopping in a while.”
“I can see that.” Cal pops the tab on one of the energy drinks. It is an alarming shade of yellow. He takes a cautious sniff and wrinkles his nose. Luke calls for Chinese instead, ordering off a menu he appears to know by heart.
When the food arrives, Cal answers the door before Luke can stop him. The delivery boy, barely out of high school, takes one look at him and goes slack-jawed, and Cal briefly wonders how the kid sees him.
Cal takes pity on the delivery boy and grabs the Chinese containers from him. “Thank you for the food,” he says, slowly easing the door closed, but Luke stops him and pulls it open again so that he can shove a wad of bills into the dazed delivery boy’s hand. The teen’s eyes follow Cal until the moment Luke shuts the door in his face.
“Nice kid,” Cal remarks.
“Shit, I forgot to give him his tip,” Luke says.
“Don’t worry, I got that covered,” Cal assures him, knowing that at this very moment, the boy is on the phone with his stunned parents, overcome by his sudden desire to go back to college and study engineering.
Cal stacks the Chinese food on the table, eyeing the cartons upon cartons of fried rice and chow mein and Kung Pao chicken. It is enough to feed at least eight people.
“I eat the leftovers all week,” Luke says in response to Cal’s raised eyebrow. He dishes the food onto paper plates. Luke eats while Cal absently pushes his noodles and steamed vegetables into neat little clumps with his chopsticks.
Luke spends the bulk of the meal talking about rent, shower schedules, and chore wheels. Cal smiles, nods; doesn’t listen. Instead, he watches the way Luke’s mouth and hands move as he speaks and wonders how they would look given more interesting tasks.
They move into the living room. With some gentle prodding, Cal manages to guide the topic from Luke’s apartment to Luke himself. He is an accountant, one of many working for some corporate giant that Cal doesn’t bother remembering the name of. The work is dull, but the pay is good, and Luke’s always been good with numbers.
“And what about your spare time?” Cal asks, leaning against Luke’s shoulder.
“What do you do for fun?”
Luke pauses, considering. “Well… I read and watch TV—”
“No, I don’t mean what you do to pass the time. What do you enjoy? What are you passionate about?” Cal presses.
“I, well…” Luke falters. “Sometimes I write poetry. You know, just on the side. I don’t usually have time. I took a few creative writing classes back in college, but I’m not that good. It’s just a hobby—”
“Can I read some?” Cal asks.
Luke laughs. “No, it’s nonsense, really. Nothing you’d want to subject yourself to.”
“Can I read some?” Cal says, putting a hand on Luke’s knee, and this—juxtaposed with the firm line of Cal’s mouth—indicates that this is not a request.
Luke produces a notebook, and for a moment, he clutches it tight against his chest before handing it over. Cal’s fingers skim reverently over the pages. It is more abstract thoughts than actual poetry, phrases and ideas—First times (girl/me/basketball poster threesome), chasm of dinner table silence, cubicle crypt, anonymous cog in a mundane machine—But words, even in this unrefined state, are always more powerful made physical. Cal closes his eyes and allows himself a moment to enjoy the taste.
“What do you think?” Luke asks, eyes focused on tightly clenched hands in his lap.
Cal tilts Luke’s head to meet his gaze. “I think it’s a start.”
He draws Luke into another lingering kiss, and then pulls him toward what he recalls from the short after-dinner tour to be Luke’s bedroom. Luke allows himself to be led. In that moment, he would have followed Cal anywhere.
It takes little effort to coax Luke to bed, nothing more than soft words and gentle encouragement. Afterwards, they lie together, Luke curled around Cal, open and vulnerable like a child.
“I don’t usually do this sort of thing,” he says, breath brushing against Cal’s neck.
“You don’t usually meet someone like me,” Cal answers. His pants are pooled around his ankles. He uses his legs and the curl of his toes to draw them closer, fishing a packet of cigarettes and a lighter out of the pockets.
Luke wrinkles his nose. “You smoke?”
“Sometimes,” Cal says, breaking the seal on the packet with his fingernail. “Is that a problem?”
Luke sighs, rolling over onto his back. “I guess not. Just don’t do it in bed. I am not letting the smell ruin my afterglow.”
Cal shrugs, putting the cigarettes on the nightstand. “As you wish.” He’d developed the habit to occupy himself while his lovers sleep, but that was back when smoking was an expectation rather than a hazard. Instead, he flicks his silver lighter on and off and watches the play of shadows on the ceiling.
In their little sanctuary of bed sheets and flickering flame, Luke whispers secrets. His real name is William Johnson. He changed it to create some distance between himself and his hometown of Amnesty, North Carolina, and at the time, he had thought Luke Hawks sounded cool and artistic. He hasn’t spoken to his parents since he left for college, but really the rift has been there since he came out to them as gay. At seventeen years old, he had been prepared for anger and rejection, but what he hadn’t imagined was the quiet disappointment, the distance in their eyes as if he had suddenly become a stranger.
“I came to the city to be a writer. I thought I’d reinvent myself,” Luke says, eyes watery bright and mouth trembling. “But look at me! I didn’t end up doing anything I wanted to do with my life. I took the safe choices, fell into old patterns. And now it’s too late.”
Cal whispers gentle platitudes into Luke’s ear. “You’re not worthless. It’s not too late. Your whole life is ahead of you.” He’s sincere about it, as sincere as he is capable of being, and the words seem to comfort Luke, who relaxes and eventually drifts off to sleep.
Hours later, Luke is at his desk, wide awake and scribbling furiously. Cal sprawls himself across the middle of the bed, taking advantage of Luke’s vacancy, and happily listens to the scratch of pen against paper.
Their relationship unfolds like a romantic comedy. Luke takes Cal to the park and the beach, and Cal tries to convince Luke to make love outdoors. They go to the Smithsonian, where Cal amuses himself by constantly correcting the museum tour guide. Eventually, they are asked to leave, and Luke feels so guilty about this, despite Cal being the one at fault, that he promises that their next date will be special.
The next week finds Cal being led by the hand, eyes closed. “How long do we have to do this?” he asks. “I’m going to walk into something.”
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Luke assures him. “Trust me. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
Cal frowns. “I hate surprises.”
“How can you hate surprises?” Luke asks. “You’re always telling me to be more spontaneous.”
“That’s good advice. For you. When you’ve been around for as long as I have, nothing is spontaneous.”
Luke jerks his hand, pulling Cal forward all the more insistently. “Oh, come on. You sound like an old man. You just don’t like being in a situation you don’t control. Your type always has to be in the driver’s seat.”
The statement pulls at Cal far more than he would like, but before he can argue, Luke presses himself against Cal’s back, holding him close as he whispers into Cal’s ear, “Open your eyes.”
Any argument on Cal’s tongue dies when he takes in his surroundings. Luke has brought Cal to the Library of Congress, and the sheer amount of literature awes even him. It is not the most books Cal has ever seen in one place, but it is close, and he wanders from shelf to shelf almost giddy, hand stroking book spines fondly as he greets old friends.
“You look like you’re having a religious experience,” Luke says, chuckling.
Cal snorts, for religious devotion requires a certain mystique, and he knows far too much of gods. “Not quite. But I do love books. I love how someone can take a moment or a feeling, capture it, and turn it into something beautiful.”
“You can do the same with painting or sculpture,” Luke points out.
“Different materials, different skill set,” Cal says with a shrug. “There’s just something about the written word that excites me above all else. Painting and sculpture are nice, and they certainly do the job if need be, but I prefer writers over visual artists. I’ll leave that to the rest of my family.”
Cal realizes his mistake immediately, but it is too late to pull back. The words are in the air, entwined with the world’s greatest authors.
“You’ve never mentioned family before,” Luke says quietly. “In fact, you’ve never mentioned anything about yourself. You know everything about me, and I know nothing about you.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Cal murmurs.
Luke takes hold of Cal’s hand, gives it a squeeze. “I don’t believe that.”
“It’s true,” Cal says. “There is no backstory here, Luke, no hidden depths. I live in the moment because that’s all I am. A moment, enjoyed in its time and gone in the next.”
Luke smiles and kisses Cal’s hands. “No. You’re fun and sexy and intelligent. I’ve never had anyone make me laugh as hard as you do. You make me feel like I can do anything.”
Cal only offers a thin-lipped smile in response, pulling his hands out of Luke’s grasp and taking a step back.
“Look, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t care about your past. We all have our skeletons, and God knows I have enough family issues to write a memoir. But I want you to know that you’re more than just a moment for me. I’m in this for the long haul,” Luke says.
The long haul.
Cal’s hands tangle in the material of Luke’s t-shirt. “I’ve never been with anyone for the long haul,” he admits quietly. His existence is a transient one, taking what he needs from one person and then jumping to the next. He’s never known any other way.
“Then I hope I can be your first.” Luke wraps an arm around Cal’s shoulders and reels him back into his embrace. “You said you like writers better than artists? Well, lucky me.”
Cal leans into the touch. He can still feel Luke’s words, sparking under his skin, more vibrant than ever in Cal’s presence, and the smile that twists his lips is almost sad. “Lucky, huh? We’ll see.”
But like always, the moment passes. After the library, they go to some nice restaurant. Luke writes on the napkins and Cal teaches him how to dance.
Luke’s poetry has accumulated through a number of mediums. Not only napkin stanzas, but toilet paper verses, tiny post-it haikus stuck in sporadic locations throughout the apartment, words filling notebook after notebook. He writes in pencil, pen, marker, a crayon he found in the couch cushions—and on one very messy occasion—ketchup. Mostly, he writes about Cal, about blond curls and blue jeans, the shadows of his face against firelight and the look of a cigarette between his slim fingers.
“I’m so happy,” Luke whispers late at night. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I thank God every day that you basically broke into my apartment.”
“You let me in,” Cal reminds him for the hundredth time.
Luke laughs, burying his face in the niche of Cal’s shoulder and breathing deeply. “I love you. I love you so much.”
“I know. I love you too.” And Cal is surprised when he realizes that this might be true.
It remains like this, bright and perfect, for a time that might be weeks, months, or even years. Cal has never been good about keeping track. Luke is considering publishers and preparing manuscripts. Luke is no longer an accountant. He doesn’t quit his job so much as he simply stops showing up for work, throwing his phone into the garbage disposal when the company won’t stop calling. He has not bothered getting a replacement, for the only one he talks to is Cal, and Cal is always by his side.
They spend days in the apartment, lying in bed. Luke has a notebook and a Sharpie on his bedside table so he can write whenever inspiration hits, and when he runs out of paper, he writes on the bedsheets and on his skin.
“Luke, maybe you should eat something,” Cal says.
Luke shakes his head, not bothering to look up as he struggles to fit another stanza in the tiny unmarked corner of the old cereal box he fished out of the recycling.
“The landlady came up again. She wants the rent,” Cal says. “You’re already two months behind.” They are living off Luke’s savings, money that is diminishing quickly.
Luke laughs. “Don’t worry about it! Once I get published, money won’t be a problem.” The kitchen table is stacked with napkin manuscripts that never get sent.
Cal can’t remember the last time Luke has slept, eaten more than a few bites of pizza at a time, or done anything other than write and fuck. Or—at one point—writing while fucking. Cal reads everything Luke produces, fingers tracing and tasting the words.
Luke has gotten thinner, his face gaunt and eyes fever bright.
“I’m a mess,” Luke laments one night in a moment of clarity. “And look at you, more perfect than the moment I met you.” Cal knows this is true. His skin glows, every stanza Luke writes hums in Cal’s veins, and his eyes spark with something deep and lovely—eyes that have inspired sonnets.
Cal looks at Luke’s arms, black with ink, smeared and meaningless, and something twists in his gut. “Maybe we should spend some time apart.”
Luke shoots upwards, wrapping his arms around Cal and clinging to him. “No! Please, no! You can’t leave me! I need you!”
Once, he would have said I love you.
“You don’t need me, Luke. You want me,” Cal says. “It’s not the same thing.”
Luke shakes his head, tears soaking Cal’s shoulder. “Please don’t go. Please. Please. I’ll do anything. Just stay with me.”
Cal sighs, gently rubbing Luke’s back. “All right. Shh, I’ll stay, I’ll stay. Just don’t cry anymore.” Cal dries Luke’s tears and holds him until his shoulders stop shaking.
Cal is gone by morning.
He makes sure to leave a note with the words: I’ll come back, on the fridge. It is vague, but Cal is confident that the promise to return is enough that Luke will wait obediently without going out to look for him. He wanders a bit, makes visits to people he has been neglecting, a playwright here, a novelist there. He picks people up in coffee shops and bookstores for quick fixes, and even meets up with one of his family for a collaborative project—a very promising songwriter with an ear for lyrics and a passion for composition.
Cal has forgotten how easy it is, immersing himself in the talent of others, riding on the waves of their passion and adoration. He has allowed himself to become too deeply entrenched in playing the part Luke placed him in. Molding himself according to the desires of others comes with the territory, but at the end of the day, the persona is a mask, nothing more.
But Cal cannot deny that he liked the role. He feels comfortable in Cal’s shape, and he finds that Luke is an ever-present itch in the back of his mind. He’s been warned more than once about the dangers of attachment. People were meant to be enjoyed, but attachment?
Tying himself down to something frail and fragile that cannot survive his hunger would starve him. Attachment would mean death for them both.
When Cal fits the key to the lock and opens the door, Luke has faded to a vague impression of secrets and candlelight. He wonders if Luke has anything left to give; tells himself that he is just curious, merely satisfying a craving one last time.
The first thing he notices is the smell: stale alcohol and the brand of cigarettes he occasionally favors. The floor is littered with broken beer bottles and empty cardboard packs. There are stacks of Chinese cartons and pizza boxes on the table and counters, their contents uneaten and slowly spoiling.
Cal doesn’t have to look to know where Luke is. He walks into the bedroom to find him lying on the bed. The walls are covered in marker—lonely, worthless, empty buzz of mind, no ideas, no ideas, Cal, want you, need you, he’ll come back, he’ll come back, he’llcomebackhe’llcomebackhe’llcomeback—Cal brushes a hand against them, closes his eyes and savors their frantic passion, the exquisite thrum of insanity in the ink. Cal never should have returned, never would have considered it if he had known Luke was this far gone, but some part of him is glad to be here for Luke’s final spark.
Cal sits on the bed. Luke doesn’t acknowledge Cal’s presence, just stares at the ceiling, his mind a dried-out, empty husk. If not for the soft rise and fall of his stomach, Cal would have assumed he was dead.
Gently, Cal strokes Luke’s cheek, brushes a few strands of hair out of his eyes. “You let me in, Luke. I only come to those who let me in.” Luke’s gaze never waivers, his breath a continuous rhythm. A tiny dribble of drool spills from the corner of his mouth.
Cal wipes the spittle away and sighs. “I did love you, though, as much as I can love anything. It’s probably not much of a comfort, but it’s something.” He presses light, final kisses to Luke’s cheeks and mouth. He tastes of ink and tears.
“I’m sorry. It was nothing personal.”