David_Rodriguez_Faded2

“The Other Side” by Sara Brody

29 September 2017 on Fiction   Tags: ,

When I was a kid, my dad had an affair with his secretary, which might make you think I also had a dog and a picket fence and a mother whose complicated feelings eluded me. The mother part, I guess, is true, but first I want to tell you about Ingrid, whose secretarial tasks included rifling through dumpsters, breaking into houses, wiretapping phones, stealing mail, all in the name of socialism, to give my father credibility as a prophet, a healer, the divine incarnate of Lenin. It worked. Being a good secretary, she left a wide paper trail, so I know a lot about her, but I’m not sure what I knew back then. Did I ever notice, for instance, that all the women who Dad healed during church services looked uncannily alike, Ingrid in blackface, Ingrid in a wheelchair, blind Ingrid wearing sunglasses? Who would want to notice a thing like that? When, during a church picnic, she hid in the vineyards and fired off a few shots, when Dad shrieked and keeled over, I felt my heart drop into my stomach, my mind turning somersaults, my muscles frozen, trapped in the terrible fantasy of what it would mean to lose my father. I was nine, I think. Maybe I was ten, and I know that I loved him, the rare moments we spent together, roughhousing on the lawn, playing catch. I know that I felt proud to be his son. Moments later he rose to his feet, triumphant, telling us that he’d dissolved the bullet.

Look: it wasn’t the worst childhood in the world, not by any stretch. Until I was thirteen, we lived in a two-story house in Ukiah, the lawn reedy and dry, a tire swing affixed to the branches of an elm tree. I had a monkey. I had an ostrich. My father had a mistress, who, he gently explained, had been with him through so many lives, when he was Jesus, when he was Lenin, and he took us together on long, aimless drives, trying to make us talk. Ingrid would stare out the window, chewing on her bottom lip, her hands knotted in her lap, while Dad, at her side, would grow giddy, his grip tight on the steering wheel, his face split into a grin. I didn’t dislike Ingrid, who seemed afraid of me, unable to meet my eyes, always dropping things in my company. I was jealous of her, a mousy, willowy woman who somehow held my father’s attention completely, his eyes lighting up when she spoke, and I wanted her to go away. Finally she did go away, when he got her pregnant. She stayed with her mother in Berkeley. He told the congregation she’d gone on a secret mission to Mexico, where soon she was imprisoned for revolutionary activities—because that’s how babies are made, right?

In the winter of 1975 we moved to San Francisco, where Dad said we could have a real impact, where people would be more receptive to our socialist and integrationist ideals, no matter if our enemies wanted to destroy us. I lived with my parents in an apartment on the top floor of our church on Geary Boulevard, a place cluttered with unfamiliar faces, men in suits who shook hands with my dad, tough, tired men and women who cried at his words. Members of the congregation sold their property and possessions, moving into communes scattered around the city, and we used the money to provide healthcare, legal aid, food, and shelter to the poor. We canvassed for politicians, showing up at demonstrations by the hundreds, and Dad’s reputation grew. To Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and Dennis Banks he raised a clenched fist, while he shook hands with George Moscone and Willie Brown. At services, he opened his pulpit to Chilean refugees, Native American activists, pan-Africanist and anti-colonial leaders, and I would fidget in the pews, waiting for him to take the stage again, to see his face spotlit and glowing. I liked to watch people watch him, the way their mouths would hang open and their eyes would widen, and I liked knowing they didn’t know him. They didn’t know, for instance, that sometimes he took me to the movies, despite proclaiming that movies were frivolous and counter-revolutionary. They didn’t know about the funny green kimono he wore around the apartment, and certainly they’d never seen him eat cereal. Yet now there was no time for movies, with Dad hobnobbing with politicians, fundraising, recruiting new members, and more often than not I ate breakfast alone. I didn’t see much of Mom because Dad said that she was mentally unstable, that she needed to stay in bed, that I should leave her alone and let her rest. For the most part I kept to myself, because the only other guy my age who lived in the church was Octavius Mosby.

Octavius Mosby was a skinny black kid with a wild cloud of hair who once tried to strangle Billy Holloway for making fun of his buck teeth—Billy’s face turning blue, his eyes bulging—before finally Phil Thurman, who was six years older and twice Mosby’s size, managed to break up the fight. Mosby’d also strangle you if you called him Octavius, and especially if you said a word about his dad, who had defected from the church years ago, leaving him in his mother’s care. I didn’t want to get strangled, but that wasn’t why I avoided him. It was because he’d always meet my dad’s eyes when he came forth to be thwacked during services, never blinking, his back straight and his chest puffed out—unafraid of Molly Wyrick, the heavyset blond woman who wielded the paddle, a preschool teacher by day, whose eyes would change when she did the thwackings, a strange glassy look. It was because he kept breaking rules, getting in fights at school, sassing the church counselors, skipping choir practice, even as the number of thwacks grew from twenty to fifty, fifty to one hundred. We called it catharsis, a ritual of confrontation, punishment, and forgiveness, meant to help people learn, but Mosby refused: when he spoke the words, “I’m sorry, Father,” I could tell he wasn’t, that Dad couldn’t make him sorry. So I spent most of my time with my snails, which I plucked from the bushes and kept in a bucket behind the church.

I guess this story starts with Mosby, a cold day in February, just after my thirteenth birthday. I’d lined up my snails on the pavement for a race when he came over and sat by my side, wearing a red T-shirt with one sleeve torn along the seam to his armpit, his mouth and eyelids drooping. I rolled my shoulders forward, feeling the muscles tense on the sides of my neck, and in silence we watched my snails sludge around. Then Mosby pulled a dollar out of his sock, tapped one of the snails with his finger, and said, “I’m putting a dollar on this guy. What’re my odds?”

I stared at him. I couldn’t figure out why he’d do such a stupid thing, because we weren’t supposed to have money. The adults got two dollars a week for allowance—everything else came through the church, food, healthcare, housing—so a dollar was a huge deal, and my first thought was to find my dad and tell him. It wasn’t that I liked to get other kids in trouble—it sort of made me feel like slime, how people would shy away from me, conversations cut short when I approached—but I loved the way Dad’s face would light up, how he’d say what a good socialist I was, how alike we were. I tried with everything in me to make him proud, memorizing vocabulary words in Russian so I could be more like Lenin, studying until dawn so I could get straight A’s, and I followed every rule. There were a lot of rules. The adults weren’t allowed to drink, smoke, or have sex, because it would distract them from the cause. The women couldn’t wear makeup or keep their hair long, because it was egoistical and capitalistic. All of us kids had to be model citizens at school, maintaining at least a B-average, and no one was too old or young for a thwacking. So I knew I had to tell on Mosby, and fidgeted with my shoelaces, triple-knotting them, trying to think of an excuse to leave and find my dad. Then I thought, Where the hell is my dad, anyway? He was all over the place, all the time, and there was something extra weird about this that threw me off. Usually I caught people doing bad things, spotted other kids hanging around with outsiders at school, overheard them whining about how tired they were. It wasn’t the average person who broke rules and flaunted it, practically asking to be ratted on, and I wanted to know what Mosby was thinking. So finally I said, “How’m I supposed to pay you if I win?”

Mosby raised his fist and crushed my snail into the pavement. “I lost,” he said. “Keep it.” And he left.

I still don’t know what that was about, what was swimming around in his head when he did that, and I guess I’ll never know. Mosby got thwacked nearly every week, and on that day I got to wondering if he liked the pain, if he was looking for it. I watched him walk away, his hands jammed in his pockets, shoulders hunched, and wondered why he didn’t want to be a good socialist, why he didn’t care about the cause. I knew that capitalism left people behind, kept poor people poor, treated them like dirt, and it seemed the only way to find sense in it was to tell Dad—to see what he’d say and do, even though I knew what he’d say and do, that Mosby would be thwacked again, that I’d stand before the congregation holding a microphone to his mouth so that everyone could hear him scream. I would feel his breath on my hand, the sharp bursts of breath. I would close my eyes and listen to the paddle whoosh through the air, and it would make me want to know him, to understand who he was and why he asked for it, to know how badly it hurt. I’d seen people thwacked for the smallest things—dozing off for an instant during services, not clapping loudly enough, singing off-key—but I’d never once been called to the floor to be punished. All the time I wondered why.

I tucked the dollar in my sock, feeling uneasy about it, and that night, after choir practice and tutoring, once alone in my room, I took it out and laid it flat on my desk. I’d seen dollars, of course, but I realized then that I’d never really looked at one, and stared for a long time at George Washington’s drawn face, his lips thin and downturned at the corners, his eyelids drooping, a bored, lazy stare, as though he wanted nothing to do with me or anyone. I sort of liked him. I wished I could ask him what was going on, what he’d seen. I wished, in a small way, that I could keep the dollar for a while, not for capitalistic reasons but for company, and wondered if that’s why Mosby had been carrying it around in the first place, if maybe he wasn’t a capitalist at all. Then I thought of all the bad things he’d done, how once he’d gone to an outsider’s house after school and spent the afternoon watching television, the time he’d kicked in the walls in his dorm room, and I knew that I was making excuses. Why did I care if he was thwacked? Didn’t he deserve it, every time? I thought of my dad and felt a twinge in the pit of my stomach like hunger, my dad who I’d never lied to, whose luminous grin would seem to hang in the air even after he looked away, and I knew I wouldn’t stop feeling that awful emptiness until I told.

Almost a week passed before I crossed paths with Dad, a Sunday morning, and he’d come home to prepare his sermon for the evening service. He gave a start when I barged into his office, turned in his swivel chair and grinned at me. “Hullo, squirt,” he said. “What’s new?”

I drew closer, wanting for some reason to touch his bicep, to squeeze the muscle and check how strong he was. I opened my mouth to tell him about Mosby, but then he took off his sunglasses, his eyes so startlingly red that I had to look away. It came to me with a jolt that I could have told any adult about Mosby, that I could have done this days ago—that all along I’d wanted the credit for telling, when what mattered was stopping Mosby from breaking rules. It was strange: sometimes just the sight of Dad could make me realize all the things I was doing wrong, things that had never once come to mind before—how often I zoned out in math class, that I missed going to movies even though they were capitalistic, that sometimes I worried about God hating me even though he wasn’t real. I glanced at Dad, waiting for him to read in my eyes that I’d screwed up, but he only rested his hand on my shoulder and said, “You all right, squirt?”

“Mosby stole a dollar,” I mumbled.

“What?”

“Mosby stole a dollar,” I said again, staring down at my shoes.

Dad’s grip tightened on my shoulder, and when I looked up I saw his grin stretching from ear to ear. “That little fucker,” he said. “We’ll show him, won’t we?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You go have fun,” Dad said, moving his hand to the back of my neck, giving it a squeeze. “I’ll see you tonight.”

For a moment I stared at him, not wanting to leave, meaning to give him the dollar. I imagined slapping it into his palm and maybe he’d say, “Hey, stick around, why don’t you?” and I’d curl up on the sofa and watch him work, the way I did when I was a little kid. But I couldn’t remember the last time he’d let me do that, because everything was a secret now, everything fraught with danger. Dad said that racists and conservatives wanted to assassinate him for pushing for integration, that they hated the thought of a white pastor championing the plight of urban blacks. He said that our enemies in the press were determined to tell lies about us, that the FBI and IRS were tracking him, that I had to be wary of all outsiders. It sort of made sense to me—in Ukiah, rednecks had thrown bricks through the windows of the church, shouted slurs at members—but I wanted to know what really went on behind the scenes. Ingrid, before she’d left, had passed hours in Dad’s office, conversing with him in undertones, and I wondered what he told her that I wasn’t allowed to know about, what made her so special. In that moment, she swam into my head, not the way she did during services, as someone far away and lost to us, but as the real Ingrid, the one in Berkeley. I remembered her slipping in and out of Dad’s office in Ukiah with stacks of paperwork cradled to her chest, her footsteps soft in the middle of the night, and the pain in my stomach got so bad it made my throat constrict. I put my hand on Dad’s shoulder, feeling the roughness of his polyester suit jacket. I said, “Seeya,” and left. Not until I was outside with my snails did I remember the dollar, and I sprinted back upstairs, but when I reached the apartment, Dad was gone again.

Mosby got one hundred thwacks that night. I stood onstage with my arm aching—I had to run around with the microphone for the rest of the service too, letting people ask questions, give testimonies about Dad’s healings, and these services could last up to six hours—but by the fiftieth thwack I forgot about the ache, forgot how tired I was, because Mosby hadn’t screamed yet. Despite myself I wanted him to make it through, not because I liked him but because I thought it was amazing, because he seemed somewhere beyond us, where pain couldn’t reach. Did I have such a place within me? At the seventieth, finally, he screamed, his voice cutting through the speakers, piercing the auditorium until I thought the windows might shatter. By the ninetieth he was done screaming, his eyes squinched shut, teeth gritted, and I could feel the dollar against my skin, the small bulge in my sock. I realized that now it was too late to give it to Dad, that now I was complicit, and my hand shook. When I got to my room that night I drew out the dollar, meaning to tear it up, but when I looked at George Washington, he seemed different than before, sad instead of bored, and I wondered how he’d changed like that, if he was somehow alive. I couldn’t do it. I traced his features, the dollar soft and worn down beneath my fingertip, feeling embarrassed because I wanted to talk to him, because I wanted him to talk back. I wanted to ask why Dad didn’t seem to know me anymore, why he wouldn’t tell me I was a good kid and doing the right thing so I would know for certain. I wanted to ask why I couldn’t be like Dad, happy to see people punished, because it meant they were learning. I wanted to know how it would feel to be thwacked, to feel my father’s anger. I jammed the dollar back in my sock, sat on the blue carpet, and dug into my palm with the tip of a pen, trying to draw blood, but the pen wasn’t sharp enough. I banged my head against the bedpost, feeling a shock run down my spine at first impact, but wasn’t brave enough to do it again.

After that I talked to Mosby even less, but I started watching him out of the corner of my eye. I noticed him disappearing for long stretches of time, and one evening, while looking for new snails, I shoved into this huge bush abutting the chain-link fence that encircled the church. I noticed the bush had been sort of hollowed out, as though someone had been hiding inside of it, and when I pushed further in, I saw a hole in the fence, just big enough for a kid to fit through. I poked the toes of my sneakers through and drew back. I took the dollar from my sock and rubbed it between my fingers, wondering where Mosby went when he left, imagined him creeping through the subway tunnels, buying candy bars with the money he somehow had, eating them by himself, the bastard. Without thinking I squeezed through the hole, my heart thumping so hard I worried someone might hear it and catch me. Then I wrangled back into the bush, scraping my arm against the jagged metal, and I sort of liked the pain, how wired I felt, a swooping feeling in my chest. I licked the warm blood from my arm, knowing I should find Dad and report the hole, but what if he saw in my eyes that I’d gone to the other side, that I’d betrayed him? Then I thought about how it would be if he looked at me and didn’t know, just like he didn’t know about the dollar, and I knew I’d feel a hundred times worse. Back then I thought he could read minds. He would stand before the congregation, call out names and tell people why they were sad or afraid, somehow knowing that Bill Vorce was worried about making rent, that Sally Norwich’s diabetes was flaring up again, that Lucy Spencer was being bullied at school. He would tell them he loved them and would protect them and not to worry, but he hadn’t done that for me. He left me alone with my guilt, the guilt I felt for keeping the dollar, for squeezing it all the time for good luck, for liking it so much. I stared through the hole in the fence, wondering how far I’d have to walk before Dad would notice I was missing.

I went back to the bush the next day, and the day after that, getting hooked on the feeling it gave me, being so close to the edge of things. Most of the time I’d be sneaky about it, wait until the yard was empty, weave between the trees, glance over my shoulder after every few steps, but other times—when I was especially tired from an all-night service, when I saw someone I liked get thwacked, when I glimpsed my dad in the apartment and got nothing more than a hello—I’d make a big show of it, stomp right up to the bush and climb inside. No one noticed. I would feel the brambles prickling my skin, stare at the dollar in the shadowy light. At night, alone in my room, I’d stand before the mirror mimicking George Washington’s expression, practicing sadness. In San Francisco the seasons don’t turn, just fog and salt and sea, so I didn’t feel time passing. In May, when my dad took off for a few days, I didn’t think to count the months since Ingrid had left, hardly knew it was spring.

It wasn’t until he missed the Sunday service that I realized he was gone. Still gone on Monday, and on Tuesday I went to ask my mom. She was in bed, reading her red-letter bible, and gave a start at the sound of the door opening. Smiled at me, slipped a receipt between the pages to mark her place, and said, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“Church business,” she said. “What’d you learn about in school today?”

“Edgar Allen Poe. He wrote spooky stories and had a moustache. What kind of church business?”

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

“From where?”

For a long moment she said nothing. She shifted against the headboard, readjusting her pillows. Then our eyes met and I couldn’t make sense of the look she gave me, her blue eyes widening and softening. I stared back, trying not to blink, wanting her to blink first, but my eyes watered up from the effort and I couldn’t help it. Blinked out a few tears and rubbed my eyes with my palms. Mom said, “Andrew, are you okay?”

“What?” I said. “Of course I am.”

“He doesn’t mean to hurt anyone.”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“Did I ever tell you how I met your father?”

“He sold you a monkey.”

“Two monkeys. Your grandpa—he threw a fit when he found out I’d let a stranger into the house, not to mention buying the monkeys. But he looked so silly, the cage balanced on the handlebars of his bicycle, and—”

“I know this story. What kind of church business?”

Mom took a deep breath, twisted up the corners of the quilt. Finally she said, “He’s in Berkeley.”

“What’s in Berkeley?”

“You know what’s in Berkeley.”

“I don’t. I don’t know what.”

“Andrew,” she said, and nothing more, drawing the covers to her chin. I stared at her, piecing things together, feeling my stomach sink. It was the first time I’d realized that she knew about Dad and Ingrid, and I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t done anything to stop it, that she didn’t care. It struck me, then, that she was old, her curly blond hair streaked with gray, crows’ feet stemming from her eyes, and I wanted to run. Not from the room, but simply to run, the way I think dogs must feel when they dream of chasing rabbits. An old lady crumpled in bed; how could she be good enough for anyone? I wondered about the baby, who hadn’t been real until now, if it was a boy, if Dad would love his new son more because it was also Ingrid’s. Squeezing my hands into fists, I said, “Ingrid’s in prison in Mexico.”

“She’s not in prison in Mexico.”

“Did it die?”

“Did who die?”

“The baby.”

“No,” Mom said. “He didn’t die.”

I said goodbye and left. Went to my room and played for a while with my yo-yo, but every time I tried to walk the dog, the yo-yo rolled to the end of the string and just hung there. Then I started swinging it around the room, accidentally denting the wall behind my bed, and climbed up in my sneakers to press my cheek to the scuffed blue wallpaper. I tried to imagine Ingrid in prison, standing in a dry yellow yard with a shackle ball attached to her ankle, but my thoughts bled together and I couldn’t hold onto a single image. Ingrid with my dad in Berkeley. What did they talk about together, when I wasn’t around? Ingrid wearing one of those black-and-white striped uniforms like the guys on Alcatraz. Why did he love her? Didn’t he know she looked like a starved mouse, her features pinched, her face so pale? I bounced up and down on the bed, watching my shadow grow tall, and when night fell I pulled on my coat, checked my sock for the dollar, and went outside. Wrangled through the hole in the fence and started walking. I walked for a long time, cars whooshing up and down Geary, the sky swelling with fog.

It wasn’t until I reached Hyde Street that I bothered to look around for a street sign, and it wasn’t like I left the church often enough to know where I was anyway. I could tell that it wasn’t the smartest place to be at night, dilapidated buildings springing from reedy lots, the boulevards feeding into dirty, narrow streets, but in those days the Fillmore was about the same, and I’d never been scared of people on the street. Dad said they were just normal people that society had failed, people who wound up homeless because they couldn’t get an education, old people without families to take care of them, people without chances—and as I felt my heart thump, as I realized where I was and what I’d done, it seemed that nothing in the world could hurt me, that nothing could make me feel worse, because I had broken Dad’s rules and he didn’t care, because he wasn’t around enough to notice or care, because nothing I did could change that. Why wouldn’t he punish me? By now I’d had the dollar for weeks. Then I thought about what he said after every thwacking, that he only did it because he loved us so much, and it crossed my mind, Does he love Mosby more than me? I drew the dollar from my sock and stared at George Washington, knowing without a mirror that we had the same look in our eyes, almost hating him for it, the way he seemed to know me when no one else bothered. He’d brought me nothing but disappointment, and I decided I’d get rid of him for good. On the street corner was an empty bottle of beer, so I rolled up the dollar and stuck it in the neck, leaving it poking out. For a moment I stood looking at it, and gave a start when this guy came up and tapped me on the shoulder. I wheeled to face him and found that I was taller. He pointed at the dollar and said, “Give that to me.”

It took me aback, not because I was afraid of the guy, but because he’d snuck up on me. He hadn’t asked but demanded, as though it’d been his dollar all along, so I gave it to him, feeling relieved until the loneliness hit, like I’d given up on a friend. The guy brought the dollar to his nose and sniffed it, then shoved it into his pocket. A tiny guy, maybe five feet tall, and he spoke from the back of his throat. I couldn’t place the accent, but I think now that he must have been Eastern European. Bald on top with oily black hair curling behind his ears, a half-empty bottle in hand. He held it out. “You got a name?”

“No.”

“I’m Milos,” he said, shaking the bottle so it bubbled at the top. “You want some of this?”

Without thinking I took the bottle, feeling a wave of adrenaline that burned in my chest, leaving no space for anything else. I brought it to my lips, but then it struck me that there must be a reason for all these rules, some point of no return, that something terrible might happen after all, and I couldn’t find the courage. I said, “My dad’ll hit me if I do.”

“He hits you?”

“All the time,” I said. As the words left my mouth I felt a twinge of guilt for lying, but I guess I wanted Milos to like me. His eyebrows arched. His stare unnerved me, the way it unnerved me to see my father’s bloodshot eyes, which were almost always concealed by radiator sunglasses. Would Dad hit me if he knew where I was right now? What would it mean if he didn’t? I wanted to drink as much as I could, drink so much that he would have no choice but to notice. I imagined stumbling home drunk, his face twisting up the way it did when his aides screwed up the budgets, or when the other kids got detention at school, or when he caught Mom praying to Jesus, which wasn’t allowed, because Dad said that he was the only god worth believing in, that he’d done far more for us than anything that lived in the sky. Then I realized that in order to notice, he’d have to be home, and he was in Berkeley with Ingrid. I tried to hand the bottle back to Milos, but he wouldn’t take it.

“Does he hit you hard?” Milos asked.

“Real hard.”

“Well,” he said. “If you drink this, you won’t feel a thing.”

“Anything?”

“Nothing at all.”

I took a slug from the bottle, the way I’d seen in the movies, tilting back my head and gulping. Then I spat it out and almost puked, and Milos laughed like a police siren. He said, “Keep trying. It’ll go down easy soon enough.”

We sat together on a stoop, passing the bottle back and forth, drinking for a while in silence. I took little sips, hating the taste, like nail varnish, but I wouldn’t let myself give up, kept an image of Dad in mind, how he’d look when he got back from Berkeley and noticed me gone, how he’d have to forget about Ingrid and his new kid for a minute to find me. When we’d drunk about half of what was left, Milos said, “Do you want to hear a joke?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What’s worse than finding a hair in your food?”

“What?”

“The Holocaust.”

I let out a squawk of laughter, even though I didn’t get it. Everything just seemed funnier all of a sudden, and I started taking bigger sips from the bottle, then real swigs, no longer minding the taste, my dad slipping from my mind entirely, leaving me kind of emptied out—not the aching emptiness I got in my stomach, but the way I’d hoped I’d feel after a thwacking, everything bad thwacked out of me. Milos told more jokes, about construction workers and nuns, and I couldn’t stop laughing, almost dropped the bottle twice. I choked at this one part with twelve nuns riding a unicycle, stacked up on top of each other, and Milos had to thump me on the back. When I looked at him he blurred and lurched, and because of his black hair, he started looking sort of like my dad, a smaller, balder version. I asked, “How old were you when you got failed by society?”

“Which time?”

“The first time.”

“Four and a half."

“D’you live here?”

Milos pointed at this brick building that looked crooked, like it was snuggling up to the neighbors. “Warfield Hotel,” he said. “Do you want to come up?”

It didn’t take long to decide. The other option was going back to the apartment, where my mom was alone, sleeping or reading her bible—a tattered, leather-bound bible that Dad once threw across the room, screaming that it was a paper idol, was she stupid, did she believe in a single thing he stood for? I liked how slouched and calm Milos seemed; it made me feel calm too. We went upstairs. I almost couldn’t make it, the way I was stumbling, and now Milos’s laughter was softer. He gripped my arm and helped me into his room, which had no furniture but a bed. There were two white t-shirts and a pair of jeans folded neatly on the carpet, under the window, and a lamp without a shade next to the clothes. He turned it on. The light was dim and flickering, and we sat together on the bed. He put his hand on my back and rubbed slow circles, and for a minute we didn’t speak; I thought it was nice, like I was his cat. I turned to him, looked him in the eyes, and realized one was made of glass. I said, “My dad is fucking his secretary.”

“All dads fuck their secretaries,” said Milos.

“Did yours?”

“Didn’t have one.”

“A secretary?”

“A dad.”

I flopped onto my back, my cheek brushing the sheets, which smelled of mildew. I said, “I wish I didn’t have one,” and tried to sit back up, but Milos pushed on my shoulder, pushed me down.

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

I shrugged his hand away and staggered to my feet, feeling at first annoyed, because what did he know about any of it? Then I realized what I’d said and my stomach started hurting in the usual way, and I wanted to keep running, but it seemed now that there was nowhere to go. “Look, Milos,” I said. “I think I’ve got to get home.” But I didn’t move, only stared at him, his chest caved in, his shoulder blades jutting as he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. Suddenly I felt so sad, and mad at him for saying the drinking would stop me feeling anything. I asked, “Will you punch me in the face?”

“What?”

“Will you punch me in the face?”

“No,” Milos said. Then he took my hand and kissed it, and I thought that was pretty weird. The rest of the touching had just seemed like guy stuff, the way guys are allowed to touch each other. When I drew back, he frowned, looked down at his own hands, and said, “Yes, go home. I think you’ll be okay.”

“You do?”

Milos shrugged and waved his hand in the direction of the door.

----

Sara Brody is a writer from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, the Columbia Journal, the Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Presently she is working on a novel.

David Rodriguez is a photographer and a psychologist from Spain. This photograph is from a photo series of dreamlike images called "Faded," which is composed of unfocused portraits where the characters seem to merge with the horizon. His work can be found on his website and his Instagram account.

 

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