By Christopher Barnard
Painting by Anthony Cudahy
What is it about heat that makes us heavier? Convection or conduction? I can never remember. Alex was wearing a black Patagonia fleece the night I went to his apartment in Williamsburg, of the kind my stepbrothers used to wear on their visits home, and that my mother would buy for me in a size too big because she thought that’s what boys were wearing. He had no shirt on underneath, which was instantly and unexpectedly erotic. This was a look at the moment, a sort of mountaineer déshabillé, even in the oppressive heat of high New York summer. It was around 2am that I finally decided to get a cab over to his place, my phone’s thermometer registering 82 degrees even in the dead of night. The air was fresh and fast over the bridge and watching the city crest then fall was always thrilling for those few seconds. I could have gone hours earlier, but I liked sitting with the anticipation, and the thought of being with another person felt like a hostile act given my recent isolation. In the last year I had seen fewer and fewer people since work and writing kept me at home. It occurred to me that I’d had no more than two interactions in the last week—a panicky check-out at the supermarket and a chat with my super about my failing AC—and I wondered would he be able to tell? To see the machinery moving on my face and mouth with some difficulty as I tried to respond like I think humans were supposed to these days. In conversation I often have to repeat myself and am accused of mumbling. I made a note to speak louder than I thought I needed to tonight. This was not a new tendency, the isolation, to be sure, but this moment and the circumstances, working and writing alone in a sleepy pocket of Alphabet City were quiet and what you might say free, but there was a cost. Days had emptied gradually, then completely. But they were filling in kind. There were other things, new things in the space. I was avoiding mirrors, for one. I registered one morning that my face was changing and I decided just not to look anymore rather than be disturbed by something vaguely off and new. That approach was, as you can imagine, problematic. It wasn’t vanity but more that the nerves were coming to the fore and I would have to answer to them. There were also anxieties arising at crosswalks and restaurant tables and places where I would unknowingly rip napkins into fraught piles and then flee. The compulsion in the speeding taxi was to suffocate all of this, these little deaths inside me, with an extreme and undeniable force. There would be a body close soon, to absorb them.
“You made it,” he said nervously from across the living room, not really moving. His unresolved half-lean told me he had been trying, in the seconds just before, to figure out how to position himself when I entered through the propped door.
“Yes, sorry, there was an accident on the bridge,” I lied, walking toward him. I also told him I had plans, but actually I had done nothing that night, just the sitting. My white long-sleeved t-shirt was filmy from sweat and clung to his hands when we fumbled an embrace. The hole in my jeans where the thighs rubbed together felt suddenly vulgar.
It had been a year since I had met Alex, when we were set-up on a blind date by two married friends we had in common. A quaint idea now, being set-up by actual people, I was curious about the potential of it and he was handsome in the pictures they showed me. “You could be brothers,” the wife, Kate, had offered darkly. He was a food writer. We were both northern looking, with dark hair and light skin. She was right, but nothing happened after that first, forgettable dinner. Alex was only one in a line of failed set-ups and ghosts at dinner, made only somewhat more poignant by the stories he told me of growing up Pentecostal, the madness of narrowly escaping a fringe religion. His manner and appearance tonight, however, were more relaxed than I had expected, especially since it had all been his idea. Then again, I have never been able to successfully gauge the mores of men my age. I would have wanted to appear more ready, I thought.
“You look really good tonight,” he said stiltedly, like an actor adhering to a script. Holding him even for that moment and without breathing, I was disarmed more by his size. I have been 6’2” since 1999, and he stood at least 2 inches taller than me, softer in his waist and shoulders, uncannily like a painting of a man I saw earlier that day and could not forget. The picture was in a coffee-table edition that I had been using as a placemat for the last few months and opened today for the first time in years. The figure, a dark-haired man, was hulking and rough like Alex, but fuller in the places where I was sharp.
The sudden cool of the apartment after being so incredibly hot was making me drowsy. I wanted to lay down right there on the floor—me on top of him or him on top of me, it didn’t matter—to just stop and be silent.
Hearing from Alex the day before was a surprise, amplified by the gravity that my recent period of isolation created; in the way everything begins to feel like a sign. “Hearing from” meant a late night GChat, of course. He was leaving, moving to San Francisco in a few weeks, not sure of the exact date.
me: Oh, how exciting! For work?
Alex: Yes for work.
me: Good for you.
Alex: I wish we had hung out more back when we first met. You were one of the nicer guys I’d met in a while.
me: I recall asking you to go see a play, and you were horrified.
Alex: Haha, I wasn’t horrified. Can I see you before I leave?
Yes, okay. It was contact and it took me a few moments to remember what that felt like. It would mean a few hours of holding and more precisely forgetting about the mirrors and piles and stop lights. Allaying the dread that overtook me at the grocery this week, when a dispute between customers about whose turn it was in line compelled me to pick my cuticles raw, something I deduced from the red streaks near my pockets, or maybe I had I just done it on the walk home.
The painting was Madawaska–Acadian Light-Heavy by Marsden Hartley, the one from the placemat book. I would look it up the next day to be sure, but I kept seeing it as we made our way through his apartment into his room. The portrait is almost primitive, bordering on caricature in dark, hot colors. Hartley, I read in the caption, would sequester himself for long periods of time in the woods or isolated beaches of the northeast and became slightly deranged as a result. How his interactions and work were stranger and more frightening as a result. Did he also notice spots of blood and wonder where they came from?
The apartment was converted from a one bed- room to two; his roommate worked in advertising and was never there. “We hardly see each other. He has a girlfriend, so it’s perfect.” His bare footsteps were loud on the wooden floor and everything felt heavy still. Crossing the threshold into his bedroom, I had the sudden and disorienting desire to be completely crushed by everything in it.
His room was gray and invitingly cool: large enough to fit a couch, television and cheap coffee table along with a queen size bed, tidily made up. We sat on the couch and he pulled me close to kiss. He tasted like weed and Burt’s Bees and I thought how I would be 31 in a week with his tongue down my throat. He was 29. His hands were clumsy and thick and I wanted them to squash my own, or at least try. It was the pressure, and I wanted so much to thrash against them, so there would be no more dying for just a moment. I would sometimes wrestle with men I slept with as a trick to make them use their whole strength against me and get as close to crushed as possible.
“So, did you bring a movie?” That was the pretense of me coming over so late, a movie. Of my entire DVD collection I had grabbed The House of Yes. He had never heard of it and felt no embarrassment. How easy it was to be him.
I wanted to ask him things that would make him talk all night, “Where did you come from really? Who made you? And why are we here?” So I could start forgetting that I was anywhere or anything, just for these few hours, and be buried under the words and him. Instead we watched Parker Posey unravel with my arm around his, and then moved to the bed to fool around. We were sweet and careful with each other. He asked me to spend the night, and I did.
I was an entry on a list of things to do before he left—I knew that and was ambivalent to it. His window looked out directly over the East River. Even in the dark you could see the haze, a murky, boiling red. I was rarely if ever with someone who was bigger than I was. We laid there and he fell asleep in less than a minute. I thought of the Acadian and wondered if maybe we were both on fire, like the burnt shades he was wrought in. This is what I came for: to be smothered and snuffed and quieted, the moment of holding. But he was asleep now. I indicated as much as I could to be held tighter and tighter, until I too fell asleep. In the morning the windows were misty with condensation from the AC and it was freezing in the bedroom. I reached for my phone to beat the 7am alarm. It read 84 degrees in 10009. Alex roused and smiled easily. I was anxious just lying there and thought I should get out, not out of awkwardness, it was just the next thing to do. I had felt him and had been squeezed and crushed and had gotten some quiet. I wouldn’t know if he had gotten any of what he wanted and this felt like the end. It had been nice. I sat up. “Don’t go,” he reached sensing my exit, flinging his arm around my chest and throwing me down on the bed with a startling force.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to...” he said, surprised at himself. I stared up at the ceiling and felt the rush of hitting my head on the bed, his thick arm heavy on my chest. A few moments passed and he asked if I was alright.
“Could you...” I imagined myself leaving the apartment and the room with the foggy window behind. So then I wasn’t there anymore and this wasn’t us. There was something I wanted right then or had wanted for some time and I realized, I couldn’t leave without asking. The force of him slamming me on the bed had eased the question from my lips and set in motion a series of irrevocable events.
“Could you do something for me? It may sound strange.” I looked for patterns in the white, speck- led ceiling.
“Well, what? Oh, sure. But what?” So easy.
“I want you to take both of your arms and squeeze as tight as you can. Put them around my chest and squeeze, like the squeezing is going to save my life or something,” I said glassily.
Alex had a brother, I remember him telling me a year before, but there were no pictures of his family to be found like the ones I displayed on the dresser at the foot of my bed on 2nd St., which was a relief. There was something peculiar about lying with men with the young Army portraits of my grandfathers staring back at us, one a bit more handsome than the other, it was just a fact. There was nothing peculiar in Alex’s room, everything in it made sense.
I took a deep breath then exhaled and rolled onto my side, giving indication that I had done this a hundred times. I felt the perspiration of his underarms around my back and the spongy ridge of his tricep. His hands clasped at my sternum. I closed my eyes and willed everything to stop and be quiet and suddenly it was, if just barely. He tightened until there was nothing more.
I’m not sure if I felt the drip or heard him moan- ing first. There was something wet on the back of my neck, and I was in a different place on the bed sitting up next to a dark spot on his grey duvet. Alex was grumbling behind me, all of this adding up to time being lost. Was it seconds or minutes? His nose and face were covered in blood.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered, wiping his face, still shocked.
I had blacked out and smashed his nose with the back of my head somehow. I think, I didn’t dare ask. I ran to the bathroom, still unsteady, to get a towel. I thought about running out of the door down the dingy stairs and to the street, and how many blocks before I would see someone I knew and depending on who, if I could ask them for some shoes and cash to get home. Did I have any blood on me? Yes. When I came back he was standing up, his face pale and menacing from the splatter. Blood happens so fast.
“I’m going to take a shower,” he said flatly, tilting his head in the air to keep the nose from running. He did not look at me again and closed the bedroom door behind him. The sweetness and ease of the night before was now some fresh, violent incident and I needed to leave.
I threw my clothes on and thought how much he had looked even more like the painting just then, heated and bloody and somewhat delirious. I noticed his dressing table as I did a once over of the room, it was irresistibly typical; cologne, lotion, movie tickets, a braided leather belt. It looked like someone had been playing dress up, in the way that living in New York at all was playing dress up to the people we knew.
The shower hissed and I ran. Good luck in San Francisco. Shit. I hit the soupy heat of the morning in my soiled long sleeve t-shirt and felt the relief of being surrounded. While I intuited my way to the subway, I realized that, in my haste, I had left my DVD on the couch and his computer screen open to a search for Marsden + Hartley + portrait. I wondered if he would know what it was and remember it. Most likely not. Or understand what I had tried to bury in him. I crossed the river underground and sat between windows to avoid my reflection wondering how far below the water I was and that it would never be deep enough. I made it home and opened the American Painters monograph to the Light-Heavy Acadian, weighted and immovable, the dark pupils and pharaoh’s brow staring out of frame to the fire lighting up his room. He would burn with that room and not flinch.
Not surprisingly, I did not hear from Alex again. He went to California and never said anything about my exit, or the blood. It was queer and savage how our knowing each other ended, but right then, I realized that my nerves were becoming their own sovereign state. I was different and calmer when we met the year before, what did he think of me now? And what had happened since? Or what did it matter? When I think of him I picture his heaviness, his broad strong chest and the thought of sinking far, far down beneath all of it. And the hot colors of the wild man painted in madness, that could maybe quiet everything again.
Christopher Barnard is a writer and journalist in the East Village of Manhattan. Birth in Illinois, school in Boston, and work in New York.
Anthony Cudahy is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He received his BFA in 2011 from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. He recently completed a year-long residency at the Artha Project in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. He is a co-curator and frequent contributor to Packet Biweekly.