Something’s bothering Greg but he won’t tell me what it is. I keep asking but all he does is mumble “Nothing.” I’m still in bed when he steps out of the shower, and I watch him shave through the open bathroom door. A towel hangs loose around his waist.

I’m getting a crick in my back but I can’t bring myself to change position. I breathe deeply to keep myself calm. If I turn over the usual gauntlet will run through my mind. I bite the inside of my lip to keep from examining the headboard ten times, once for each fingertip. I need to bring this up when I see the doc tomorrow.

I reach out to touch his arm when he walks by but he moves it out of reach. It’s subtle but deliberate. He’s pouting, which seems to contrast sharply with the gray at his temples.

The hold on me snaps and I’m able to sit up. “Oh, come on. Just tell me what’s bothering you.”

He grabs a set of clothes with a huffy sigh. “I really shouldn’t have to.”

He heads back into the bathroom to get dressed. This is a pretty new thing he’s done the past couple weeks. He bitches that I don’t touch him, but goes out of his way to keep me from seeing him. I get out of bed, tighten the drawstring of my pants, and go to follow. He shuts the door and I knock.

“Christ, babe, how is this supposed to work? Is it supposed to go away if we don’t talk about it? You know, whatever it is?”

I knocked three times, and I’ve noticed. I tap the door with my fingertips, too lightly to make any sound, and that’s barely enough to keep myself under control. I don’t know that the Anafranil is working anymore.

“Just don’t worry about it,” I hear him snap.

“Jesus, something’s been bugging you for weeks now. We’re practically just pissy roommates at this point.”

“Yeah, we are.”

I have to swallow, and my eyes get that heavy feeling like I’m about to cry. I don’t usually cry, actually, but I almost always feel like I’m about to. Maybe I should bring that up tomorrow.


“Jesus Christ!” He whips open the door and nearly shoves me as he moves past. “Do you really have to fucking whine about it so much?”

I shower a little longer than usual, because the need for a systemic pattern rears its head. Goddammit. Is this because I’m upset?

I decide to skip shaving, and when I’m dressed he’s having coffee by the carport door. He doesn’t look at me.

“I’m probably going to be working late,” he tells me.

“That’s fine.” Now he looks at me, like he’s ready for a fight. “I’m going to be out late with Chanda anyway.”

“Of course you are.”

“Wait. Does Chanda have something to do with why you’re such an asshole lately?”

“What do you mean ‘lately?'”

“You fuckin’ well know what I mean.”

He sighs but doesn’t answer.

“What the fuck’s your deal? Do you have some beef with her?”

“Well, I don’t know, Nate. Should I? Is there anything I should be worried about?”

I catch what he means. “Oh, Jesus Christ. You can’t be serious.”

“You’re always around her!”

“She’s been my best friend for fifteen years. What the hell? You’ve been a huffy little princess for weeks because you’re, what…jealous of my beard?”

“I’m sure Chanda would love to hear you call her that.”

Now you’re worried about insulting her.”

“Nate.” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “It’s not like, you know…it’s not like you’re not attracted to women.”

“Are you seriously playing that card now? Are you telling me I’m inherently unsatisfied if I’m not cheating?”

He puts his mug down and grabs his keys. “Forget it.”

“How can I?” He shuts the door when I catch up to him, but I open it again and call out: “You’ve been making such a fucking point of reminding me!

He ignores me and gets into his car.


The bookstore kills me today. It’s buyback time, and when I’m not helping with the register I help lug the massive volume of textbooks into the back for inventory. We’re going to be working all weekend just to get everything cataloged. More fuel for Greg’s fire.

I prefer it busy. When I’m busy, scrambling to meet the demands of others, I don’t have time to slow down and wait for the same thoughts to force my attention inward. They’re still there, mind you. They don’t call it obsessive for no reason. But they’re in the back of my mind, not the forefront, and there is no time to act on the compulsions they inspire.

I stay until six, when Chanda calls me. “Look up,” she says, and when I do she’s waving at me from the window by the doors. Her bracelets glitter in the yellow light of the student union.

“Heyo! I’ll be out in a second. Coffee upstairs?”

“Sounds good. I’ll head up! See ya in a bit!”

Ten minutes later I’m sitting by the Starbucks kiosk, sipping lemonade while Chanda blows on her tea. She reads me like a billboard and immediately asks what’s wrong.

“Greg. He’s…still Greg, I guess.”

“And that’s a bad thing now?”


“You think New Greg is Permanent Greg?”

“I think it’s safe to say he’s shades of permanent.”

“So what’s his deal?”

I sidestep the direct issue. “He thinks I’m stepping out, I guess. He gets in these moods if he sees me talking to women. The bisexual thing doesn’t sit well with him.”

“Well you are kinda flirty.”

“Wait, what?”

“Not…not like, consciously. Okay, I mean,” she straightens up, concentrating. Her words here need to be precise. “Okay, so, you come off as flirty, is what I mean, even if you’re not actually flirting. And…and you act differently around women than you do around men.”

The faint Indian accent she got from her parents makes her sound almost English.

“Like…” She pauses, looking up and to the right. She sets her tea down, and raises both hands, palms up. She sits cross-legged in her chair. For some reason the pose makes me think of the Bharatanatyam she danced when we went to her cousin’s wedding. Even now she slides her neck while she considers what she wants to say. The image of her writhing jade choli starts playing in my head. It’s preferable to the day-long replay of Greg shutting the bathroom door in my face.

“Like, when you talk with women, you’re very masculine, but then you practically bat your eyes around men.” She leans her head to the side. “You’re all ‘come hither.’ And with chicks you’re like…”

She lurches forward, creep-staring me, and cocks an eyebrow. She drops her voice an octave or two and grunts “DTF?”

“Are you fuckin’ serious?”

She shrugs. “S’what I’ve noticed, anyway.”

“Well.” I lean back in my chair. “Son of a bitch.”


Greg’s asleep when I get home. I decide to crash on the couch after my shower, and in the spring heat my mind goes back to Chanda dancing at her cousin’s wedding. Her date…I can’t remember his name now…he’d been affectionate all night, and I remember being a bit surprised at the naked desire in his eyes. When he looked at her, they almost seemed to sparkle in the light of the silver jari in her skirt. He didn’t seem to mind that she danced so much with me. I was already with Greg by then. She and I could’ve fucked in front of her date and the guy probably still would’ve assumed I was just “the gay friend.”

I remember wondering what it was that he wanted so badly from her, from this woman I’d known since I was ten. When I thought of Chanda it was with memories of middle school acne and baby weight that hung on through high school. But when she danced then I saw the fine-tuning ballet had finally worked on her body. She coiled her arms above her head and slid her neck from side to side. Her curling lips were dark like plums, and her stomach twisted like a python.

When I finally go to sleep, my mind is stuck on the image of her lehenga. I see its delicate hem billowing against her ankles, like a sail caught on a river wind.


Dr. Hale is a very fatherly guy. Soft voice, direct speech, always encouraging. Ideally fatherly, I guess I should say.

“So how are ya, Nathan?”

“Ahhhh.” I twist my hand from side to side.

“What’s up?”

“My thoughts are turning more obsessive lately. Repeated imagery, mostly. Some anxiety.”

“Any compulsive behavior?”

“Not that I can’t control.”

“Is it getting harder to control?”

“A…a little, yeah.”

“How’s the Anafranil working?”

I shrug. “I mean, I’ve been pretty stressed lately, and you know how bad it used to be if I was stressed.”

He knits his brows together. “What’s been bothering you?”

“I think Greg and I are gonna break up.”

“Why do you think that?”

“He’s mad all the time. He won’t talk about it. He’s been getting real jealous of Chanda lately.”

“Of you spending time with her?”

“Of just being around her at all, really.”

“Now, Greg knew you weren’t exclusively attracted to men when you two got together, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I made a big point of making sure he knew that.”

“Okay. Now, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but have you given him any reason to think you haven’t been faithful?”

“Not that I can think of.”

Dr. Hale is quiet for a minute. “Is there any possibility you’re attracted to Chanda?”

“Hold on. Why are we getting into this?”

“Trust me, there’s a point to it.”

I’m quiet for a long while. The silver jari in Chanda’s skirt sparkles behind my eyes, over and over. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

He nods. “Yeah, I think you are too. And I think this is a recent thing. Dollars to doughnuts, Greg is picking up on that.”

“Well, fuck.”

“Now remember how obsessive thought patterns can artificially inflate feelings of attachment and attraction? Now, that inflation can become compounded when you take into account existing feelings of platonic affection. You with me so far?”

“Yeah. Her being my friend complicates things. Makes ’em…like, bigger than they are.”

“Substantially. Now, I think you’re surprisingly adept at appraising your own perception. So, bearing all that in mind, would you describe yourself as possibly being in love with Chanda?”

I honestly consider it. Jangling bracelets. The Bharatanatyam.

“I think…I think I might be on the edge of that, yeah. Not yet, but…close.”

He gives me a comforting smile. “Well, there you go, kid. Your symptoms are flaring up because you’re stressed. Love, breakups…that stuff hits all of us pretty hard. And you work in a college bookstore. April is a shit storm for you guys.”

“So what do I do?”

“I couldn’t say, professionally or personally. Those are things you just have to manage on your own. Your boyfriend…I think you already have a course of action in mind in that regard, so I won’t add any input.”

“What about Chanda?”

“What about her?”

“What do I do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”

“Should I tell her?”

“I’m a clinician, Nate, not a life coach. That’s a question you gotta figure out by yourself. I…”

He pauses, then puts his pen and pad down and leans forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped.

“My wife and I were close friends for a decade before we began dating, and there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that she’s the love of my life. But…I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, loving friendships fall apart because of the presumption that attraction has to be consummated. Some friends can date, fall in love, fall out of love, and be friends again. Some can’t.”

“I would suggest…” and he points right at me, “…that you consider exactly what Chanda means to you. Not how much. That’s a meaningless measurement. Consider what she means to you. The what is important. What space is her best fit, and yours?”

He looks at the clock. “Alright, kid. I wanna see you in a month. I’ll forward my notes, but I still want you to tell your psychiatrist everything you told me. Off the record, I don’t think there’s anything clinically significant to the increase in your symptoms, but see her anyway, alright? From what I understand, side-effects from Anafranil can be sneaky bastards. They like to play the long game. She might wanna do some blood work.”

I have a weird urge to hug him when I leave, but of course I don’t. Still, though, the image of us hugging replays over and over in my head until I get a text from Chanda, asking if I wanna meet up when she gets off work. After that, the only thing I can picture are the white jeans she wore when we met last night for tea.


Greg stays out all weekend, fuming. While he’s gone I ask Chanda if she knows anyone who can help me move. She comes over in mom jeans and a baggy tee shirt, her friend Rebekah in tow. Rebekah has a sharp, curving nose that almost seems to pin down her extra-wide grin. She has frizzy blond hair that she keeps tied back.

Abhay swings by once everything’s boxed up, and he packs the U-Haul trailer like he does it for a living. He’s tall and athletic and I try not to feel too competitive. He’s a nice guy, eager to heft the heaviest items and joking around while he works. He never seems to sweat or lose his breath. I can see why Chanda likes him so much.

They’re clearly in love. They’re not engaged but obviously they will be one day. Their families would love it if they wound up together. She pretends otherwise, but tradition is important to Chanda. Both are first-generation kids, both have family hailing from the same province. He gets her in a way I couldn’t.

When we take a lunch break Abhay rides with Chanda to pick up food. Rebekah and I sit on the porch, drinking light beer and arm wrestling. She beats me every time. I want to keep going, long after the break is over and we’ve all eaten. I’d like to focus on anything other than the private jokes Abhay and Chanda share.


The apartment looks a lot more spacious now that everything’s arranged. Chanda had to do most of it. Greg was always the housekeeper when we were together.

I get an excited text from her before I head out: “TELL. ME. EVERYTHING.”

Rebekah’s already ordered a round when I find her at a back table. Her hair’s down. It’s less frizzy than I remember it. She has glasses on, thick black-framed jobs. Her huge grin gets wider as we drink. Hours later, while we’re playing darts, I think over and over about us drinking light beer, and her beating me at arm wrestling. I’m still thinking about it that night, when I go to sleep.

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Folding Chairs

old folding chair


The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.

It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.

He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.

“Hey, Pop.”

He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”

“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”

He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”

“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.

Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.

“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”

“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”

I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.

“You ready to head out?” I ask him.

He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.




“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.

“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.

“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.

“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”

“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.

Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”

Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.

When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.




Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.

We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.

“You ever miss it much?”

“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.

“You alright, Pop?”

“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”

The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.

“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”

The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.

It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.

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I wake up to him kissing my neck and running his hand between my thighs. I sigh and turn my head to kiss him. He needs a shave, but I’m too distracted to tell him that. And besides, I like the stubble. I’m tempted to tell him to let me sleep another hour, but he runs his fingernails along my stomach, and I come alive against him.

Eventually I turn over and pull him close, careful to keep the injured finger clear of his writhing back. Kissing his shoulder, I can see the bruised, stitched flesh, torn and marred, in heavy contrast to his smooth tan skin.


I would have really appreciated it if she’d told me sooner I was losing her. I knew we were going to break up, but I couldn’t have gauged how vicious she was going to be about it.

We’d been getting along lately, though, so I guess I misinterpreted that as a reconciliation. In hindsight it was pretty clearly just a cease-fire.

She was doing her makeup in the bathroom. She was naked, her hair fresh and dry, and before I jumped in the shower I came up behind her and kissed her neck. My hands slid along the curve of her hip.

“Get the fuck off me!” She jabbed me sharply with her elbow. Not enough to hurt, not in the body, anyway. But enough to startle me back.

“Jesus! What was that?”

“Are you trying to make me put out my goddamn eye?” she snarled. Even curled back across her teeth, her pink lips looked remarkably kissable. Eyeliner gave her a stare like sharp wire.

“Alright! I’m sorry.” I put my hands up in surrender and stepped into the shower.

“Oh, don’t sound so fuckin’ wounded.”

I didn’t answer, just started my shower. After a minute or so I heard her groan. “Turn it down! The steam is gonna fuck up my hair!”

I ignored her. I let the heat scald away my irritation with her. By the time I stepped out, she’d already left for work.


When he and I are finished we hold each other, our chests pressed together, me breathing heavily just behind his ear. His hair is sweaty, but when he sweats it’s with a clean, almost sterile odor. I run my fingertips against his scalp, ignoring the slight sting of my injured finger. We both need a shower. We’re clearly not done fooling around just yet.

Every so often he gives me a lazy kiss to my temple. We both doze off a few minutes. When I wake up I can feel him getting ready to go again. When Brittany got her stuff, she stripped the linens straight from the bed and threw them in the car. Soon Bobby and I are tangled in the act of consecrating the bare mattress anew.


“Christ, all I’m trying to do is talk to you-…”

“That’s all you fucking do. You talk about things but you never fucking do them. Goddamn, you’re boring.”

“Babe, just…”

“Just get the fuck back, alright?”

“Goddamnit,” I caught the door to the bathroom before she could close it. “Do you want us to break up or what?”

“No! I just want…”

“You don’t even fucking know what you want! All you do is endlessly bitch at me…”

She pulled the door. I tightened my grip, holding in place. Before I could say anything else, she threw her entire body into pulling it closed, grunting in anger and effort.

My finger made a dull, wet sound as it was smashed against the frame.

I remember yelling so loudly it felt like a roar. Brittany covered her mouth against the drips of blood spotting the carpet. She kissed me over and over on the forehead and told me she was taking me to the emergency room. She ran off to get dressed and grab her keys. While she was getting ready, I climbed into my own car and drove away.

I heard her come home from work around nine. I’d locked myself in my room. On the table in the kitchen, I left a note, telling her she had a day to get her stuff out. That’s all it said. Now that I think of it, I haven’t laid eyes on her since seeing her disappear into her room. This room, where Bobby and I are now.


When Bobby gets out of the shower I’ve set up a tray with toast and eggs. A carafe of coffee is on the desk I moved in here yesterday.

Bobby dries his hair. “God, I love you.”

He says it lightly, and I pretend not to notice him gauging me with his eyes. Seeing how I’ll react.

Oh, no.

His phone vibrates again. Text from Mark: “Hey babe. Flying back in tomorrow.”

Bobby tosses the towel over the curtain rod. He pours coffee without getting dressed. I take in the sight of him, and run my thumb along the stitches in my finger.

Maybe he’s sincere, but two days into this I’d prefer it if he wasn’t. I never touched him before Brittany left. Never thought of it.

While he stands there I contemplate going to him, kissing his body, going further and further until he’s against the wall and shuddering above me. I think about him trying to do that with Mark, a man almost twenty years older. Always tired, always busy, always out of the house when Bobby gets home. Maybe Bobby does love me. But he also can’t.

Bobby types something into his phone while he drinks his coffee. He winks at me while he sips from the mug. The tip of my left middle finger is deep blue and purple. Between the stitches I can see the skin beginning to heal. The flesh is smashed and shredded, but still it comes together.

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Extra Extra

movie set


Wardrobe has me put my hair down, then slaps several leather bracelets and a tweed trilby on me. “You stick close to the band,” the costumer tells me. “What instrument do you play?”


“No, I mean what do you want to play? What prop do you want?”

I say banjo to be silly, but she immediately radios to the set. “Props, put a banjo by the street band setup.”

When I get to permanent holding, the only stool I can find is one next to a striking South Indian woman. She’s beautiful to the point that I have trouble believing she’s real.

I’ve only ever seen women like her on TV, I think, then I remember where I am.

“What instrument do you play?” she asks me with a deep accent. She fingers a charm on one of wardrobe’s bracelets.

“Not a damn one,” I tell her.

She laughs. “The poor musicians,” she says, nodding to the people who brought actual instruments. “They’ll be playing to an audience that will only hear a soundboard.” She takes the hat from my head and puts it on. “How do I look?”

“A damn sight better than I ever do,” I tell her.

She laughs, and then the PA comes and ushers half the room outside for a crowd scene. My seatmate gives me back my hat. “Here I go!” she tells me.

I watch the crowd pour out into the brightening morning, then notice a woman looking me in the eye. She’s smiling, and luckily I smile back. I say luckily because my general instinct when a woman smiles at me is to look away in a stricken panic, and then spend the next eighteen hours cursing my inability to recognize basic flirting. Her smile widens when I respond, her red lips framing impossibly white teeth. She has blonde hair, the edges turning pale in the rising sun. Smoky eyeliner contrasts sharply with her creamy skin. The same PA comes back in.

“I need everyone on these two rows to come with me!” And Smiling Woman goes with them. I’m beginning to wonder if this PA is enforcing some obscure No Hookup rule I wasn’t aware of.

Three hours pass before the PA calls for the band. “Time to work for your money!” she tells us.

“Right,” I say to the cute acoustic guitarist, “because it’s not like we’re grownups playing make believe.”

She responds by looking at me like I just waved Mardi Gras beads in her face.

While I pretend to play banjo, a guy in his mid-fifties practices his pacing. He’s the wipe for the shot, an extra specifically designated to cross the entire frame. He works full time, with union benefits and a pension. Before today I had no idea that was possible for an extra. I seem to be alone in my ignorance.

For the final scene that day they sit me on a bench beside a woman whose neckline I’ve been making a serious effort to avoid examining. We pantomime drunken conversation while two women playing vampires run their lines in front of us, and between each take she tells me about her voice over work and her English boyfriend.

Everyone here takes this so seriously, and I’m treating it like a field trip. Whenever the horses for the scene clop by I gawk like a ten year old at the circus. I’m an extra among extras. Everyone here is so professional, but when I see the main actors I want to shout “ARE THOSE THE VAMPIRES?”

I find out later they’re actually playing werewolves.

The PA calls a wrap for all but twenty of us. While everyone else files out to validate their vouchers, I’m brought back outside for a pickup shot. The sun has set, and the French Quarter set is now aglow in strings of incandescent light. I’m paired with the pale-haired woman from earlier. We’re made to hold hands and touch foreheads, and with each take we have to sway like we hear music.

“This feel awkward?” I whisper.

“Little bit,” she murmurs.

“Is it strange that that’s a relief?” I ask.

“Probably,” she smiles back.

When we finally wrap for good she and I talk while we sign out. We exchange numbers as we head to the shuttle that will take us to our cars. The doors behind us flap, spilling the other dreamers into the night. They make me think of eyelids fluttering awake at dawn.

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Krista and I smoke cigarettes by the door to the employee garage. She’s just off work and I’ve just rolled in. It’s February and it’s freezing. The garage can park forty cars but there’s only five here now. It’s just her and me, smoking and complaining about work. Occasionally she curses our managers in bubbly Greek.

“Christ,” she says, rubbing at her eyes. “I gotta be up in five hours for my shift at Hilton.”

It’s a quarter past eleven now. “Shit,” I say. “And you live all the way in Clarksville. That’s two hours coming and going.”

“Yeah.” She takes another drag on her smoke. “Fuck it. I’ll just sleep here in my car. I’ve done it before.” She shrugs and says something in Greek that sounds dismissive.

It really is cold in here. “Oh, fuck that!” I say, digging my houseman keys out of my pocket. “Here. Stub your smoke and follow me.”

We take the service elevator to the housekeeping floor, and I grab a bundle of roll-away linen from the racks in back.

“Front desk to houseman,” my walkie squawks. I unclip it from my belt and answer. “Go ahead.”

“Guest in room 307 needs a roll-away.”


Krista and I ride the lift to storage. Storage is a little warmer than the garage, just because heat rises. It’s just as much a concrete box as downstairs, but here every available space is filled with items guests may request during their stay. A single window looks out over the alley. Red neon spills in through the glass, and the occasional hoot from drunks outside works its way in like whinnies from a field.

I pull one roll-away to take with me to the guests, and make space to set another down. “Here ya go,” I tell her, dropping one bundle onto the bed. “This has gott abe better than sleeping in your car.”

“Oh, no!” she says, almost alarmed. “I can’t put you to this much trouble!”

In the neon light, with her brow creased, I’m reminded she’s 41. She looks younger than she is, but here I faintly notice indicators of her age. Small creases by her eye. The sheen of her skin. Not old. Not even weathered. Tempered.

Under fluorescent light her bouncing, kinky hair is light brown, but in the glow of neon it is a deep rose red.

I wave a hand. “It’s no trouble. You’ll be up and out before anyone else clocks in. No one’s gonna know. It’s just me on hall duty tonight.”

“But the extra laundry!” Her eyes bulge from worry or guilt or maybe just the general shame of the working poor. “I don’t wanna make extra work for anyone!” And she bites her nails and mutters something Greek.

“They’ll never notice. It’ll literally just be an extra armload. They’ll clock out the same time they always do.” I slap the thin mattress. “Sleep here. I’ll wake ya in five hours”

She hesitates, then gives a shy grin, hugs me, and kisses my cheek. She says something I don’t understand, then follows it with: “You’re sweet, little baby.”

I’m twenty-six, but in that moment I feel like an eight-year-old being reminded of my childishness by a pretty high schooler.

“I try.” I grab the other bundle and roll the other bed behind me. “G’night.”

Something in Greek, just as the door closes behind me.


“Krista’s sleeping in storage,” I tell Clint at the front desk. “Can you believe Dan scheduled her for dinner shift? Knowing her morning schedule?”

Clint rolls his eyes. “Assholes.” Then: “You sure she’s comfortable? I could look for a spare room.”

“Nah, she’s good. Just wanted ya to know in case it was too cold for you to take your smoke break downstairs.”

“Word.” He’s typing a mile a minute, closing guest accounts and settling invoices. In half an hour he’ll print three-hundred receipts, some stapled together for longer stays, and I’ll spend a busy hour sliding them under doors. It’s a little after one in the morning.

“You and Krista talk a lot.” He gives me a coy, stubbly smile. “Always smoking together when I come in.” He looks over and winks. “And then she’s always making you coffee before you clock out.”

“Oh, dude, Jesus Christ. She’s, like, my mom’s age.” Which is nearly true. My mother married very young. But Krista…Krista does not look like my mother. Not even a little bit.

Clint shrugs. “Hey man, I’m just sayin’. My man’s older than she is.” Clint’s my age. “Besides, after a certain point, do age differences even exist anymore? This ain’t fuckin’ high school.”

“Funny ya say that. She woulda been in high school when I was born.”

“It’s like that Wanda Sykes bit,” he says, typing through his duties. “If you can’t find a good man, raise one.”


Two guests come back from bar hopping around three. Two women, one blond and sort of heavyset, but no less pretty for it. The other, deep brunette, slim and having a little trouble balancing on her high heels. Halfway across the marble lobby she stops, leans on her friend for support, and slips them off. The two of them make for a side hallway, where the overnight coffee station is.

Ten minutes later, I’m bringing a fresh carafe out when I see them go into the room they share. I swap out a few condiments, and in my haste to get the chore done I stumble over something hidden by the table skirt. When I crouch down to see what it is, I find a pair of black heels. The same the guest kicked off in the lobby.

I grab them, feeling awkward as I carry them to the guests’ door, and knock rapidly. You’d be amazed how fast someone can pass out. I steel myself for an irritable string of swears when the guest, the slim one, opens the door. She’s still in her dress, her eyes a little red, her makeup wiped off of her cheeks.

“…yeah?” she asks. She seems nervous, and I guess if I was alone and pretty, I’d be uncomfortable if a strange guy knocked on my hotel door too. Actually I’d be nervous if that happened regardless of who I was, come to think of it.

“Uh…I think these are yours?” I motion to the table. “I found ’em near the coffee?”

Her eyes light up with understanding. “OH! Oh, thank you so much!” Her voice is quickly layered with emotion. “Aw! That was so sweet of you!”

I’m tempted to tell her I’m just paid to do this, but lately it’s been occuring to me how much of an asshole that makes me sound when I say that. “Well, they looked nice on ya. It’d be a shame for you to lose ’em.”

The night’s libations seem to make her melt when she hears that. “Aw! You’re so sweet!” And she leans into me then, steadying herself with one hand against my crossed arms. When she touches me I quickly wonder how she’s able to keep herself from blowing away in the wind. She pecks my cheek, and I pretend to run a hand over my beard to hide what I suspect is a blush.

“Thank you!” she says again, with more sincerity than I would’ve expected.

“Y-yeah,” I say, then smooth the stammer down. “Yeah, no problem.”

She smiles and holds eye contact as she closes the door, and fifteen minutes later my heart is still pounding in my ears. I take a quick smoke break with Clint in the garage.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, shaking his head. “You gotta stop working so hard, man. You’re beet red.”


By three I’m hurriedly stuffing guest receipts under doors. On the seventh floor a middle aged man with expensive clothes but an alcoholic’s physique grins and holds out his hand before opening his door. I give him his receipt and ask him: “So how much ya owe us?”

He looks over the printout and says: “Probably not as much as y’all deserve.” Then he looks up at me: “How much they pay ya anyway, kid?”

“Ten and change an hour.”

“Yeah. Not nearly enough.”

“True,” I agree, since it seems safe to. “But better than a lot of others get.”

He holds eye contact for a second. “But you’re not looking to keep this job forever, are ya?”

I cross my fingers. “Well, ya know. God willing, an’ all.”

“You from around here?” Here being Louisville.

“Nah, nah. I grew up around Atlanta. A little to the south. Poor part, ya know,” and he laughs with me, and I wonder how much of being poor he can actually identify with.

He opens his door but he doesn’t go inside, just leans against the cheap aluminum frame. For as much as we charge you’d think we’d be built less like a Days Inn, but our location is primo so we get away with it. “Ya lived here long?” he asks, in a nasally accent I place somewhere in Ohio. He undoes a top button. His chest hair is as salt-and-pepper as the hair on his head.

“Couple years.” And I’m not stupid, I know what’s happening. I straighten the receipts in my hand, evidence I need to get back to work.

“Moved here for school?” he asks. In my head I translate: Could ya use some extra cash?

And like always, when a man gets aggressively flirtatious, I feel guilty for every woman I’ve ever gotten handsy with. “Sure did. Wrapping the degree next semester.”

“You can’t possibly afford that with what they pay!” He scratches at his chest. His stare is like the scope of a sniper’s rifle.

“Well, if I can keep my poverty a secret long enough, it won’t matter.” I move away, long, strong strides. “You have a good night, sir!”

He stays in the door frame a moment, unsure of what to do, then quietly says, “Yeah, you too,” goes inside, and closes the door.

When I’m done, I head down to storage to wake Krista.


Krista’s already up when I get there, sitting on the edge of her bed, smoking a morning ciggie and rubbing at her eyes. Her hair is still relentlessly buoyant, but even it seems to be taking time to awaken. It seems to hang with less spring than it does when she’s fully loaded on caffeine and nicotine.

“You’re up a little early,” I tell her, stealing a smoke and lighting up. Outside the tinkling of empty bottles becomes an outraged ringing, as garbage trucks empty Dumpsters behind alleyway bars.

Krista shrugs. “Slept like the dead, though,” she tells me. Her blouse hangs loose on her, a few top buttons undone. I notice her server’s smock is bunched up beside her boots, resting on her folded slacks.

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” I say then, stubbing out the smoke.

“Sorry for what, baby?” she asks, honestly confused.

“I…I didn’t know you still needed to get dressed. My bad.” And I’m backing away before she waves me back.

“No, no! I don’t care!” And she gives this bursting laugh that rings like hollow glass. “Ohhh,” she purrs, comforting but not condescending. “I embarrassed you! I’m sorry!”

“No! No!” I laugh then and relight my smoke. “You wouldn’t be the first naked woman I’ve seen, believe it or not.”

“Oh, really?” And she gives a tired grin. “And how many naked women have you seen?”

“Uhhh,” I take a deep drag. Can she see me go red in the wash of neon? “I don’t know. Never really counted.”

“Oh ho! So that many, huh?”

“You make it sound like I’m bragging.”

“Well,” she tosses her hair over her shoulder, “no harm in that. It’s something to brag about, after all.” She looks down, rubs at her eyes again, mutters something in Greek, then asks: “Anyone down in the staff showers right now?”

“Oh, hell no. No one from first shift is gonna roll in for another hour.”

“An hour.” She just says it, like a confirmation, staring at her burning smoke.

“I can get a kit ready,” I tell her, and start to turn again. She grabs my arm.

“Hey,” she says, and when I turn she pulls me a step closer. Another tug, and I’m nearly sitting on the cot with her.

“It’s chilly,” she tells me, and pulls me closer, throwing the blanket aside. I wasn’t aware of how cold it was until I feel the heat billowing from her bare legs.

“Damn, it’s chilly!” she giggles, throwing the blanket back over us. Soon her mouth is clamped against my ear. Her hands, strong from a lifetime of working to survive, anchor me to her like vices. Every few seconds she murmurs “Oh, my baby,” and then something, the same thing, over and over, in Greek. I never ask her what it means.

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Tori looked so picturesque that Zach cursed himself for not bringing his camera. She’d called at two in the morning, needing a ride, and then begging off and telling him he could go back to sleep. But she was downtown, and it was a two mile hike uphill to her dorm at Vandy. He was pulling up beside her three minutes after leaving his trashy-chic studio loft near Five Points.

Her black skirt swished a half-beat before the rest of her body followed. Her red hair seemed to absorb the glow of the bar front neon. He would have honked, but the familiar rattle of his old Wagoneer gave him away, and she waved to make sure he could see her. Of course he could see her.

“Tell me again why we’re not dating?” she sighed, climbing in and leaning back in her seat.

“Your giant, giant boyfriend, mainly,” he told her. He pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dash. He didn’t smoke, it was just something he did. Some folks touched their nose. Others tugged their collars. He played with the cigarette lighter in his truck. “Also,” he added, curling his fist and lowering his voice, “my art is my true love.”

“Oh, Jesus. What do you call it when someone cliches a cliche? Hypercliche? Megacliche?”

“I’m a barista and a photographer, living in a studio apartment above a pizza joint. I am the Voltron of cliches.”

“You’re not too cliched! Didn’t you sell something recently?”

“Sure did. From that gallery there.” They passed by a tiny storefront, the picture window covered in white blinds. In huge Veranda font the numbers “465” were stenciled in black. “Dude bought a picture of mine for a grand.”

What? Hell yeah!” She punched him on the arm, and he added to his cliche gestalt by pretending the punch hadn’t hurt. “How are you not more excited about that?”

“Well, it might not happen again.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She shook her head. “If you’re gonna be broody I think I’d rather walk.”

“I’m not broody. I just don’t wanna get too comfortable with the idea I can live off my photos.” He’s in a good space now, but when he worked two grueling jobs just to survive, he’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. But things evened out for him. He starves now, making coffee and hustling photos, but at the price of finally living.

Ben Folds was playing in his stereo.

And all this wanderin’…

Got you nothin’…

“So I guess I’d be the chipper one.”


“When we’re together. I’ll clearly have to be the optimistic one.”

“Yeah.” The lighter popped back out, and after a beat he pushed it back in. “But we won’t be together.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.

You were ready to…

But never could…

“So was it a bad fight?”

“Not really. Just…” she sighed, “a stupid one.”

“So you’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Guess I gotta.”

“Yep,” and in the flash of a street light he could see her smile at him, “now that I’m gonna hold ya accountable and all.”

He pulled up to her building. The campus police call box by the door flashed blue and red in the still night. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a lifesaver, man.”

“Cherry flavored and everything.” And he smiled after her as she climbed out. He caught himself a little too late watching the swish of her skirt against her thighs as she went in.

“Come on. Get your head on straight.”

At a light, he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror, saw the faint pink imprint on his cheek where she’d kissed him. He snapped a quick pic with his phone, and back at home he toyed with filters and exposure until her lipstick was a steel-gray print, framed by flecks of stubble along the slate white board of his cheek. He printed a copy, then scribbled along the gloss with a permanent marker. Once the words had soaked in he made two more prints, one to hang, one to hustle. He could easily get thirty bucks a copy for this print. He was gonna try for three hundred.





He texted a woman he knew, but she never responded before he fell asleep. Beside his whirring laptop, the corner of the print hung over the edge of his desk. It wafted in the eddy of his ceiling fan. Across the gloss, beneath Tori’s steel kiss, was the title, scrawled in black ink.


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Cigarette Smoke

cigarette smoke

Her brother-in-law can’t really keep control of himself when there’s liquor around, so I fill up a flask for myself and tuck it into my jacket pocket before taking off.

The drive out to her house is a little long, and very peaceful. The treeline is a black, ebbing hillside in the dark, and the October wind cools me as it wicks away cigarette smoke. The only light I see beyond my headlamps comes from gas stations and the occasional church.

For an hour we all sit in the living room, drinking light beer. I take drinks from my flask every now and again. Her brother-in-law looks to the liquor but doesn’t say anything. I’m clearly pounding through it too fast to share it.

“Can you pick up some cigarettes?” her sister asks him, while he rifles through bills in his wallet.

“Yeah, I can do that.” He turns to me and thumps me in the chest. He’s a good head taller and about a person heavier than I am. He didn’t thump me hard but I catch myself wondering how much I’d waver if he did.

“You wanna ride with, fam?”

By “ride with,” he apparently means “drive.” I’m not drunk despite the brandy, so we head to my car.

“Are you sure you’re good to drive?” she asks me after he’s already outside, and I shrug.

“We’ll find out,” I tease, and in a second he and I are backing out.

“Dude, whacha been drinkin’ on all night?” he says, lighting up a cigarette.

“Whatever was cheapest.”

“You got a sip or two left?”

“I left it behind.”

“Damn. Well we can hit up a liquor store or somethin’ if you wanna restock.”

“Nah, I’m good.” We roll into the gas station. Inside he grabs a case of Bud Light and a few packs of smokes, then offers to grab me something.

“Dude, anything you want!” he sweeps his arm magnanimously, but I honestly don’t want anything.

“Anything you want!” he repeats. By keeping quiet I somehow compel him to buy two bags of pork rinds and two bags of Cheetos. More than anything I just want to get back in the car.

Finally we’re back out on the street, and he thumps my shoulder. “Hey, man, you still wanna hit up a liquor store, right?”

“Not really.”

“Dude, come on! You can’t be done drinkin’! You CAN’T BE.”

I don’t say anything, just light a cigarette.

“Man, don’t feel like you’re obligated to go straigth home just ’cause I’m here!” He thumps my shoulder again. “Come on, man! Do what you want!”

I feel like I’m starting to figure out his code.

“Dude, tell me you’re not still obsessed with her!” He laughs. “TELL ME you’re not still obsessed with her!”

“I’m not still obsessed with her.”

“Oh, man, I’m so glad to hear that. I remember you always following her around and it was, just fucking unfair, man! I remember just wondering why she wouldn’t let you hang out with the rest of us.”

I keep to myself that whenever I swung by, it was her I was there to chill with.

“Oh man, you really dodged a bullet there, though, man. Just…dude, I love her, she’s my sister-in-law, but man, I don’t think she’d appreciate you enough, man. Like, when I first met her, she was ALL ABOUT  me, man. ALL ABOUT me.”

Obsession seems to be the unintended theme of this drive.

“I mean, I was interested, but then I met her sister and it was just OFF. Dude, her sister in her prime? 10, easy. Fuckin’ 10.”

“Well, there ya go. Perfect score already. You win.” I light up another cigarette.

“Ahhh! That’s why I like you, man! You’re always just quietly sayin’ wild shit!” He shakes his head. “Man, I wish you’d brought that flask with you. Hey, man, seriously, I don’t mind a trip to the liquor store.”

I keep driving. I think of the text she sent earlier: “Hey, could you maybe bring beer instead? Or, like, just enough liquor for you?”

“I mean, she’s cool and all, but it gets awkward, all of us in the same house together. I always have to make excuses to stay outside if it’s her and me alone there. I LOVE my wife, man. I gotta make sure I don’t fuck that up, you know?”

I smoke my cigarette. “You got a good thing going, man.”

“I don’t get what it is about you she’s not digging. You’re a solid guy.”

I shrug. It’s getting harder to feign interest in the conversation.

“Hey man, I thought we were headed to the liquor store. It’s only a block or two away.”

I was raised by alcoholics. His hints are falling on uncaring ears. He’s not pulling any strings I haven’t already had fine-tuned.

We pull onto her street. I can see her smoking on the front porch. I get that butterfly feeling in my gut. It’s nice to know I can still get grade-school crushes at 30. It’s also nice to know that, at 30, I can keep them in check. I enjoy the friendship too much to ruin it with any kind of awkward, unappreciated fumbling in the dark.

His phone rings. “Uh huh. Yeah, man, sounds good. Here, can you guys pick me up? Aww, yeah boo! Alright brother, see you in five.”

He thumps me on the shoulder again. “Hey, man. You wanna head over to Boo-Boo’s? They got plenty of shit over there you can have.”

“Nah,” I tell him. I light another smoke. I smoke too damn much. My throat feels scratchy, and I cough. “Nah, I got work in the morning.”

“Aww, come on, boo!” I feel like he’s gauging whether I’m telling the truth or not. I am, but I don’t care if he believes me or not. “Duuuude! Come on! Don’t let her fuck up your good time.”

I shrug through the cloud of smoke. The temperature’s dropped. I wonder where the smoke ends and the mist of my breath begins. The air smells like pine needles, both fresh and burning.

“I came here to hang with her, man. I haven’t seen her all week.”

“Duuuude. Goddamn, you got it bad.” He thumps my shoulder again, enthusiastic to show there’s no hard feelings, and I get an inkling as to what’d it be like if he decided to hit me. Luckily, if a blackout’s imminent, it won’t be happening around me. Tonight, anyway.

“You enjoy yourself brother.” He climbs out just as his friends pull up. He calls his wife real quick to let her know he’ll be back in a few hours. He listens, tells her he’s sorry, then hangs up with a disgusted sigh. Then he turns back to me. “I just don’t want you to get hurt, brother. You seem like such a good dude.”

“You have a good night, man.” I stub out my smoke. I’ll probably light another one in a second. Too goddamn much.

“Alright, brother. Hey, text me sometime! We can hang without her bogarting you all night.”

The car that picks him up shakes from heavy bass, and this late, in this small town, there’s a solid chance someone will call the cops. I wonder if they’ll get pulled over. Boo-Boo’s not shy about lighting a blunt in the backseat.

I light another smoke and join her on the porch. She tells me her sister already went to bed, so I just set the smokes and beer on the ground and sit down next to her. It’s after midnight. We were going to watch a movie but I doubt either of us can stay up much longer. Another time, then.

Tree frogs sound off through the breeze that rustles the pine trees. At some point she leaves to check on her kid. While she’s gone I light one more cigarette. Staring through the smoke that billows around me, I can see the world the way I want to see it.

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